The AR-15 had patriotic beginnings. Today it’s a sad symbol of out-of-control violence in American society.
Join us on this WhoWhatWhy podcast for an insightful conversation with Zusha Elinson, co-author of American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15 — the weapon at the heart of America’s most divisive issue and of last week’s Maine shooting.
Elinson, a Wall Street Journal reporter, delves into the AR-15’s origins in a 1950s California garage and its journey to becoming an inescapable symbol of a murderous divide in US society. He examines how this once obscure rifle morphed into the mass shooter’s weapon of choice, reflecting on its complex role in the nation’s gun debate.
Elinson also talks about the AR-15’s design evolution and ease of use, and the personal, often tragic stories linked to its use. His insights offer a nuanced look at a weapon entwined with the acrimonious battles over Second Amendment rights, gun control legislation, and the continuing epidemic of unspeakable violence.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. We consistently hear that guns aren’t the problem with respect to mass shootings. It’s the people who use them or the state of the human heart that’s to blame. Yet one gun consistently emerges at the center of nearly every mass shooting in America, the AR-15. This isn’t just a matter of coincidence or marketing. The AR-15, born in a California garage in the 1950s, was originally intended as a lightweight, superior alternative to the M1 rifles used in World War II. The AR-15 has evolved into a symbol of freedom for some and a symbol of terror for others.
In his new book, American Gun, veteran Wall Street Journal reporter Zusha Elinson and his co-author, Cameron McWhirter, trace the journey of the AR-15 from its inception to its current ubiquity. They puncture the myths and explore the moral complexities surrounding the iconic weapon. Once shunned by gun owners and later embraced as a financial savior of the gun industry, the AR-15 has become the weapon of choice for mass shooters.
So how did a weapon designed with high-minded patriotism become a tool for such devastating violence? What does the AR-15 really represent for its manufacturers, its buyers, and the broader American public? And can understanding its history and appeal help us to find new ways to mitigate its deadly impact? It is my pleasure to welcome Zusha Elinson to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast to talk about American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15. Zusha, thanks so much for joining us.
Zusha Elinson: Wow, what an honor to be on your show. Thanks for having me.
Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here. Thanks so much. I want to start at the end, where we are now. There are over 20 million AR-15 or AR-15-style guns in the country today. Talk about that first.
Zusha: Absolutely. So, the reason, as you said, that we wrote this book is we looked at where we are today, right? We looked at, there’s this rifle that’s the most popular rifle in the country, AR-15. There’s more than 20 million in civilian hands. At the same time, it’s the symbol of evil to millions of people. It’s a symbol of freedom to millions more. And it’s become a weapon of choice to mass shooters. And we wanted to know how did we get here? How did we get here? And the story of how we got here, as you said, begins in a Los Angeles garage. But let’s talk about the 20 million AR-15s that you brought up.
So this is all very recent. If you look back just a couple decades ago to 1994, there were only 400,000 AR-15s in civilian hands. And in the intervening years, through cultural and political shifts, and shifts in gun culture, and shifts in gun marketing, you’ve seen that number grow to 20 million, and that’s just an astonishing rise.
Jeff: And is there something in the way that this has become so much a part of the culture right now, particularly gun culture, that it is becoming self-perpetuating, that the gun has such an image that people want it simply for that right now?
Zusha: Yes, there’s a lot of different appeals of this gun. And let’s go back in history to understand what first drew people to buying this gun. So, in the 1990s, you’ll all remember crime was high, there was a lot of concern about gun violence. And Congress came together and passed a number of bills to restrict guns. It was really the high point for the gun control movement. And somehow, the AR-15 got sucked into that debate as they decided whether to ban it or not.
And all of a sudden, this gun that had really been an outcast, had been a niche product, no one had paid much attention to it, all of a sudden, gun owners saw it as a symbol of their Second Amendment rights. They said, “You, Bill Clinton in Washington, telling me what kind of gun I can have or not have, are not going to do that, and I’m going to keep my AR-15.” And so that was the real initial draw to this gun. It became a symbol of Second Amendment rights. People bought it because they were afraid the government was going to ban it. And they wanted to show their support for gun rights by buying it. That was a really important moment in history that kicked off the appeal of this gun.
