Preliminary: “AR” is an abbreviation for ArmaLite Rifle, the company that developed the rifle, not “assault rifle” or “automatic rifle.” (H/T McThag)
Also, the question here is why DO people own ARs, not why SHOULD they. I am dealing with the empirical issue not the normative one, although normative considerations would probably benefit from understanding the situation empirically.
I saw about 5 minutes of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this morning. One of the guests was former Reagan speech writer and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. Noonan asked, quite sincerely in my judgement, why do people have AR-platform rifles? Good question.
I have argued, following up on James Wright’s work from the 1990s, that sociologists have largely disregarded the lawful use of firearms by legal gun owners in favor of studying guns strictly from criminological and epidemiological perspectives. (Download and read my full argument about “The Sociology of U.S. Gun Culture” here.)
This disregard is exemplified by the fact that I know of no systematic social scientific studies that address the question of why people own AR-platform rifles.
So my response to this question is more speculative and based just on my anecdotal observations. In no particular order, people own these rifles because. . .
1. They have been the official service rifle of US armed forces since the 1960s. Descendants of the M16 and M4, they are the equivalent of the Springfields and M1 Garands and M14s of earlier generations.
2. They are more than guns, they’re gadgets. That’s not my take. That’s from an article in Wired magazine of all places. The author of that article Jon Stokes elaborates:
“the real secret to the AR-15’s incredible success is that this rifle is the ‘personal computer’ of the gun world. In the past two decades, the AR-15 has evolved into an open, modular gun platform that’s infinitely hackable and accessorizable. With only a few simple tools and no gunsmithing expertise, an AR-15 can be heavily modified, or even assembled from scratch, from widely available parts to suit the fancy and fantasy of each individual user. In this respect, the AR-15 is the world’s first ‘maker’ gun, and this is why its appeal extends well beyond the military enthusiasts that many anti-gun types presume make up its core demographic.”
Because of this they are sometimes referred to as “Legos for grownups” or “Barbie for men” (see Chapter 1 of Dan Baum’s travelogue Gun Guys for more on this).
The same people who like ARs are people who like to change their own spark plugs, read Popular Mechanics, and watch “Top Gear.” Reading Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft recently actually made me think of building my own AR, even though I already own one that I have never shot (see #4 below).
3. They want to defend themselves. For some people, a pistol is just the weapon you use to fight your way back to your rifle. Although it may seem like overkill to many, AR rifles are often recommended as good home defense weapons because their capacity and shootability.
4. Because they can. I remember immediately following the Sandy Hook massacre, people flooded a previously schedule gun show in Winston-Salem. I asked one person in the long, long line what he was planning to buy. “An AR rifle,” he said. Why, I asked. “Because I can.” I personally bought an AR-style rifle because the opportunity to get it at a very good price (at the time) came along. I almost never shoot rifles and so it remains new in its (locked) box. But I didn’t know whether the opportunity to buy would go away at some point, so I bought one. Because I could. Not a profound reason, but a real one.
Kevin Creighton of the Misfires and Light Strikes blogs offers another two reasons:
5. They are an excellent sporting rifle. They are an essential part of CMP (Civilian Marksmanship Program) matches, as well as 3 Gun and increasingly, precision rifle matches.
6. They are an excellent gun for beginners. This isn’t too surprising, considering that they trace their roots to a gun that 18 and 19-year-olds learn how to shoot in the military. They also are accurate, have low recoil and are easy to teach the fundamentals of marksmanship with.
- “My Name is Robert, and I Own an Assault Rifle” (Civilian Gunfighter blog)
- Adam Gopnik says of the “American fixation on the right to own military-style firearms” in the New Yorker: “They don’t have a reason for this fixation—no reason can be found. There’s no argument for it.“