Chris Waltz was appalled. He felt Democrats were using the Sandy Hook tragedy to tell him he wasn’t responsible enough to own an AR-15. He had trained on M16s in the army and carried one into combat in Panama. He had been a firearms instructor and taught his wife and four daughters how to shoot and handle AR-15s safely. He owned AR-15s and loved to shoot them. He followed safety protocols at the rifle range and kept the weapons locked securely in a gun safe at home. He had never committed a crime. What did a lunatic in Connecticut have to do with a law-abiding veteran and family man living in small-town Georgia?
“I didn’t understand how you could blame a whole society for the actions of one madman, and then penalize the whole society for that, when you had people who day in and day out, millions of people, who used it responsibly,” he said.
At the kitchen table, Waltz complained to his wife about the liberal politicians who were trying to pass laws to ban the AR-15 after Sandy Hook. They didn’t even understand how the guns worked. His wife grew so tired of his ranting that on many nights she just left the room and went to bed—even though she agreed with him.
Waltz found himself alone and seething at the kitchen table night after night. Dressed in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms, the muscular forty-nine-year-old with close-cropped hair opened his laptop and logged onto Facebook. On discussion threads on gun-rights pages, he found lots of people agreed with him that Obama’s statement about “meaningful action” on the day of the school massacre was code for wanting to crack down on AR-15 ownership. Feinstein’s quick introduction of a bill to accomplish just that proved politicians were coming for their firearms. They didn’t understand how many AR-15s were owned by people like him.
“If everyone who owned an AR-15 was a psycho, you’d all be dead,” he said.
It was time to stand up.
Three weeks after Sandy Hook, Waltz created a Facebook page called “AR-15 Gun Owners of America.” The chief motivation was anger, Waltz remembered. Night after night his wife had urged him to let it go, to come to bed. He couldn’t. He needed to reach out on social media to other gun owners, to rally them. Sandy Hook and Aurora were horrible, but they weren’t the chief danger to the nation. They were excuses that the liberals were using to take away guns.
The first thing that he posted that night was something he took from a blogger, a meme titled “2011 Deaths.” It began with a photograph of an AR-15. Next to the photo were the words “323 by these.” Below was a photo of a hammer: “496 by these.” Below the hammer were photos and stats for people killed by knives, drunk driving, and medical malpractice. At the bottom of the meme was this sentence: “You are SIX HUNDRED TIMES MORE LIKELY to DIE by using your OBAMACARE, than by a semi-automatic rifle. Sooo, feel sick?”
Waltz followed up with a flurry of posts and reposts. He started reading about the Three Percenters, a militia movement founded in 2008 that believed only 3 percent of the colonists had fought to gain American independence. The loosely organized group believed an armed citizenry was needed in modern times as a bulwark against governmental tyranny. Waltz embraced those beliefs.
He took jabs at Obama and other Democrats on his page. He posted links to news stories about AR-15s from conservative news sites or commentary from gun-rights bloggers.
“If I really wanted to poke the bear, I would put something out there for the Second Amendment community to say, ‘This is what Obama is doing, have you heard the latest?’ and that’d just inflame everybody and you’d get all sorts of comments,” he said. He started discussions about technical aspects of the AR, rifle equipment, and ammunition. Long threads among the gun’s fans ensued, further fueling interest in his page.
In those initial days, Waltz once bragged to his daughters that he had reached fifty likes on some posts. They rolled their eyes and laughed. But as talk of an AR-15 ban intensified in Washington, Waltz’s one-man Facebook page took off.
One early post showed a photograph of an AR-15 painted red, white, and blue. The post read in part, “To some, the AR-15 is a symbol of American freedom. To others, it’s a weapon of mass destruction.” The first person to comment on the post wrote, “To some, it’s a symbol of freedom. To others, they’re insecure, uneducated liberals.”
Waltz found that a lot of people shared his anger, and they came flocking to his page to vent. He had tapped into gun-rights activism that was centered on Stoner’s rifle.
Within a month of the page’s launch, the AR-15 Gun Owners of America had 100,000 followers. Weeks later, it rose to 200,000, then 300,000. Waltz paid Facebook for some advertising and more followers poured in.
“We became big really quick, only numbers-wise, but we weren’t anything really,” he recalled. “It was me, sitting at the table, but people didn’t know that.”
