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The Most Wanted Gun in America

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The phone rings again at Pasadena Pawn and Gun, and a familiar question comes down the line: "Got any ARs?"

The answer is no. Pasadena Pawn and Gun, a gun retailer and pawnshop 15 miles south of Baltimore, is pretty much sold out of America's most wanted gun, the AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle. Since the massacre in Newtown, Conn., in December, the AR-15, the military-style weapon that the police say was used in the shootings, has been selling fast here and across the nation.

Before Newtown, the rifles sold for about $1,100, on average. Now some retailers charge twice that. At Pasadena Pawn, on the wall behind glass counters of handguns, are three dozen or so AR-15-style rifles. Dangling from nearly every one is a tag that says "Sold."

"The AR-15, it's kind of fashionable," says Frank Loane Sr., the proprietor. His shop has a revolving waiting list for the rifles, and a handful of people are now on it. "The young generation likes them, the assault-looking guns."

(Read More: Biden: Gun Curbs Can't End Killings but Can Help)

On one level, what is happening here and elsewhere simply reflects supply and demand. The gun industry has spent decades stoking demand for the AR-15 and rifles like it. Now, after the mass killings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, President Obama wants to reduce the supply. He has asked Congress for tougher controls, including a ban on what are commonly called "military-style assault weapons"; the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on gun violence last Wednesday. Many enthusiasts are rushing to buy one of the rifles now, in case the president prevails.

But how did gun makers stir up the demand for these particular guns in the first place? The answer is a story of shrewd advertising, aggressive marketing and savvy manufacturing — a virtual recasting of the place of guns in American life. With speed and skill, firearms manufacturers transformed a niche market for the AR-15 and similar rifles into a fast-growing profit center.

When certain rifles and features were banned under federal law from 1994 to 2004, gun makers tweaked their manufacturing specifications — and introduced more AR-15-style rifles than ever. With ads celebrating the rifle's military connections, they lured a new and eager audience to weapons that, not long ago, few serious gun enthusiasts would buy.

(Read More: Walmart Limits Ammunition Sales After Demand Surges)

It might seem remarkable, given the national conversation about gun control, but guns are a relatively small business in the United States. Sales of commercial guns and ammunition — as opposed to those sold to the military and police — amounted to about $5 billion in 2012. That's less than half of the profits that Apple earned in the final 13 weeks of last year. But despite the headlines, and partly because of them, commercial gun sales are growing. Last year, they were up 16 percent industrywide, according to estimates from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade association. Semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15 are responsible for a significant share of that growth.

By now, many Americans probably recognize the AR-15, whether or not they recognize the term. Unlike its military counterpart, the M-16, the civilian AR-15 cannot spray a continuous stream of ammunition with one pull of the trigger. But, as a semiautomatic, it can fire individual bullets as fast as the trigger can be squeezed. By design, it looks and feels like something commandos might carry. That is part of its appeal, and of manufacturers' pitch.

On one level, marketing military-style weapons to civilians is not so different from pitching professional sports equipment to high-school athletes. Garry James, the senior field editor at Guns & Ammo, says a military pedigree inspires consumer confidence in a gun's reliability.

"Credibility of performance is what appeals to the firearms enthusiast," Mr. James wrote in an e-mail.

Yet marketing combat-derived weapons to civilians is a risky business, particularly now. The industry itself has promoted the guns by using battle imagery and words like "assault" and "combat." Bushmaster Firearms, a leading maker of AR-15-style guns, and whose rifles have been used in several mass shootings, features the Bushmaster ACR, short for adaptive combat rifle, on its Web site. "Forces of opposition, bow down," part of the site says. All the same, gun makers say customers buy these weapons with peaceable intentions.

(Read More: Police Push for Background Checks on Gun Purchases)

The AR-15 isn't the first military-style weapon to gain a consumer following. After World War II, some people bought surplus German service rifles made by Mauser and repurposed them for hunting and competitive shooting. But the selling of the AR-15 represents the first mass marketing of a military-style semiautomatic rifle made by a number of different gun makers. Its success has led to an increasing militarization of the entire consumer firearms market, says Tom Diaz, a gun industry researcher and gun control advocate.

"It speaks to the fact that there are a lot of young men in the U.S. who will never be in the military but feel that male compulsion to warriorhood," says Mr. Diaz, the author of "The Last Gun," a forthcoming book on the industry. "Owning an assault weapon is a passport to that."

