A Walmart store in Springdale, Ark.
A generation ago, the American gun industry came up with a devilish new campaign to bolster declining sales — militarizing the civilian firearms market with lightly adapted versions of potent battlefield weapons like the M-16 rifle. Renamed the AR-15, this semiautomatic assault rifle has come to haunt society in the hands of criminals and the deranged, who regularly kill innocent people in high-powered mass shootings.
Walmart, the nation’s leading gun dealer, denies that society’s growing revulsion at this carnage has anything to do with its decision last week to stop selling the AR-15 and a full range of similar assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. Weakening sales was the reason, Walmart insists, despite reports that adapted war rifles and pistols continue as the industry’s big sellers.
Whatever the reason, Americans sick of the shooting epidemic must be grateful but no less wary, for these transplanted war weapons remain widely available across the country. It is foolish, of course, to hope that political leaders who resist gun safety in doing the gun industry’s bidding might yet be influenced by Walmart’s exercising some of the “wisdom of the marketplace” that lawmakers usually extol.
What is certain is that the industry and the closely allied National Rifle Association will rally round the marketing culture of assault weapons. A classic study of the militarization of the civilian gun market was published four years ago by the Violence Policy Center, a gun-safety research and advocacy group. It documented the industry’s campaign to rebrand remodeled war weapons, which are designed for firepower volume, as “modern sporting rifles.” Note the emphasis on “sporting” — an Orwellian gloss on what the center accurately described as “marketing enhanced lethality, or killing power, to stimulate sales.”
No one knows how many people have been killed by assault weapons on the civilian battlefront. Congress has limited the collection of lethal gun data to shield the industry. There are estimates of up to 10 million assault rifles in the country, many obtainable at weekend “sportsman” shows that Congress has refused to include for background checks under gun registration laws.
The continuing threats to the American public from the militarization of the gun market include numerous variations of the AR-15, like the Bushmaster rifles used in the sniper shootings around Washington, D.C., in 2002 (10 dead, three wounded) and the 2012 schoolhouse massacre in Connecticut (20 children killed along with six adults). The “sporting” arsenal adapted for civilians also includes high-power handguns used in mass shootings and sniper rifles that can pierce armor. They all remain for sale.