Then, after 9/11, you saw huge political and social transformation about the country’s attitude towards war. And this gun, as you know, it looks very martial, and it’s the civilian version of the gun that the military uses. It’s different in its function in some ways, but it looks very much the same. And after 9/11, everyone wanted the gun they saw the soldiers pouring into the Middle East with. They wanted to use the gun the soldiers were using. If you think about that time, people were buying Hummers, wearing camo clothing. And that amped up the appeal of the gun, the martial look in a country that was on a war footing.
And then the story really unfolds from there, where you have politicians getting up saying they want to ban the gun again. You have mass shootings followed by calls for another ban, and that spurred sales time and time again. But what’s interesting is that once people did buy the AR-15, either because of a political reason or whatever the reason might be, they came to really like the gun. It’s a gun that’s extremely easy to shoot. It’s a gun that you can tinker with.
Guys who love to play around with their cars and motorcycles and work on them in the workshop on the weekends, it’s similar to that. You can swap out all the parts. They call it Legos for adults or Barbies for men. So people use it for target shooting. They use it for hunting small game. They use it for home defense. But more than that, it’s become a political symbol in our country.
Jeff: And it was never intended for all of those subsidiary uses. This was a gun that was designed initially by Eugene Stoner in that garage in Los Angeles strictly for military purposes.
Zusha: Absolutely. So, Eugene Stoner is a fascinating character. He is what you think of as the American dream, the American inventor, right? Here’s this guy, he’s a Marines veteran, he has no college education, he has no formal training in gun design, and yet every day after work at the aircraft factory where he works, he comes home and he tinkers around in his garage and he’s working on new gun designs. All he thinks about is how can he make a better rifle. And he’s out to dinner with his family, he’s scribbling down gun designs on the tablecloth, and his wife says, “Why are you writing on the tablecloth?” He’s like, “They can wash it out. They can wash it out.”
And he was a very gentle guy, interestingly. He never spanked his children. He never swore. When he was upset, he would say, “Boy, that frosts me.” But all he could think about was guns. And his lack of training really allowed him to see things that other designers could not.
At the time, most rifles were made out of heavy wood and steel, and they’ve been made out of those materials for centuries. But Stoner looked at that and said, “Why don’t I replace the steel parts with aluminum parts? It’s this lightweight material. I’m using it to make airplane parts. Why not use that in guns?” And it was that out-of-the-box thinking that helped him design this incredibly lightweight rifle that was very easy to shoot a lot of bullets very quickly.
Jeff: The other part of it is the way the bullets operated out of the gun, the gas that was used as a propellant. And you talk a lot about how the bullets would slow down when they hit a target.
Zusha: Right. So, let’s set up the broader picture of why the military wanted a gun like this. We’re in the 1950s, we’re in the grips of the Cold War. American soldiers in World War II had won this great victory using the M1 Garand, which was a very heavy wood and steel rifle. Very reliable. People loved it. But as we came into the Cold War, military officials realized that our soldiers needed a lightweight rifle that could fire a lot more bullets than the M1 Garand. And that’s because the Soviets were arming guerrillas around the world with AK-47s, which are these rugged, rapid-fire rifles that are good for shooting at mid- to close-range.
So they’re on the hunt for this lightweight rifle that can shoot a lot of lead, and they come to Stoner and they say, “Can you design this?” And a key part of this new gun is, as you said, the bullet, because the soldiers need to be able to carry more ammunition, they need to be able to shoot more bullets. So what do they do? They turn to a smaller bullet than they’ve used in the past. You think, “A smaller bullet, that’s not going to help on the battlefield.” But, in fact, what they figured out is if you shot this smaller bullet fast enough, it could do a lot of damage. Perhaps not as much damage as a larger caliber bullet, but a lot more than you would think.