A Remington Model 870, a classic pump-action shotgun with an all-steel receiver and walnut stock, sits on a brown gingham tablecloth along with a slice of apple pie, a mug of coffee and an issue of the Old Farmer's Almanac.

This is how guns were marketed in 1981. That year, the Remington 870 was featured on the back cover of the July issue of Guns & Ammo, in an ad that emphasized quality and durability. "The 870," the ad read. "Still as American as apple pie."

The front cover of the same issue showed something very different: a photograph of two gleaming black rifles, with the cover line: "The New Breed of Assault Rifle."

That breed's military antecedent, the M-16, developed by Colt, had been an American staple of the Vietnam War; soldiers had nicknamed it the "black rifle" for its anodized coating. But, by the 1980s, with the war ended and military orders waning, the industry was eager to find a market for the civilian AR-15. Many gun makers were under pressure as traditional customers like hunters were aging and young Americans were taking up other pursuits like computers and video games. Net domestic gun sales fell from more than five million guns in 1980 to fewer than four million in 1987, according to a report in 2000 from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

(Read More: Assault Weapons Ban Announced in US Congress; Faces Uphill Battle)

A demonstrator exercises his right to openly carry a rifle during a pro-gun rally on January 19, 2013 in Olympia, Washington.
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A demonstrator exercises his right to openly carry a rifle during a pro-gun rally on January 19, 2013 in Olympia, Washington.

Some gun makers responded by advertising handguns for women. Others found success in adapting combat weapons for civilians. Colt, which had introduced an updated version of the M-16 for the military, began selling a similarly tweaked AR-15 for the consumer market. Some parts manufacturers started selling AR-15 parts to consumers who wanted to piece together their own rifles. Other companies imported semiautomatic Uzis, a version of the Israel Defense Force weapon, for civilian use.

The look and the gas-powered mechanisms of the new black rifles offended some gun enthusiasts, who viewed them as mere high-powered toys. Even magazines like Guns & Ammo, the Vogue of firearms, had to acknowledge the initial wariness of some readers.

"The dyed-in-the-wool deer hunter watching his domain being infiltrated by these black and gray guns assumes these 'new generation' hunters are merely fantasizing 'war games' and are playing 'soldier,' " Art Blatt, a writer at Guns & Ammo, said in that 1981 issue. Mr. Blatt, now deceased, covered all types of firearms for the magazine and was himself a shotgun enthusiast.

But the gun media found ways to appeal to readers. In that 1981 article on the Colt AR-15 and similar firearms, Mr. Blatt invoked the rifles' military pedigree, "spawned in the crucible of war." He spoke of their military-level durability, speed and accuracy. In a 1983 cover article on "Bushmaster assault systems," he noted that in tests on a human-size silhouette target 10 yards away, a Bushmaster with a full 30-round magazine could be "rapidly emptied into the lethal zone."

The new rifles used ammunition — .223 caliber — that was considered too small for big-game hunting in most states. Before long, consumers were buying the guns for small game — "varmint hunting" — as well as recreational shooting called "plinking."

Some gun writers were not entirely comfortable with the rifles. In his article on Bushmaster, Mr. Blatt wrote that the guns seemed "a mite too powerful and penetrating" for home defense. He recommended the Bushmaster for police SWAT teams "in close-quarter encounters with evildoers."

Despite such reservations, the AR-15-style rifle — which is fast, modern, ergonomically designed, relatively easy to handle and produces little recoil — soon found a wide audience, be it Vietnam War veterans who had used the military version or first-time gun buyers.

"End users with minimal firearms exposure can learn to quickly become safe and proficient with the platform regardless of prior firearms experience," Mr. James, the editor at Guns & Ammo, wrote in an e-mail.

Another feature of the AR-15 is that it can be easily personalized and accessorized.

"You can take the whole gun apart and replace any part you want to without special tools, without knowing a whole lot," says Tim McDermott, a range officer at the Personal Defense and Handgun Safety Center in Raleigh, N.C. "They are Legos for guys."

IN 1976, Richard Dyke, a Korean War veteran, bought a bankrupt gun maker in Bangor, Me., for $241,000. That business grew into Bushmaster Firearms, which quickly earned a following after target shooters began winning competitions with its rifles.

"That did give us prestige," Mr. Dyke said in an interview with The New York Times in 2011. "Then we won law-enforcement contracts and started getting recognition in the trade press." (Mr. Dyke later sold Bushmaster and started another gun company, Windham Weaponry. He declined to comment for this article).

