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America's rifle: Why so many people love the AR-15

The Instagram tag #ar15 has over 1.7 million posts, with updates by the minute
Megan Hill, 26, with an AR-15 at the Nephi City Shooting Range in Nephi, Utah, in December 2017.Kim Raff for NBC News

UPPER MARLBORO, Md. — There are a lot of reasons people love their AR-15 semiautomatic rifles, and it doesn't much matter to them what the haters say.

For some, the gun is a tool, a finely tuned machine that can cut down an animal or intruder, or pierce a distant target, with a single precise shot.

For others, it is a toy, a sleek beast of black plastic and metal that delivers a gratifying blast of adrenaline.

And for many, it is a symbol, the embodiment of core American values — freedom, might, self-reliance.

“There are very few things that serve such a great form and function, and look cool,” said Daniel Chandler, 26, an AR-15 owner here in suburban Maryland. When he takes his AR out of its case at a shooting range, he smiles like he just unwrapped a gift. “There are few things you’ll find that are wonderfully appealing to look at, wonderful exercises in mechanical engineering, and that could save your life.”

This is the side of the AR-15 that many don’t see, or ever consider.

Because an AR-15, or a variant, was reportedly used in several mass shootings — including Aurora, Colorado; Newtown, Connecticut; San Bernardino,California; Sutherland Springs, Texas; Las Vegas and Parkland, Florida, in which a total of 154 people were killed — this civilian sibling of a military assault rifle is an exceptionally polarizing product of modern American industry. The AR-15 and its semiautomatic cousins — they shoot one round for each pull of the trigger ─ incite repulsion among those who see them as excessive, grotesque and having no place on the civilian market.

It is the focus of multiple attempts at prohibition, which in turn has prompted people to run out and buy more. Such “panic buying” drove sales of AR-15s to record levels during the presidency of Barack Obama and the 2016 presidential campaign. Gun merchants say some buyers are also driven by a fascination with a weapon used in notoriously heinous crimes.

Fears of a ban have subsided under gun-friendly President Donald Trump, and so have sales; gun makers are in the midst of a year-long slump that has driven down prices for AR-style rifles. Those discounts appear to have driven a record number of Black Friday gun background checks.

Devotees say the AR-15 has been wrongly demonized, arguing that the vast majority of owners never use it in a crime, and that despite the rifle’s use in mass shootings, it is responsible for a very small proportion of the country’s gun violence.

Thanks to that ardent following, and shrewd marketing, the AR-15 remains a jewel of the gun industry, the country’s most popular rifle, irreversibly lodged into American culture.

From Vietnam to the mainstream

The AR-15 was developed in the late 1950s as a civilian weapon by Eugene Stoner, a former Marine working for small California startup called ArmaLite (which is where the AR comes from). The gun, revolutionary for its light weight, easy care and adaptability with additional components, entered the mainstream in the mid-1960s, after Colt bought the patent and developed an automatic-fire version for troops in Vietnam, called the M16.

The civilian model wasn’t mass produced until the 1980s, after the original patent expired and a variety of companies began making them. That transformed a specific brand to a more generic offering on which a mini-industry would flourish.

When the AR-15 and other semiautomatic rifles began to turn up in shootings, a movement began to restrict their manufacture and sale. Much of the outrage stemmed from the militaristic appearance of those guns, and their ability to fire rapidly.

But there was also a more visceral reason, involving flesh and blood. AR-15s inflict much more damage to human tissue than the typical handgun, which is used in most shootings. That's largely because of the speed at which projectiles leave the weapons; they are much faster out of the muzzle of an AR-15, or similar rifle, and deliver a more devastating blow to bones and organs. Those projectiles are also more likely to break apart as they pass through the body, inflicting more damage.

“The higher muzzle-velocity projectiles, if they strike an organ, you’re more likely to have severe injury and bleeding and dying than with lower muzzle-velocity munitions,” said Donald Jenkins, a trauma surgeon at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and the owner of several guns, including an AR-15.

The backlash peaked in 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed a ban on the sale of many types of semiautomatic rifles deemed “assault weapons,” including versions of the AR-15. Manufacturers continued making versions of the AR-15 that complied with the new law, which was allowed to expire in 2004. That set the stage for an explosion in AR-15 sales.

By then, military-style weapons were becoming a more common sight in America, due largely to the response to the 9/11 attacks. Anti-terror police forces began patrolling cities and transportation hubs, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were covered intimately. That higher visibility seemingly fed a desire among gun owners to get what the troops and cops were using.

