The ugly truth about Republicans and the rise of AR-15 sales

Gun Rights

On Sunday, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley went on CNN to appear in another of the network’s now infamous “town halls.” The kind of town hall that promises the sort of kid-glove treatment that can only be delivered by a network in free fall. It was the same town hall at which Haley spent a prolonged period beating up on trans kids as Jake Tapper teed up a series of softballs for Haley to bloop unchallenged into the ranks of a supportive audience, without even a hint of fact-checking.

Eventually Tapper asked how Haley would handle the wave of mass shootings in America—a wave that included five mass shootings on the very day Haley made her CNN appearance and 263 mass shootings in the first 150 days of the year. Naturally, Haley had a quick answer prepared to please the audience of Iowa Republicans and nothing but Republicans. Her response was hideous.

“The reason a lot of these happen, and you mentioned shootings at schools,” said Haley, “you need to end gun-free zones. Gun-free zones! Killers always look for a place that’s a gun-free zone. Because guess what? Nobody else is going to be able to protect themself.”

The only answer that Republicans have for the issue of gun violence is more guns: more people carrying guns, and more people shooting guns. It’s an answer so unextraordinary that when The New York Times reported on Haley’s event, they didn’t even mention either the question or the answer.

In 1964, the Colt AR-15 rifle first entered the civilian firearms market in the United States. It was anything but an overnight success. The initial ads for the ugly and unfamiliar black gun referred to it as the “AR-15 sporter” and showed it in typical hunting situations. But serious hunters scorned the gun as a plaything. It didn’t have the range and power of a gun used for large game. It didn’t have the flexibility of a shotgun that could be employed against birds, rabbits, or deer. It didn’t seem particularly good at anything.

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The AR-15 found a limited market among “varmint hunters” who wanted to blast away at a colony of prairie dogs or a pond full of snapping turtles without concern about picking up the kills. It also appealed to a small segment of the market that, even then, wanted to play dress-up and tromp in camp while misquoting the Constitution. But the ownership numbers were small.

Other gun manufacturers laughed at the whole concept of the AR-15. Why did anyone in day-to-day life need a gun that was a slightly stepped-down version of a weapon intended for combat? Even the NRA barely noted the weapon since, at that time, the organization was still concerned more about hunter safety than spreading the joy of intimidating your neighbors.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, when Colt rebranded the gun as a combat weapon for the home, that the AR-15 began to make inroads. Ads for the weapon stopped showing it in hunting situations and instead played up the similarity to its military cousin. Other manufacturers noticed the growing interest and began to make their own very similar guns. The demand for these guns began to grow, along with the number sold each year.

That date is no coincidence. Though the Republican Party had always pushed itself as the party of “law and order,” it took Ronald Reagan to really sell the combination of disdain for government and racial disdain that translated law and order into “every man for himself.”

Together, Republicans and gun manufacturers dedicated themselves to a multi-decade project: the chickenshitification of rural America.

With a smiling Reagan leading the way, Republicans did their best to convince rural Americans that cities—the cities where most Americans live, where most taxes are paid, and where most of the economy is centered—were noxious, deadly places that could at any moment spill mobs of scary city people into their sacred rural spaces. By which Republicans meant, of course, Black people.

Until the 1980s, the only state in the nation where concealed carry was allowed without a permit was, thanks to a quirk of its constitution, Vermont. Florida became the first “must issue” state in 1987. Within a decade, 30 states had followed. In those states, gun deaths went up.

Mass shootings came along with them. After Columbine in 1999, the gun industry woke up to realize that what had begun as an unpopular gun that wasn’t particularly good for anything had become their biggest seller among people who were terrified to go to the grocery store for a quart of milk without carrying a 40-round clip. Faced with the idea that they could try to back down from cranking up fear and return to selling guns the way they had in the past, the NRA took a hard look at the issue. As one gun company executive told ProPublica:

“Are we going to be part of the solution here? Or maybe we can use these things to drum up hate and fear in our members? We might even be able to use them to drive membership. And they chose the latter.”

The NRA spent years working out how to make mass shootings work to sell more guns; to convert “hopes and prayers” into ammunition sales.

Then came the biggest boost to the fear factor that gun companies had ever seen, something that scored such a visceral hit with the rural audience they had been grooming, that it created a huge increase in demand for things that made people dead. That thing wasn’t 9/11. It was an election.

“That explosion was the future Black president leading in the polls in 2007. And then Barack Obama won in 2008. So you have this sort of uncapping of hate and conspiracy, much of it racially driven, that the NRA was tapping into. Prior to 2007, people in the United States never purchased more than 7 million guns in a single year. By the time Barack Obama left office, the United States was purchasing almost 17 million guns a year.”

By then, racism, fear, and guns had become the three-legged stool on which both the NRA and the Republican Party perched. They can’t back down to a more reasonable position because they don’t have a more reasonable position. Only more racism, more hate, and more guns were allowed.

What makes Haley’s stance even more egregious is that she was the governor of South Carolina when a white supremacist entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and murdered nine Black parishioners. She went on to attend services at the church with still-grieving parishioners. She does know better.

That New York Times review of Haley’s performance insists that her “positions were a throwback to typical Republican Party stances before its populist takeover by Mr. Trump.” Coming off an evening in which Haley’s solution to gun violence is more guns (and where her answer to other issues was attacking trans youth), that may seem ridiculous. But there’s a reason the Times didn’t bother to mention Haley’s gun statements: They’re boring. More guns, everywhere, all the time, isn’t a solution unique to Haley. It’s the answer, the only answer, that any Republican candidate is going to give.

Not one single Republican candidate is going to suggest that maybe America doesn’t need to have more deadly weapons than it has people to carry them. Or that carrying a military rifle to Walmart is a bad idea. Or even that there should be restrictions on things like bump stocks and other modifications meant to make “civilian” rifles perform closer to their battlefield kin.

Haley’s answer is the only answer: more fear, more guns, more death.

Of the five shootings that happened on the night Haley was speaking, not one was in a “gun-free zone.” One of those shootings involved three children under the age of 10. Two different shootings totaling nine victims were among people who were shot while attending a house party. Six more people were shot at a gathering of people who had come together to mourn the victims of a car crash. In these last three events, the shootings happened after an argument broke out. No one departed after harsh words or got into a fistfight. Because in an armed society, even the slightest provocation ends with someone getting shot.

Haley’s answer to mass shootings is to stamp out the last remaining areas that are like America was before mass shootings—when no one in any state carried guns unchallenged through the streets of the city and when even police knew they didn’t need weapons of war.

No matter what Haley says, no gun has ever allowed anyone to protect themselves. No gun is capable of protecting anyone. Guns kill people. That’s all they do and all they can do.

Republicans can’t admit that. They remain propped up on that three-legged stool and they need guns as much as they need racism and hate.

We have Rural Organizing’s Aftyn Behn. Markos and Aftyn talk about what has been happening in rural communities across the country and progressives’ efforts to engage those voters. Behn also gives the podcast a breakdown of which issues will make the difference in the coming elections.

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