The Popularity of “Black Rifles,” and the Three Types of Gun Ownership

AR15.jpgBefore 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.

It analyzes guns, and attitudes toward their ownership, functionally — in terms of the different possible “highest uses” that characterize different firearms. Type Three is traditional hunting firearms: a walnut-stocked, over-under shotgun a la Dick Cheney is perhaps the clearest example. Type Two is firearms suited for private personal defense: think of handguns suitable for licensed concealed carry and/or home defense. Thus, in my lexicon, the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Parker v. District of Columbia holds that the Second Amendment confers, in at least some circumstances, an individual constitutional right (as against the federal government) to possess Type Two firearms. And Type One firearms like the AR-15 are particularly suited for — even the choice of words is controversial here — what I referred to above as “public self-defense,” i.e., resistance to tyranny, or communal preservation in a Katrina-like scenario of social breakdown.

No category is set aside for “sporting firearms,” because all three types have well-developed sporting cultures attached to them. (The Times article nods to this fact with its reference to AR-15 dominance in rifle competition).

These three categories are necessarily imprecise, and they overlap in places in complex ways that I won’t go into here. Yet you might find them helpful in formulating your own attitudes toward gun ownership, as well as those of prominent politicians. Thus, Democratic (and non-conservative Republican) presidential candidates go out of their way to express a fondness for hunting and to be photographed with Type Three firearms, but this often does little to calm the fears of owners of Type Two and Type One guns, although most support hunting — it may even make them more skeptical, feeling that the attempt is a deceit or at best a non sequitur. (I made a related point in an interesting exchange with Dan Filler in the CO comments box a few months ago.) On the other hand, when Bill Richardson praises concealed carry, or a candidate praises the Parker decision, then the same skeptical voters become much more receptive, because the candidate is displaying an understanding and comfort with Type Two firearms and the distinctive purposes they serve.

I hope to do a longer post about each of the three categories later this month.

Anyway, the Times article is generally factual and even-handed (we can quibble about the term “black rifles,” which began as a bit of deflationary sarcasm among gun owners) as it discusses the popularity of Type One firearms among average Americans. This, from a generally anti-gun publication like the Times, makes it a most interesting read.

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8 Responses

  1. Bob says:

    This is a very interesting blog posting, and I just have a couple nits about some statements that mistakenly suggest some false implications:

    (1) The M-16 is derivative of the AR-15, not the other way around. The U.S. military picked the AR-15 to use as its assault rifle, and it renamed it the M-16. (The military did the same thing when it picked the Beretta 9mm handgun to replace the .45 back in the 1990s, and thus renamed it the M-9.) So, it’s not really proper to say that the AR-15 is a “cousin of the select-fire M4 and M16 rifles used by the U.S. military,” but rather that the M-16 is the direct descendant of the semi-automatic AR-15.

    (2) There is a similar misimpression conveyed in your statement that semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 are “susceptible to terrible misuse.” All guns, including handguns, are susceptible to misuse. In fact, handguns are used in almost every gun crime committed in the U.S., including even by the mass murderer at Virginia Tech. In the total gun crimes committed each year, it is very, very rare that criminals use semi-automatic rifles; they are too bulky and too difficult to conceal, preventing criminals from engaging in their preferred stealthy behaviors, such as the stereotypical B&E. I don’t know offhand the exact statistics, compiled by the FBI each year, but such numbers are easily obtained on the web or in the litany of published books on the subject.

  2. Antiquated Tory says:

    Interesting piece, and interesting comment by Bob. I would however add to Bob’s comment that semiautomatic versions of the AK-47 were very fashionable among gangstas when I last lived in the US, back in the early 90s. Chinese AK-S’s could be had for about $300, at least from ads in Shotgun News (don’t ask). A bit of work with a triangular file or the (illegal) substitution of a (legally purchased) original autofire sear for the semi-auto, and Bob’s your uncle. (Not you, Bob.)

    Perhaps these weapons are no longer in fashion, since the odds of accidentally killing a bystander, or a neighbor, or someone living two blocks away and inside his house, are altogether too high with that kind of firepower. And I expect judges would throw the book at you for using one.