With encouragement from the gun industry, the AR-15 grew popular not only among people who enjoyed owning the latest tactical gear, but also among recreational and competitive target shooters, and hunters. Many saw it as a pinnacle of firearms engineering — ergonomic, accurate, reliable.

Graphic: Estimated number of AR-style rifles produced and murder victims by firesarms

“It’s kind of the standard, de-facto rifle now,” said Evan Daire, 23, a gun-range worker in New Jersey who aspires to become a professional target shooter. “No matter what role you’re looking at, it pretty much fills that role.”

Production of AR-style guns has soared since the federal ban expired. In 2004, 107,000 were made. In 2015, the number was 1.2 million, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), an industry trade association. The organization does not provide sales data, nor does it have 2016 production estimates, but says that year's activity likely broke all records.

Today, one of out of every five firearms purchased in this country is an AR-style rifle, according to a NSSF estimate. Americans now own an estimated 15 million AR-15s, gun groups say. New AR-15 style guns range widely in price, from about $500 to more than $2,000.

'Destined to be a best-seller'

Chandler is an unlikely AR enthusiast. He grew up outside Baltimore, a city plagued by gun violence, raised by parents opposed to firearms and was friends with kids whose lives had been torn apart by them. For much of his youth he considered himself anti-gun.

Then a well-to-do neighbor was shot in a home invasion. Chandler realized that his family had no weapon to defend itself, and decided to buy a gun when he got old enough.

Daniel Chandler, 26, has been collecting guns for four years. He has some AR-15s in his collection.Andre Chung / for NBC News

When he turned 21 and began shopping, Maryland tightened laws in response to the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. That measure banned many types of semiautomatic rifles, so when Chandler eventually decided that he wanted an AR-15, he built one from scratch, adhering to the new restrictions. It’s black and green, with a 16-inch barrel, a collapsible stock and an electronic red-dot sight.

On one of his recent visits to a gun range, Chandler showed what made the AR-15 a cutting-edge gun when it was created, and one reason why it became so widespread. Pushing the gun's "takedown pins" with his fingers, he broke his gun down into its basic components, and within several seconds snapped it back together.

This is why some people compare the AR-15 to a car chassis, others to Legos or Mr. Potato Head. It is relatively easy to take it apart, reassemble it and modify it ─ including changes to the caliber of ammunition it fires. Those who build ARs from scratch link themselves to a centuries-old American gunsmithing tradition.

“It was destined to be a best-seller because of these qualities,” said Dave Kopel, a gun-rights advocate and research director at the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Denver.

Building an AR-15 at home often begins with buying a "lower receiver," the only part with a serial number and that requires a federal background check. The rest of the core parts are available online. Then there is a seemingly endless array of accessories: barrels, grips, stocks, rails, magazines and scopes.

Related: Oklahoma Man Uses AR-15 to Kill Three Teen Home Intruders

Chandler loves the AR he built. He admires its simple, efficient mechanics, its precision, and how much fun it brings. He fires almost weekly for target practice, along with a Glock 17 handgun. He’s taken his wife to the range with him, and she’s become an AR fan herself, preparing to build her own.

Chandler, who is black, doesn't have many friends who enjoy guns as much as he does. So he has created a firearm-focused Instagram page to find similarly minded people, many of them millennial first-generation gun owners like himself.

“The AR-15 makes sense, and I think that’s why more people my age are gravitating to it,” Chandler said.

The hashtag #ar15 has over 1.8 million tags on Instagram, with users uploading by the minute.

Growth and backlash

This new generation of gun owners, who show off their accessorized rifles on social media — and often seek sponsorship deals with manufacturers — are a reflection of how conventional the AR-15 has become.

Gun makers have goosed sales by emphasizing the AR-15s connection to the military and the fight to defend one’s freedoms, an argument that grew more effective during movements to ban them.

But gun-control advocates say the industry has exploited people's fears and desires, promoting a gun originally designed to kill people. They argue that AR-15s and similar guns cause more damage, and death, when used in mass shootings.

"I'm not going to question whether people say they prefer the gun to hunt with, but there's certainly been a push by the industry to make assault weapons viewed in people's minds as an acceptable hunting rifle," said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, which works to reduce gun violence. "If you look back 10 years ago, that's not the way they were looked at."

The families of people killed in Newtown cited industry marketing techniques in a pending lawsuit against Remington, the maker of the killer’s AR-style rifle. Gun groups say the company can’t be held responsible, arguing that “millions of peaceful, law abiding Americans” regularly shoot ARs at the range with no ill effect.

AR-15 owners say the rifle gets unfairly targeted by the actions of individual criminals, and that a ban wouldn’t do much to affect gun violence.

