'The most wanted gun in America" is what the New York Times dubbed the AR-15-style semiautomatic in February 2013. Even though assault weapons — guns originally designed for combat use and rapid fire — constitute only about 1% of all 300 million firearms in America, lately they've been flying off the shelves. Demand has outpaced production.
Weapons like the AR-15 represent the leading edge of the gun debate. Successfully enacted on a limited basis at the national level in 1994, the assault weapons ban lapsed in 2004. After the Sandy Hook school shooting, a new ban was introduced in Congress, and although the effort failed, it raised an enduring question: What is their appeal to some gun owners?
The case against assault-weapon restrictions is familiar: Such guns are really no different from conventional rifles; they are useful for self-protection and hunting; and bans infringe on 2nd Amendment rights. But these arguments don't amount to an explanation for the guns' popularity (in fact the first point begs the question). If every last assault weapon disappeared tomorrow, thousands of other weapons would still be readily available for all of these purposes.
Here's the real story.
First, assault weapons acquisition has become a form of political expression. Many have noted increases in firearms sales keyed both to the election cycle, notably Barack Obama's elections in 2008 and 2012, and to mass shootings. The very purchase of guns, and especially assault weapons, is a statement that they should remain legal and unregulated, that guns themselves are not the problem. It's also a way to express opposition to Obama. Within the gun industry, this pattern is called "political sales."
Second, some buy these weapons because of their enticement as "forbidden fruit." After all, they were restricted nationwide for 10 years, and even today seven states plus the District of Columbia limit access to these weapons.
Imagine if the government announced that the speed limit on interstate highways would be raised temporarily from 65 to 120 mph. Undoubtedly, some drivers would jump to test out the new law, for the sheer sake of the experience, and the thrill of doing something that is normally illegal. Although such driving would be, at the least, less than prudent, the very fact of a brief window of opportunity would attract many.
The once-forbidden fruit of assault weapons holds a similar appeal to gun owners. As one gun dealer told CNBC, "When you tell the American public that they're not going to have something, they want it." Even though the prospect of significant new regulation is nil for the foreseeable future, gun consumers fed a steady diet of political paranoia about our impending tyrannical government are quick to envision a time when all firearms will be illegal (even though the Supreme Court and our own history say otherwise).
The third reason appears everywhere, yet hides in plain sight. To some, assault weapons, especially with larger-capacity magazines, are fun to shoot — a fact hardly lost on gun advocates.
In its defense of assault weapons (which the industry now prefers to label "tactical" or "sporting" weapons), the National Shooting Sports Foundation's Pocket Fact Card says that "they are a lot of fun to shoot!" In fact, an NSSF gun owners' survey reported that the most frequently cited reason for owning an assault weapon is recreational shooting. Owners say they experience stress relief, satisfaction and pleasure on the firing range.
Even seasoned journalist and former New York Times reporter Craig Whitney acknowledged, "I can attest that AK-47 'assault weapons' are great fun to shoot at a firing range." Another veteran reporter, Terry Greene Sterling, concluded her story on firing large-capacity weapons with "Man, was that fun."
As "Gun Guys" author Dan Baum has argued, much of what's "fun" about shooting an assault weapon is that it feels masculine; it's an implicit expression of male sexuality. Some gun enthusiasts even refer to assault weapons, and especially the ARs, as "Barbie dolls for men" because of their connection to sexuality and because they have interchangeable parts that can be added and removed, like Barbie accessories.
Although pleasure is a perfectly legitimate reason to own an AR-15, dramatic invocations of constitutional rights, American heritage or direly expressed needs related to self-defense have more gravitas in the national gun debate. That is why gun rights spokespeople, when asked to comment after the latest mass shooting committed with an assault weapon, will never say that such firearms should remain legal because they're so much fun to shoot.
Robert J. Spitzer is Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the political science department at SUNY Cortland. His most recent book is "Guns Across America: Reconciling Gun Rules and Rights."