    Anyway, I digress, wildly. What I originally wanted to post is that both Mike’s piece and Bob’s comment point to the need for completely different kinds of gun control for different guns. For example, perhaps Type 3 guns, while legal, should be held in police-protected gun club gun safes, since they are fun target-shooting weapons but there aren’t really good reasons to have immediate access to one. Type 2 gun control, however, might focus more on training the gun user, proper registration, home gun safes, etc. And Type 1 might only be proper gun use and hunting safety training (The one friend I have who has been shot was shot by his octogenerian neighbor, who mistook him for a rare hunter-orange deer and put a .30/06 hollow-point through his calf.)

  3. Sigivald says:

    Antiquated: Semiauto AK-47s were only really “fashionable” among gangstas in songs, to my knowledge – all talk, no action. Most of their shooting people didn’t involve such weapons, but rather cheap, often stolen handguns.

    (Ice Cube might have sung about not having to use his AK today, but I doubt he ever owned one, let alone ever shot anyone with one, semi-auto or otherwise. Gangsta rap and the surrounding culture have a tendency to have a lot more bragging and trash talk than accurate reporting.)

    (I’m also not sure any gang-banger in the US ever bought a legal (though not-legal-to-install, as you mentioned) auto-sear and put it in an AK, though it’s possible.

    That’s actually far easier on an AR-15, by my understanding, though again it’s staggeringly uncommon to the point of being pretty much unheard-of in crimes.

    But, hey, my favourite Black Rifle is my CETME, and it’s far more powerful than my AR – and cost about half as much.)

  4. Miriam Cherry says:

    I have a “firearms policy” for you. Take all the guns that fit into all three of these neat little categories, put them in a landfill, and then blow them up.

    After one has been threatened with imminent death via a gun being pointed at one (it’s happened to me twice!), one formulates a pretty unique view about what gun ownership means.

  5. Duff says:

    These discussions nearly always break down because urban/suburban types have never touched a gun before and don’t understand why anyone else should. Likewise, in the ex-urbs and rural areas, recreational shooting, hunting and gun ownership is part of the culture. They find it puzzling that someone wouldn’t want a gun.

    IMHO, this hair-splitting nonsense about gun blacklists is just that — nonsense. There’s nothing inherently more dangerous about an AR-15 versus other semi-automatic weapons, and is yet another example of ineffective policy that inflames passions while accomplishing little else.

    The Federal government should do something productive and set clear and rational “ceilings” and “floors” to the levels of regulation that state and municipal government can impose with regard to firearms. Almost everyone acknowledges that the government needs to regulate firearms, but the regulations are so erratic that gun enthusiasts (legitimately) feel stepped on and hurt. I’m a responsible New Yorker who used to enjoy target pistol shooting and would like to again. But I won’t make an investment in an expensive pistol when at any time new regulations could cost me a fortune or make me a criminal.

    States like New York have very arbritary laws, particularly with handguns, that essentially treat people who feel like they have a need to own a handgun like second-class citizens. The NY model has an intensive permitting process that requires county (or New York City) approval, which is granted at a judge’s discretion. In some counties, getting a permit is an expensive roll of the dice — some judges summarily dismiss any and all permit requests. Sometimes it just depends on what judge is there that day. That is simply unjust.

  6. RAH says:


    The reason for the second amendment is not for hunting or gun sports but to prevent police state power. Having the police hold our firearms negates the purpose of the second amendment.

  7. Shooter_TX says:

    Miriam Cherry,

    Perhaps your firearms policy would work; perhaps it would not. My opinion trends toward the latter. I could spend a lot of time telling you why, or I could just let Dave Kopel (of both the Independence Institute and The Volokh Conspiracy) tell you for me. His excellent article, “A World Without Guns,” is quite eye-opening as to the logical “end-game” of this approach.

    I hope you were never really too fond of all those pesky civil liberties you’ll have to give up in order to actually implement your policy. As for me, I know I’ll sure miss them. 🙁

    I also have to ask: Just where do you live that you’ve been “threatened with imminent death via a gun being pointed at [you]”? It’s only happened to me once. I backed down (i.e. de-escalated the situation), the same thing I’d have done had I [also] been carrying a gun. The world went on.

    I’m honestly *glad* it was a gun the hoodlums had. I’d much rather face a gun-wielding attacker, owing to the much-greater distance a gun-wielder can threaten someone from. They were content to threaten from afar, and I was more than content for them to come no closer. A knife-wielder would have had to get *much* more up-close and personal, and then, who knows what might have happened.

  8. Hunting Guy says:

    $300 bucks for an AK-47?? That must be fake… 🙂