“If someone wants to do damage they’re going to find a way,” said Heidi Rapach, a mother of two from New Jersey whose husband, a police officer, taught her to shoot an AR-15 ­─ and bought her one for Mother’s Day. “That doesn’t mean guns themselves are the enemy. It’s the person. It doesn’t mean all the people that own guns and use them properly have to suffer for that.”

Related: Fate of Sandy Hook lawsuit against gun maker could be decided by a slingshot

Since the time of the federal ban, attempts to restrict gun sales have met with mixed success, with tighter restrictions on people accused of domestic violence but wider acceptance of concealed carry.

Crime rates in America have declined drastically during that period. Even so, AR-15s and similar guns are still used in mass shootings, drawing new rounds of condemnation — and calls for new bans — with each attack.

Some states have enacted their own bans, a list that grew after the 2012 Newtown shooting. States with restrictions on AR-style guns include California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York and Maryland — where the 2013 law was upheld by a federal court ruling that asserted AR-15s were not protected by the Second Amendment. None of these states have outlawed the AR-15 altogether, however.

Related: Assault Weapons Not Protected by Second Amendment, Federal Appeals Court Rules

Gun industry surveys assert that the typical AR-15 owner is a married man over 35, with a large proportion having served in the military or law enforcement. But this appears to be changing. New buyers tend to be younger and more diverse than the general gun-buying public, according to a 2017 report published by Southwick Associates, a market research firm, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation. That also includes women.

‘It’s a comfort’

Megan Hill’s relationship with guns goes back as far as she can remember; her parents and grandfather kept firearms in their Southern California homes, and an early boyfriend took her hunting and target shooting. But it wasn’t until she married, moved to Utah and was preparing to have children that she decided to get her own.

Megan Hill, 26, target shoots this month with an AR-15 at the Nephi City Shooting Range in Nephi, Utah.Kim Raff / for NBC News

She and her husband researched which gun would meet their needs: something safe, reliable and versatile.

“We looked at the AR-15, and it was all in one package,” Hill, 26, recalled. “You can target-shoot with it, protect yourself with it, hunt with it. Luckily we haven’t had to use it in self-defense, but it’s a comfort knowing that it’s there to protect my children and my family.”

Her husband ordered parts and built one himself. They’ve since acquired a few more.

This year, after the birth of her second child, Hill decided to start working on becoming a competitive shooter, documenting her journey on Instagram.

“It gave me a sense of myself again: I’m going to make this goal, I’m going to accomplish something,” Hill said.

For Hill, life with an AR-15 can best be described in one word: freedom. She means both personal freedom and a symbolic freedom that connects her to the gun’s use by the U.S. military.

“What makes us a strong nation is our freedom, and the AR-15 represents that freedom,” Hill said.

‘That tactical itch’

The gun industry has another more marketable name for the AR-15: the modern sporting rifle. The label signifies its crossover appeal. The gun is now a key component in shooting sport events and has replaced the bolt-action rifle as the gun of choice for many hunters.

Joey Ploshay is one of them.

Born into a hunting family in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ploshay has two ARs designed for killing game. One has a long barrel for use on varmints: coyotes, bobcats and foxes. The other has a shorter barrel that he takes out on long excursions into the brush, where he hunts for wild pigs. He can change calibers according to the size of the game he’s pursuing. He hosts Facebook and Instagram pages dedicated to hunting in a state with tight firearm regulations.

Ploshay, 25, a pipe fitter, said he relies on the ARs because of their precision, which allows him to deliver a single, deadly shot that minimizes the animal’s suffering.

“Once I started using it, I fell in love with how easy and accurate and light-recoiling it was,” he said.

Rod Pinkston, on the other hand, uses the AR because it can fire follow-up shots quickly. A retired soldier, he runs a Georgia company that develops methods to control the invasive feral pig population in the South. He and his staff, including former Army sharpshooters, depend on their ARs to take out several pigs in a single encounter.

Pinkston sometimes brings paying guests on night expeditions, outfitting them with AR-15s accessorized with top-of-the-line gear, not too different from what he used in the service. Using such a gun gives ordinary people a chance to “scratch that tactical itch,” he said.

That Walter Mitty-esque experience, he believes, plays a crucial role in the AR’s enduring allure.

“There’s something about how guys are made that makes it appeal to them very much,” Pinkston said. “I think it has something to do with wanting to be a soldier or law enforcement. There’s something there, dream-wise.”

Rod Pinkston, owner of a Georgia hog-control company, and one of his AR-10 rifles, a model that is similar to the AR-15 but allows for heavier ammunition.Branden Camp / for NBC News