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