opinion | An industry insider revealed how the AR-15 conquered America
But behind all of these specific horrors lies an even bigger story. How did AR-15 variants come to have such a dominance in our culture—and increasingly in our everyday lives?
The rise of AR-15 style weapons, which are a semi-automatic civilian version of a military weapon, reflects a growing zeal, at least among a determined minority in some parts of the country, for the introduction of civilian-style gear with overtly military-style society.
In that regard, Daniel Defense, the company that manufactured the weapon used in Uvalde, really pushed the envelope. However, this reflects a larger trend of “radicalization” in the industry, argues Ryan Busse, a former firearms executive.
Busse has carved a niche for himself by arguing from insider knowledge that none of this was an accident. He says this was the result of specific industry choices combined with cultural shifts that created fertile conditions for this transformation.
The problem of gun violence goes far beyond mass shootings and assault rifles. Right now, senators are negotiating reforms that would hopefully address mass shootings as well as everyday gun-murders and suicides.
But these reforms will be modest and incremental at best. And with hundreds of millions of guns in circulation in the United States, it’s sobering to think how big and persistent the gun violence problem will remain for the foreseeable future.
I spoke to Busse about all these things. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.
Gregory Sargent: Salvador Ramos was reportedly a Call of Duty video game enthusiast. Can you explain how the arms industry used video games and other similar tactics to boost sales of weapons like AR-15 style rifles?
Ryan Buses: 20 years ago everyone believed the industry was going to die. Every marketer in the industry looked around with concern for how to gain new market share.
Probably around the mid to late 2000s, after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ll see the rise of first-person shooter games.
There has been a lot of discussion in marketing planning meetings about incorporating your gun model into a movie or video game. That was a solution to the problem of how do we pull a new market segment away from this gray, older market segment that isn’t growing?
There was a young demographic that became associated with first-person video games and action movies.
Sargent: It’s interesting that you mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are creating this new ground wave of interest in these types of weapons. How important were the wars—the images of wars coming home, the war on terror, and the Islamophobia that runs through it all—to this cultural bottom line?
Buses: Very important. I think it seeded everything.
Prior to approximately 2010 or 2012, no gun that was desert tan in color was ever sold in the United States commercial market. Now a significant percentage of guns are sold in desert tan color. Why? Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sargent: The company that manufactured the shooter’s weapon, Daniel Defense, is at the forefront of this type of aggressive marketing. How common is what they do across the industry?
Buses: The story of Daniel Defense coming to market is a case study of how the gun industry has radicalized and changed. All AR-15s built are pretty much the same weapon. Around 500 companies are now building them. Twenty years ago there was one or two and they were on the fringes of the commercial market.
Around 1999, during the Columbine killing spree, the NRA set its political course: We’re in the culture war business.
Then wars happen, AR-15, patriotism, Islamophobia – all of these happen simultaneously in the culture.
The gun industry became a badly manipulated congressional district. It only had an incentive to go in one direction. Everything pulls to the right.
Sargent: What fascinates me is the intense symbolic meaning these AR-15 weapons have taken on. Across Blue America, there has been a growing sense that offensive arms have no place in civil society.
Yet in gun-friendly America, the very fact that it arouses such fierce opposition has itself become almost a point of proud defiance.
Buses: It’s a middle finger.
Sargent: For the right, living in a society that fails to act collectively to limit the ready availability of such firepower has taken on a sort of higher meaning.
Buses: I live in red America. When I drive the streets where I am, almost every vehicle that has the Trump message on it has some kind of AR-15 sticker on the back as well.
The people who marched into the Michigan Capitol had AR-15s. On January 6, there were Trump political flags — and then there were AR-15 daring flags.
Sargent: This weapon has become a kind of symbolic test that indicates what kind of society we want. What that middle finger is saying is, “You can take your civil society and shove it.”
Buses: Nothing conveys dominance and intimidation like a loaded AR-15. It was designed to be offensive in war. It was designed to take human life.
Sargent: They position the cultural craze surrounding the AR-15 as an aberration or malice compared to millions and millions of gun owners who have a much healthier attitude towards their hobby.
Buses: That’s how people use the gun. This has become the gun.
I think the authoritarian forces in this country see the AR-15 as a central organizational symbol.
Sargent: Do you often see endorsement for the AR-15 from the same right-wing influencers — Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump Jr., Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), etc. — who regularly propagate versions of the Great Replacement Theory or relentlessly spread fear of left-wing terrorism that is driving the country toward civil collapse.
Why do those who indulge in apocalyptic fantasies about demographic doom also tend to treat the AR-15 as something with almost mythical symbolic meaning?
Buses: The idea of civil war/race war with heavily armed citizen patriots as your warriors is barely beneath the surface.
I won’t go so far as to say that they actually want people to die in a race war. It’s a political tool for them. They believe they can use it to motivate—and make people angry, scared, and hateful.
Sargent: Let’s talk about the 1994 assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. What has fundamentally changed since the ban came to an end?
Buses: Removed AR-15 social stigma. Then, 11 months later, Bush signed the Lawful Arms Trade Protection Act into law. It essentially states that no gun company or dealer can be sued for the unlawful acts of a consumer who uses the product, even if they irresponsibly market it.
Now the world’s Daniel Defenses are stepping back and basically saying, ‘We have 500 competitors so we have to be really sharp on marketing. They just passed this law where we are not even held accountable if we market in a way that seems outrageous.” Then the groundwork was laid.
Sargent: Weapons manufacturers could market this stuff directly to an entire generation of people living in a society transformed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Buses: Then, as it got more and more competitive, they brought the guns into video games. Get the guns in movies. Always give the weapons more offensive names. There is an AR-15 called Urban Super Sniper. How much more suggestive can you get?
Sargent: What does an actual political reaction appropriate to the problem look like? Are we doomed to be a heavily armed society for the foreseeable future?
Buses: Rittenhouse, Buffalo, Uvalde – these things are warnings of what is to come. You can’t put 450 million guns in a complex society – with lots of mental illness and Covid shutdowns and fear and Donald Trump and riots – and not think you’re going to have that.
I don’t think there is a way to solve the crisis. We need to start making decisions that make it slightly better instead of slightly worse.
That boy in Uvalde – if we had a 21-year-old in Texas to buy guns, might the boy have gotten a gun? We could have… But it would have been more difficult.
Why don’t we have policies that make this harder instead of continuing to make it easier?
We still have cigarettes. We still have lung cancer. We still have chain smoking. But now we have less. We made decisions to make things slightly better. We could do that with guns.
Sargent: It sounds like our best hope is gradually defusing a situation that appears to be headed for absolute disaster.
Buses: Yes. And I think we’re headed for absolute disaster.
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