And the way it works is this. It’s this tiny little bullet, weighs very little, flies nose-first through the air. And when it hits the human body, it goes unstable very quickly. And it spins like a top, like a little tornado, and does a lot more damage than you would ever imagine. And this was one of the things that was a selling point for the military at the time. But, as you know, people who get shot in mass shootings, they experience those types of injuries. And one of the important things we wanted to do in this book was highlight what it’s like to survive with the injuries from an AR-15.
Jeff: The damage that they do is frightening in terms of this small bullet and what it’s capable of doing to the human body.
Zusha: So, at the end of the book, we highlight the story of a woman who survived the San Bernardino shooting. She’s a dedicated public servant, a very humorous woman, a gregarious woman, makes friends easily, loves to tease people, loves to make great Greek food. She goes to this holiday office party. She doesn’t want to go, but she has to. And then, as we know, it was attacked by a couple of terrorists and they shoot up this office party with two AR-15s.
Now, this woman, Valerie, is shot once in the shoulder and once in the pelvis. And what does this little bullet do to her? It pulverizes her shoulder and it shatters her pelvis. And we detail how she has to overcome those injuries. It takes over 60 operations, thousands of hours of physical therapy just to regain the use of her hand and to be able to walk again.
And one of the most gruesome details of her recovery was that because she was shot with this high-velocity round, her pelvis really reacted in an unusual way. It started growing extra bones, like roots of a tree or stalagmites. Her doctors had never seen anything like this, and they consulted with military surgeons who had seen this type of injury on the battlefield. And it only happens when you’re shot with a high-velocity round or by shrapnel from an IED. And they had to go in there and remove a couple pounds of bones off her pelvis. And this is all owing to the unique power of the AR-15.
But what her story also shows is, what kind of human spirit it takes to overcome these types of injuries. This book is in some ways very sad and it will leave you crying, but we hope there’s some messages of hope of people who’ve overcome these injuries. And also some humor in there too, surprisingly.
Jeff: Talk about the manufacturing of these guns, who made them, how that company was sold. And more importantly, there seemed to have been a turning point after Stoner’s patent expired.
Zusha: Absolutely. So the history of the civilian version of this weapon— Let me just first talk about the difference between the military version of the gun and the civilian version. So what Stoner designed for the military could be fired on semi-automatic, which means you can fire one bullet per trigger pull, or full automatic, which means you pull down the trigger and all the bullets fly out of the magazine.
And the civilian version is only semi-automatic. So Colt — the company that was making the M-16s, as they’re called for the military — decided in the 1960s they would try to sell a civilian version. And this was a longstanding practice in the gun industry. I mean, especially for Colt, way back to the revolver. Back when they made revolvers, they would sell it to the military and market it to civilians as well, but it didn’t really work this time.
Civilians weren’t that interested in this gun. At the time, hunters liked their wood stock, gleaming steel hunting rifles. They didn’t really like this gun. It was plastic, made out of aluminum. It looked chintzy and cheap to them. And the round was also too small for hunting big game, which generally called for a larger caliber. So it didn’t really appeal to hunters as Colt had hoped. And once Stoner’s patent expired in 1977, a few more gun makers got in the game.
And what’s interesting is we interviewed all these guys who made and sold AR-15s in the early days, and they described being really shunned in the industry. We spoke with one guy who ran this company called DPMS Panther, and he would go to NRA shows and lay out his AR-15s on the table in front of them. And NRA members would walk by and give him the middle finger. Why would this be? You might ask. The NRA has always been in support of AR-15s. Well, at the time, a lot of NRA members were sportsmen and they didn’t like this military-looking gun at their convention. So for a long time it was really on the edge. It was really just a niche product.
Then, as we spoke about before, some big political and cultural transformations occurred, and larger companies started getting in the game. And one of the keys to this in understanding why so many companies started making this is, well, a) it became popular among gun owners; but b) it was very cheap and easy to make. And the margins, the profits on the AR-15 were incredibly high.
Think about making a traditional hunting rifle that takes some specialized machinery, takes skills, labor. Making the AR-15 is very different.
It was built for easy manufacturing so they could just churn out a bunch of these parts at machine shops, slap them together and sell them. And when big companies saw this and investors, they wanted to get in the game, and that really transformed the market. Once you had a lot of big money behind it, they could expand manufacturing. They changed how the guns were marketed, and that really changed the face of the civilian gun.
