The Tommy gun was widely used by U.S., British, and allied troops in World War II, but during the war the U.S. replaced it with a cheaper alternative, the M3 “Grease Gun,” and manufacturing of the Thompson submachine gun ceased in 1944.
invention of the AR-15
In the late 1950s, ArmaLite Inc. developed the AR-15 as a military rifle, but sold the design to Colt in 1959. The U.S. military selected Colt to mass produce what became known as the M-16 automatic rifle, which became the standard issue for U.S. troops in the Vietnam War. Colt then produced a semi-automatic version of the weapon, which was marketed to law enforcement agencies and the public as the AR-15. When Colt’s patent for the weapon expired in the 1970s, other gun manufacturers stepped in to make their own version of the AR-15.
As a semi-automatic weapon, the shooter must pull the trigger to fire each shot from the magazine. But a bump stock can be added to an AR-15 to approximate an automatic rifle. A bump stock was used in the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S.—the October 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival massacre in Las Vegas.
It wasn’t until 2007 that an AR-15-style rifle was first used in a mass killing, at an apartment in Crandon, Wisconsin. An off-duty sheriff’s deputy killed six people at a party before taking his own life. Since then, AR-15-style weapons have been used in most of the deadliest shootings in the U.S. What took so long?
the 1994 assault weapons ban
That didn’t have to be the case. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed an Assault Weapons Ban, which outlawed the AR-15 and other similar semiautomatic rifles. The vote in the House was 216-214, with 38 Republicans supporting the ban, including retiring House Minority Leader Robert Michel of Illinois. Rep. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Biden played key roles in securing passage of the bill.
Ronald Reagan provided cover for GOP representatives to support the ban in defiance of the gun lobby when he signed a joint statement with two other former presidents, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. They wrote:
”While we recognize that assault weapon legislation will not stop all assault weapon crime, statistics prove that we can dry up the supply of these guns, making them less accessible to criminals. We urge you to listen to the American public and to the law enforcement community and support a ban on the further manufacture of these weapons.”
the nra moves to the right
But in order to secure passage, the bill included a 10-year sunset provision. In 2004, President George W. Bush did nothing as the Republican-controlled House allowed the bill to expire in 2004. By this time, the NRA had been taken over by a more conservative faction led by Wayne La Pierre, who became its CEO and executive vice president in 1991.This right-wing faction became more political and strident in its defense of so-called “gun rights,” which it increasingly defined as nearly absolute under the Second Amendment.
“The NRA throughout its history had been moderate on the issue of guns,” said Adam Winkler, a University of California at Los Angeles law school professor and author of “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” “The NRA doesn’t play that role anymore.”
Gun laws expert Spitzer in an article on The Conversation wrote about how the NRA and conservative Republicans became intertwined.
”Support for gun rights has become a litmus test for Republican conservativism and is baked into a major political party’s agenda. This laserlike focus on gun issues continues to enhance the NRA’s influence even when the organization faces turmoil. This means that the protection and advancement of gun rights are propelled by the broader conservative movement, so that the NRA no longer needs to carry the ball by itself.”
The NRA became a major donor to Republican candidates, contributing $31 million to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Gun company executives initially doubted that ordinary buyers would want to shell out money to buy AR-15-style weapons because they didn’t seem suited for hunting and seemed like overkill for home defense, The Washington Post reported. But they were wrong. In March, the Post wrote:
Today, the AR-15 is the best-selling rifle in the United States, industry figures indicate. About 1 in 20 U.S. adults — or roughly 16 million people — own at least one AR-15, according to polling data from The Washington Post and Ipsos.
The AR-15 has gained a polarizing hold on the American imagination. Its unmistakable silhouette is used as a political statement emblazoned on T-shirts and banners and, among a handful of conservative members of Congress, on silver lapel pins. One Republican lawmaker, Rep. Barry Moore of Alabama, introduced a bill in February to declare the AR-15 the “National Gun of America.”
