Why as­sault rif le sales are boom­ing

Pro­tec­tion? Bill of Rights? No, shoot­ing them is fun. Plus it feels mas­cu­line.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Robert J. Spitzer Robert J. Spitzer is dis­tin­guished ser­vice pro­fes­sor and chair of the po­lit­i­cal science depart­ment at SUNY Cort­land. His most re­cent book is “Guns Across Amer­ica: Rec­on­cil­ing Gun Rules and Rights.”

‘The most wanted gun in Amer­ica” is what the New York Times dubbed the AR-15-style semi­au­to­matic in Fe­bru­ary 2013. Even though as­sault weapons — guns orig­i­nally de­signed for com­bat use and rapid fire — con­sti­tute only about 1% of all 300 mil­lion firearms in Amer­ica, lately they’ve been fly­ing off the shelves. De­mand has out­paced pro­duc­tion.

Weapons like the AR-15 rep­re­sent the lead­ing edge of the gun de­bate. Suc­cess­fully en­acted on a limited ba­sis at the na­tional level in 1994, the as­sault weapons ban lapsed in 2004. Af­ter the Sandy Hook school shoot­ing, a new ban was in­tro­duced in Congress, and although the ef­fort failed, it raised an en­dur­ing ques­tion: What is their ap­peal to some gun own­ers?

The case against as­saultweapon re­stric­tions is familiar: Such guns are re­ally no dif­fer­ent from con­ven­tional ri­fles; they are use­ful for self-pro­tec­tion and hunt­ing; and bans in­fringe on 2nd Amend­ment rights. But th­ese ar­gu­ments don’t amount to an ex­pla­na­tion for the guns’ pop­u­lar­ity (in fact the first point begs the ques­tion). If ev­ery last as­sault weapon dis­ap­peared to­mor­row, thou­sands of other weapons would still be read­ily avail­able for all of th­ese pur­poses. Here’s the real story. First, as­sault weapons ac­qui­si­tion has be­come a form of po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion. Many have noted in­creases in firearms sales keyed both to the elec­tion cy­cle, no­tably Barack Obama’s elec­tions in 2008 and 2012, and to mass shoot­ings. The very pur­chase of guns, and es­pe­cially as­sault weapons, is a state­ment that they should re­main legal and un­reg­u­lated, that guns them­selves are not the prob­lem. It’s also a way to ex­press op­po­si­tion to Obama. Within the gun in­dus­try, this pat­tern is called “po­lit­i­cal sales.”

Sec­ond, some buy th­ese weapons be­cause of their en­tice­ment as “for­bid­den fruit.” Af­ter all, they were re­stricted na­tion­wide for 10 years, and even to­day seven states plus the Dis­trict of Columbia limit ac­cess to th­ese weapons.

Imag­ine if the gov­ern­ment an­nounced that the speed limit on in­ter­state high­ways would be raised tem­po­rar­ily from 65 to 120 mph. Un­doubt­edly, some driv­ers would jump to test out the new law, for the sheer sake of the ex­pe­ri­ence, and the thrill of do­ing some­thing that is nor­mally il­le­gal. Although such driv­ing would be, at the least, less than pru­dent, the very fact of a brief win­dow of op­por­tu­nity would at­tract many.

The once-for­bid­den fruit of as­sault weapons holds a sim­i­lar ap­peal to gun own­ers. As one gun dealer told CNBC, “When you tell the Amer­i­can public that they’re not go­ing to have some­thing, they want it.” Even though the prospect of sig­nif­i­cant new reg­u­la­tion is nil for the fore­see­able fu­ture, gun con­sumers fed a steady diet of po­lit­i­cal para­noia about our im­pend­ing tyran­ni­cal gov­ern­ment are quick to en­vi­sion a time when all firearms will be il­le­gal (even though the Supreme Court and our own his­tory say oth­er­wise).

The third rea­son ap­pears ev­ery­where, yet hides in plain sight. To some, as­sault weapons, es­pe­cially with larger-ca­pac­ity mag­a­zines, are fun to shoot — a fact hardly lost on gun ad­vo­cates.

In its de­fense of as­sault weapons (which the in­dus­try now prefers to la­bel “tac­ti­cal” or “sport­ing” weapons), the Na­tional Shoot­ing Sports Foun­da­tion’s Pocket Fact Card says that “they are a lot of fun to shoot!” In fact, an NSSF gun own­ers’ sur­vey re­ported that the most fre­quently cited rea­son for own­ing an as­sault weapon is recre­ational shoot­ing. Own­ers say they ex­pe­ri­ence stress re­lief, sat­is­fac­tion and plea­sure on the fir­ing range.

Even sea­soned jour­nal­ist and for­mer New York Times re­porter Craig Whit­ney ac­knowl­edged, “I can at­test that AK-47 ‘as­sault weapons’ are great fun to shoot at a fir­ing range.” An­other vet­eran re­porter, Terry Greene Ster­ling, con­cluded her story on fir­ing large-ca­pac­ity weapons with “Man, was that fun.”

As “Gun Guys” au­thor Dan Baum has ar­gued, much of what’s “fun” about shoot­ing an as­sault weapon is that it feels mas­cu­line; it’s an im­plicit ex­pres­sion of male sex­u­al­ity. Some gun en­thu­si­asts even re­fer to as­sault weapons, and es­pe­cially the ARs, as “Bar­bie dolls for men” be­cause of their con­nec­tion to sex­u­al­ity and be­cause they have in­ter­change­able parts that can be added and re­moved, like Bar­bie ac­ces­sories.

Although plea­sure is a per­fectly le­git­i­mate rea­son to own an AR-15, dra­matic in­vo­ca­tions of con­sti­tu­tional rights, Amer­i­can her­itage or direly ex­pressed needs re­lated to self-de­fense have more grav­i­tas in the na­tional gun de­bate. That is why gun rights spokes­peo­ple, when asked to com­ment af­ter the lat­est mass shoot­ing com­mit­ted with an as­sault weapon, will never say that such firearms should re­main legal be­cause they’re so much fun to shoot.

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