Jeff: From the public’s perspective, from the NRA perspective, what is it that changed that made them go from being something that was shunned at these gun shows to something that was so popular?
Zusha: Right. So the first thing is 9/11. You have 9/11 and all of the sudden the country’s on a war footing. There’s a much more positive attitude towards this gun because people see it being used by the military and it’s working well for the soldiers. And soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, they want to own the civilian version of the gun that they owned. Their friends see them using it, they want to buy it. People who want to be like soldiers want to buy it. And that really sparks the popularity.
Then you come to 2008 and Barack Obama is running for president and the NRA launches an all-out campaign spending tens of millions of dollars to tell the public that he’s going to come and take their guns. That was actually a bit of an exaggeration because Obama’s pretty moderate on guns, but it inspires a real rush to buy AR-15s and that really juiced the market. That year they sold more AR-15s than they had ever before.
So at that point, you have politics, you have a change of view of the gun, and then you have some changes in marketing as well that come around that time. You have a large private-equity-backed gun company that really changes the way that these guns were marketed.
It’s interesting if you look at the way AR-15s were marketed in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s sort of like an IKEA catalog. You have a picture of a gun, it lists all the parts, what the parts do.
Then come to the mid-2000s and there’s a lot of money behind these guns and sophisticated marketing practices. And one of the things they do is they place their guns with their name brands in video games, incredibly popular video games like Call of Duty, which every kid is playing at this time. And that’s another way they expand the market. They’re trying to reach out to a younger demographic by placing the guns in video games and in magazines they read and things like that.
Jeff: The guns were used early on in the ’80s in California gang wars. Talk about what impact that had.
Zusha: Yes, that’s a really interesting story specific to California. As we know, California was the first state to ban the AR-15. Though the ban doesn’t really ban them. If you closely follow the history, that’s another story. But certainly, in the late ’80s and ’90s, crime was at an all-time high in cities, places like Los Angeles. And we tell the story of one particular gang member who uses an AR-15 to shoot a cop down in Los Angeles.
And I went to the prison where he still is today and interviewed him. It was really interesting to hear what he had to say about why he had bought the AR-15. He felt that he needed it for the gang wars at the time because other gangs [inaudible 00:18:40] other types of guns. And he ends up shooting some rival gang members and then he shoots a guy who he thinks is a rival gang member but turns out to be a cop.
And the result of that is that the Los Angeles Police Chief, Daryl Gates — very controversial fellow, despised by many and also loved by cops — he goes on his own type of rampage, which is to get this gun banned. And the crucial point here is that police support for an assault weapons ban in the ’90s was what really allowed it to pass. I mean, if the cops had not supported these restrictions on guns, there’s no way the Democrats could have got it through Congress. There’s no way that Clinton would’ve signed it.
You look at their memos from the time and they talk about how important it is to have the police officers voicing their support for gun control because they could counteract the very strong advocates for gun rights at the NRA with that. And then if you look at what changed in the intervening 10 years— they passed the assault weapons ban, it’s in place for 10 years, but by the time it comes up for reauthorization, the cops no longer support gun control the way they did in the ’90s. And that’s a crucial point to make, because without the cops’ support, they really had no hope of passing it again.
Jeff: Were there police departments that wanted their own AR-15s?
Zusha: Certainly. What’s interesting about the police officers’ place in the political calculus here is that, first, I think they hoped that by passing a federal assault weapons ban that criminals and so forth would not be able to get their hands on these guns. But as they saw that the ban was actually not that effective, they spent more of their political capital and time in trying to buy AR-15s for themselves. And you fast-forward to the present day, every police department outfits their cops with these types of guns.
And not only that, they’re also outfitting them with body armor, that sort of military-grade body armor that can protect them from people shooting AR-15s. Traditional body armor that police use, Kevlar vests, do not stop rounds fired from rifles like the AR-15. And so they’ve been getting these big plates and stuff like that as a result of all the mass shootings with AR-15s.