(Read More: Pro-Gun Rallies Across US Attack Obama's Curbs on Firearms)

Then, in 1994, the AR-15 hit a speed bump. Congress passed a 10-year ban on "assault weapons," which legislators defined as semiautomatic rifles that included two or more specific features, like pistol-type handle grips and metal mounts, called bayonet lugs, to which bayonets could be attached. People who already owned such rifles were allowed to keep them.

The ban made the rifles only more desirable for some consumers. To meet the demand, gun makers removed prohibited features, like bayonet lugs, and marketed them as legal alternatives.

"It was unfortunately an industrywide event where companies were openly bragging about their ability to sell guns in circumvention of the law," says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a research and gun-control advocacy group in Washington.

The industry produced an estimated one million modified AR-15-style rifles during the ban — more than it had produced of the original version in the previous decade — says Gary G. Mehalik, a former marketing executive at the National Shooting Sports Foundation and at Taurus USA, a handgun maker in Miami. He denied that gun makers circumvented the law.

"If you drive 40 miles an hour in a 40-mile-an-hour zone, are you exploiting a loophole or following the law?" Mr. Mehalik asked.

After the ban's expiration, gun makers simply restored the once-prohibited features. Some companies added muscle to the rifles — to enthusiastic reviews in the gun media.

"Scoffed at for being a 'poodle shooter,' the AR has grown fangs and is now available in a variety of calibers including big bores," said an article in Guns & Ammo in 2005. "Today's ARs ride in an increasing number of patrol cars," the article said, adding that the guns' military counterparts "are turning live terrorists into dead ones in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Combat allusions increased in ads as well. In a 2008 issue of Guns & Ammo, an ad for Stag Arms, a leading AR-15-style rifle and parts maker, showed a photo of two policemen wearing bulletproof vests and helmets, carrying the black rifles. "Stag Arms rifles meet the highest standards of engineering precision and reliability," the ad said. "Just ask these guys."

An article about Stag Arms in the same issue described one of the company's models as "a southpaw's dream" and invoked "the role this rifle plays in combat."

Mark Malkowski, the president of Stag Arms, declined to comment.

Mr. James, of Guns & Ammo, said his magazine devoted many articles to AR-15-style rifles because manufacturers over time had improved the guns and introduced a variety of accessories, thereby attracting readers' attention.

"Guns & Ammo's role in popularizing the platform is purely a function of reader interest and the platform's unique adaptability for a wide range of sporting purposes," Mr. James wrote.

Pressured by investors in the wake of Newtown, Cerberus Capital Management, a private investment firm that bought Bushmaster from Mr. Dyke and has built the nation's largest gun company, the Freedom Group, announced that it would sell its gun interests. It has yet to find a buyer.

A woman wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses and a make-my-day smirk aims a hefty black semiautomatic Benelli rifle at an unseen predator. "This baby handles prairie varmints or the kind that come uninvited through your door," the Benelli Web site says of the rifle. "Chosen by the United States Marine Corps."

Gun makers seem to be competing to roll out the next civilianized combat weapon. Today, one trendsetter in handguns is a new generation of semiautomatic pistols with large-capacity magazines and other features. An ad for a pistol from Taurus USA promoted it as "the extreme-duty next-generation handgun, created for Special Operations Personnel."

Such marketing aside, the industry disavows a link between military-style guns and gun violence. Industry representatives, like the National Rifle Association, often fault news outlets for demonizing and mislabeling the rifles.

"As you should know, but your non-gun-owning friends probably don't, the guns our opponents call 'assault weapons' are not 'high-powered' when compared to other firearms," Chris W. Cox, the executive director of the N.R.A.'s Institute for Legislative Action, wrote in a 2009 article in American Rifleman, a monthly N.R.A. publication.

Some marketing executives take a different view, suggesting that the industry include warnings the way alcohol and cigarette ads do. In a blog post last month on Adage.com titled "In a Culture of Mass Shootings, the Ad Industry Shares the Blame," David Morse, a contributor, recommended that gun makers develop "more responsible ways" to present their products.

"Should we be holding manufacturers accountable?" Mr. Morse, the C.E.O. of New American Dimensions, a multicultural marketing research firm, asked in a phone interview. "The marketing messages do share in the blame because the messages are picked up and misinterpreted by the wrong kind of people."

(Read More: NY State Passes First Gun Control Bill Since Newtown )

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