Before the permalink window closes, I want to note the article in Sunday’s New York Times on the popularity of modern “AR-15 pattern” semiautomatic rifles such as the one pictured to the right. These are semi-auto (i.e., magazine-fed, one shot per pull of the trigger) cousins of the select-fire M4 and M16 rifles used by the U.S. military. A new one typically runs around $1,000. This type of gun dominates many forms of competition rifle shooting, and is also commonly purchased for recreational target shooting, varmint and predator control, and private and public self-defense. It is also, of course, susceptible to terrible misuse — the D.C. Beltway shooters, John Allan Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, used a stolen Bushmaster AR-15 rifle to commit their murder spree.
Numbers are hard to pin down. The best public resource is the ATF’s Annual Firearms Manufacturers and Export Reports (AFMER), but they have notable imperfections: they don’t break down rifle production by caliber, and they don’t distinguish law enforcement sales from sales to private citizens. In the Times article, TV host and gun blogger Michael Bane estimates that 400,000 ARs “change hands” annually. That sounds high. Adding up the ATF figures for 2005, I get about 100,000 new rifles made that year that can be identified with some certainty (usually due to the maker) as AR-pattern guns. Of course there are other kinds of “black rifles” sold, including those patterned on the M-14 used by the US military in the 1950s, and that would boost the final “black rifle” numbers. Still, even my conservative estimate puts combined AR sales in the same ballpark as a Big Three centerfire hunting rifle maker like Ruger (250,000 rifles in ’05, but a ton of those are little .22 rimfires, not centerfire rifles).
In an odd way it is an ideal rifle for a suburban shooting hobbyist. Ammo (generally the .223 Remington caliber) is fairly affordable and lower in power than most rifle rounds. An AR owner can practice at many indoor and smaller outdoor ranges, where heavier-caliber, more traditional rifles cannot. The guns are tough, accurate, fairly lightweight and, as the Times article notes, there are hundreds of accessories for customizing them. I suspect that for many younger Americans — say the MTV Generation on down — a gun like this is as likely to come to mind when the word “rifle” is spoken, as a bolt-action deer rifle might have been forty years ago.
Now a bit of broader analysis. I use a three-category shorthand to talk about firearms policy.