Jeff: There was also a sense after Sandy Hook that there might be some appetite to do something to ban these weapons.
Zusha: Yes. So Sandy Hook, as everyone remembers, it’s a low point in our nation’s history. We had had a lot of mass shootings, but certainly, that felt a lot like a 9/11 moment in some ways. We had really reached a new low.
We follow the story in our book of the Wheelers, who lost their son, Ben, in that shooting. He was a very energetic little kid. He bounced off all the furniture. He was always hurting himself because he was so energetic. He loved to play around with his brother. He would hide his brother’s teddy bear in funny places, and dress it up in costumes, and he’d just would go, go, go. And his dad said he would fall asleep mid-sentence. He was just always on the go.
So they lost their son Ben at Sandy Hook. And the Wheelers had never been political activists. They were artists, but that really changed things for them. And they decided they wanted to try to ban the type of weapon — the AR-15 — that the shooter had used in that shooting. And they went to the Connecticut State House and the Connecticut lawmakers passed laws that restricted the sale of AR-15s and a number of other gun control laws.
And with that success, they said, “We’re going to go to Washington and change the federal laws.” And they walked the halls of Congress talking to senators, but what they encountered there was quite different. The Wheelers described to me a meeting with one senator, a Republican senator, and they showed the picture of their son to the senator and they talked about losing him. And they said, “What can we do to prevent these mass shootings going forward?”
They’re pleading with the senator, “Can you please do something?” And the senator is looking down, crying, saying, “Well, I have grandkids too.” Just looking down and crying, and at the end of the meeting they said, “Well, are you going to do anything? Are you going to pass any bills?” And he just says, “No.” And they say, “Why?” And the senator says, “Well, you wouldn’t understand.”
And that’s a really key moment in history coming off this horrific mass shooting, and Congress really does nothing. And that caused a lot of people like the Wheelers to lose hope.
Jeff: We should point out, I guess, that the senator was Chuck Grassley from Iowa. And in fact, just the opposite happened. There was an increase in the number of AR-15s out there. You talked a little bit before about private equity getting involved in the gun business. Talk about Freedom Group and their involvement in this, and how they have contributed to the proliferation.
Zusha: Sure. What’s interesting is that the gun industry has historically been a very small, fractured industry. These companies are run by the same people for many years. It was not a very sophisticated industry either. It’s not like high-tech or the tobacco industry or the oil industry. It’s very small and very unsophisticated. What happens in the mid-2000s — and the AR-15 plays a key role in this — is that private equity starts to get involved.
And this private-equity-backed gun conglomerate called Freedom Group starts buying up a bunch of companies. As private equity likes to do, they roll up a bunch of companies and they like to increase profit margins by scale, by bringing down the cost of production.
So what they did was they bought a number of companies, and then they also transformed the way the gun was marketed, as we spoke about before. And part of our book was we were able to look at internal company documents where they talk about marketing their guns using video games. And there’s memos where they talk about how they want to win their “fair share of young customers” by putting their guns in video games. And so there was a very intentional effort to get the images of their guns before a very young audience at that time.
So what Freedom Group did was they expanded the market by really ramping up production, and they also transformed the way that the AR-15 was marketed.
Jeff: How much did these cost if people wanted to buy them?
Zusha: What’s interesting is that, back in the day, this was really a niche product that sold for quite a bit of money — over $1,000. But now, because this gun has become so popular and so many gun makers make it, the price has come down a lot. You can get an AR-15 for anywhere from a couple hundred to a high-end one for a couple thousand. You can order all the parts online, if you want, and build it at home. They’re pretty much ubiquitous.
Jeff: And given how many are out there, any notion of trying to shrink that number seems almost impossible at this point.
Zusha: I think one of the things that’s important to think about is that, yes, there are 20 million out there, but only a tiny fraction of AR-15 owners use them to do horrible things. These mass shootings are a very small portion of the homicides in our country. At the same time, they have a much bigger impact. They are like terrorism, in the sense that they make us feel unsafe in public places, in schools, in movie theaters.