With the expiration of the federal assault weapons ban in 2004, the Post said gun manufacturers saw an opportunity to make lots of money marketing AR-15-style weapons. The Post wrote:
“The protection of the AR-15 has become the number one priority for the gun lobby,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a vocal supporter of stronger gun laws. He added: “It makes it harder to push this issue on the table because the gun lobby does so much messaging around it.”
Free from congressional scrutiny, the AR-15 has become a consumer product like none other — a barometer of fear and a gauge of political identity, its market success driven by the divisions it sows.
And the NRA has been transformed into a lobbying group for gun manufacturers. It has received tens of millions of dollars in donations from the firearms industry since 2005, according to reports by the Violence Policy Center.
More than 13.7 million AR-15s have been manufactured by U.S. gunmakers since the December 2012 Newtown elementary school massacre, with those sales generating roughly $11 billion in revenue, the Post reported. Despite the national trauma caused by the massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook, President Barack Obama could not get Congress to pass any meaningful gun safety legislation, including bans on assault weapons and armor-piercing bullets, a limit on the size of magazines, and universal background checks.
looking to other countries’ responses to gun violence
But just look at how other countries responded to similarly traumatic events. In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, described what happened in Serbia after two separate mass shootings just days apart in the beginning of May that killed more than a dozen people, including children at a school. Serbia is tied for the third highest rate of gun ownership in the world.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić took swift action. He announced several measures to prevent similar tragedies, including a ban on new gun permits, tougher penalties for illegal weapons possession, psychological checks of gun owners, and an amnesty for the surrender of illegal weapons.
Brown noted that other countries have acted immediately in the wake of traumatic mass shootings. It only took one mass shooting in Australia for the government to ban assault weapons. The U.K. acted to ban certain firearms in the wake of a 1996 mass shooting in which 16 school children and one adult were killed in a Scottish primary school. After a gunman killed 51 people in 2019 at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand’s parliament acted swiftly to institute a firearms buyback program and banned semi-automatic firearms. Brown wrote:
What will it take for the American legislators beholden to the gun lobby’s money and influence to do the same? It doesn’t have to be like this. Americans don’t have to live paralyzed in fear of whether our schools, our places of worship, our healthcare facilities or our malls will be the stage of the next national tragedy. The US government can in fact stop gun violence like other countries have, but only if our policymakers start answering to the people, not the industry.
With each new mass shooting, there has been growing public outrage, particularly among young people, over the failure to take action to curb gun violence. The NRA has also been significantly weakened by corruption scandals and its links to Russia.
red states continue in the wrong direction
Some Democratic-controlled states, such as Michigan and California, have recently taken action to introduce new gun safety regulations. But Republican-led states have been moving in the opposite direction by steadily expanding access to guns. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in April allowing people to carry guns without a permit. A New York Times story noted the widespread and continuing efforts in red states to expand gun rights, writing: “In Kentucky, Ohio, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia, Republicans have pushed this year to limit gun-free zones, remove background checks and roll back red-flag laws that seek to remove firearms from those who are a danger to themselves or others.”
And the gun lobby has an ally in the conservative-majority Supreme Court. In June 2022, the high court, in a case known as New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, limited legislators’ ability to restrict firearms possession in public. The decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, declared unconstitutional a 1911 New York State law that required gun owners to prove they had a special need to carry a firearm in public. The ruling said the constitutional right to carry a gun extends beyond the home.
And the allyship continues. On Wednesday, according to the New York Times, the Supreme Court “refused to block two Illinois laws prohibiting the sale of high-powered guns and high-capacity magazines while challenges to them move forward.”
And if you didn’t think the House GOP caucus was irrational enough. Rep, Eric Burlison of Missouri, a House Freedom Caucus member, filed his first piece of legislation: “Repeal the NFA Act.” Of course, the bill is unlikely to see passage.
In a statement announcing the bill, this gun radicalist said: “The federal government has used the National Firearms Act for almost a century to violate law-abiding citizens’ Second Amendment rights.” He added: “The Repeal the NFA Act will strip the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) of its authority to criminalize lawful gun owners and will undo nearly 90 years of assault on fundamental freedoms. I’m proud to stand with and support Americans nationwide as we take this issue head-on.”
Yes, he’s proud to stand with Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, and John Dillinger.