And there’s a reason schools have all these drills to teach kids how to avoid getting shot in a mass shooting, why there’s all these security measures at concerts, movie theaters, malls, wherever it might be. So they have this outsized impact even though it’s just a small portion of the murders in our country.
But what that brings us to is that we can ask a more precise question, which is how do we keep these types of guns out of the hands of people who would want to harm us and kill a lot of people? And that’s the question we really need to ask ourselves.
Jeff: What’s happening in the gun industry today to either continue manufacturing these at even cheaper costs or really coming up with a whole new generation of these weapons that are even more dangerous?
Zusha: Sure. So the gun continues to be the most popular rifle in America, and, as I said, there’s a number of reasons for that. There’s a lot of new derivations of the gun. We can talk right now about the weapon just used in the Maine mass shooting. I’ve just spent the past couple days writing about this horrific mass shooting in Maine, where 22 people were killed. And this guy, he used a variation on the AR-15 that shoots a much larger bullet, a 308-caliber bullet. And this gun was built to be almost as light as an AR-15 but shoot this much larger round.
It’s actually based on one of the early guns that Stoner designed, called the AR-10. This is a new version of the gun. Another new version is what’s called an AR-style pistol. Gun makers come out with new versions of this, and this is a smaller version of the AR-15 that’s been used in a couple of mass shootings as well. But certainly, once something like this has become so popular, all the gun manufacturers are looking to make their own different versions of the gun.
Jeff: And there is the sense that people just want to own them at this point. The gun people just have to have this as part of their collection.
Zusha: Certainly. And it’s a gun that appeals to all sorts of people too, which is interesting. If you’ll remember the early days of COVID, when people were very afraid about looting, rioting, whatever they were afraid of during that time. There were a lot of protests, scarcity of toilet paper, whatever it might’ve been. But I remember at that time I was interviewing a number of people about the types of guns they were buying. And even on the liberal side, I talked to liberal folks who bought AR-15s, because they were afraid of large crowds of people coming to their house and taking their stuff.
And I think there’s a lot of people who buy this gun because they fear that society may collapse at some time. I don’t know how realistic that fear is, but certainly, that drives a lot of people to buy it.
Another reason that people buy it is that it’s just very ubiquitous. You go into a gun store anywhere and it’s just there. It’s like you go into a shoe store and there’s a lot of Nikes there. And so probably you might buy some Nike shoes.
And then the other thing is it’s just a gun that’s really easy to shoot and use for a lot of different things. People use it for hunting small game, they use it for target shooting. They feel like they could use it to defend their home. One judge has called it a Swiss Army Knife. And that’s how some gun owners view it as well.
Jeff: So the skill required to use it is pretty minimal.
Zusha: Yes, that’s one of the most interesting parts of this story. If you look back at the time when Stoner designed this weapon, there were these studies coming out about how soldiers used guns in war. And what those studies showed was that when soldiers are being fired on, they’re not very good shots. All their marksmanship training goes out the window and they just started firing randomly, because they’re scared.
So there was a real effort to design a gun that you could shoot in the heat of battle and still be able to shoot it on target. And Stoner’s gun was really an answer to that. This gun is extremely easy to keep on target and fire and has very little recoil. I don’t know if you shoot guns or are a gun owner, but anyone who’s fired guns knows that when you shoot a shotgun or a deer-hunting rifle with a 308 round, that’s going to give you a pretty good kick to the shoulder. You can definitely feel it. You shoot an AR-15, it has barely any recoil and it’s really easy to shoot follow-up shots and keep what they call target acquisition because there’s no recoil.
So you can shoot a lot of shots on target very quickly, very easy to shoot. You feel like an expert marksman with very little practice at the range. That is one of the things that has made this gun so popular. It’s easy to shoot.
But that also makes it popular with mass shooters. A lot of these guys who carry out these horrific shootings, they’re not trained in marksmanship or anything. Some of them, like the shooter in Uvalde, had never fired a gun before. And yet he’s able to carry out this horrific massacre with this gun.
Jeff: Zusha Elinson, his book is American Gun. Zusha, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Zusha: Oh, what a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me on.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.