His Facebook followers asked Waltz whether they could buy decals, T-shirts, and badges with the group’s logo. But Waltz didn’t have a logo, or even a group. He hired an online design service and chose a patriotic red, white, and blue badge logo. It had the silhouette of an AR-15 in between a red A and blue R, and red stripes reminiscent of the American flag behind the number 15. The creator, Waltz later learned, was “a little old lady in a print shop in Indonesia.” The defense contractor paid $3,000 to print up shirts and badges. He stored the merchandise in his daughter’s former bedroom. It quickly sold out. He ordered more and added other badges, one showing a skull with military-style lettering to appeal to veterans.
“It kind of exploded,” he recalled. Asked how much time he spent on his new effort in 2013, Waltz said, “Every waking moment when I wasn’t working.”
For many gun owners, the initial outpouring of shock and grief after Sandy Hook evaporated, replaced by their long-standing suspicion of the government’s motives. Distrust of politicians and the media was heightened by perpetual mistakes and misstatements in the press about AR-15s. Media reports sometimes incorrectly identified guns used in such shootings to be ARs. Reporters and politicians made mistakes in discussing how ARs worked or what ammunition they used. They would label them machine guns, or use the term “assault rifle.” Such statements were viewed by gun owners as an intentional slight, further proof of a conspiracy to take away AR-15s.
Half a century after Eugene Stoner invented the rifle, it had arrived as the fulcrum of America’s great gun divide. The Sandy Hook massacre and its aftermath sparked an outpouring of support for the AR-15. It forged a political movement not based in Washington but rising from small towns like Warner Robins, Georgia. It wasn’t centered on charismatic politicians but on an aluminum and plastic object weighing about seven pounds: the AR-15. The rifle was the star of the movement. It appeared on T-shirts, hats, badges, belt buckles, anything you could label.
AR-15 owners, once derided as extremists by more traditional gun owners, now became the vanguard of a resurgent gun-rights movement. A confidential poll of gun owners conducted on behalf of Remington in the wake of Sandy Hook found that AR-15 owners were the most strident in their opposition to gun-control measures. They were more likely to have a positive view of the NRA and a negative view of President Obama. They would be more opposed to stricter gun laws than would other gun owners. Forty-four percent of handgun owners supported stricter laws after Sandy Hook, while just 31 percent of AR owners did, the survey found. The vocal and angry AR owners led the gun-rights agenda. No compromise.
On the other side, gun-control advocates couldn’t turn their outrage into a sustained political movement. Support for gun control had been episodic for years, swelling after horrific shootings but then invariably lessening as supporters turned to other issues. Liberals would march and cry out for change after each mass shooting, but the gun issue would be eclipsed by some other cause, from abortion rights to education to healthcare. Gun owners, especially AR owners, were laser-focused on a single issue: gun rights. The issue was not an abstraction for them: they were fighting for the right to keep an object they had in their homes, that they could hold in their hands. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 34 percent of conservatives only voted for candidates who shared their views on guns, while just 22 percent of liberals did the same. Gun owners consistently had outsized influence in Congress for a simple reason: they cared more about the issue and showed they cared in the voting booth and in donations.
Tim Mak, the author of Misfire, a critical look at the inner workings of the NRA, argued that the influential group derived its power from its members, not its deep pockets. Mak pointed to the collapse of the Manchin-Toomey background-check bill after Sandy Hook as a prime example. The NRA did an about-face, suddenly opposing the bill it had helped negotiate after it faced pressure from more extreme gun-rights groups. The NRA mobilized its members to kill the proposed legislation. “Marshaled into action, thousands of ardent Second Amendment supporters flooded Capitol Hill phone lines and crowded email accounts,” Mak wrote. “Terrified lawmakers, concerned about their reelection bids, fell into line.”
All the activism that transformed the AR-15 into a potent symbol of gun rights also translated into a bonanza for gunmakers.
“All of a sudden, people are buying guns because they want to own the libs and because people are telling them they can’t have them and because they want to give the world the middle finger,” recalled Ryan Busse, a sales executive at the gunmaker Kimber. “Rationality of the market left the building and this sort of weird emotional, political drive took over.”
Smith & Wesson’s AR-15 sales reached levels executives never thought possible. Revenue from rifles grew 75 percent in fiscal 2013 to a company-record $179 million. The company noted in securities filings that the surge was driven by fear of “potential legislative restrictions on the sale or makeup of firearms.” America’s largest producer of AR-15s, Freedom Group, saw an extraordinary spike in sales in the months after Sandy Hook. The company sold $320 million in guns just in the first quarter of 2013, a 50 percent increase from the same period in 2012. Stephen Feinberg’s firm had promised to sell the company after Sandy Hook. But gun sales grew, and the firm ended up not selling. By the end of 2013, Freedom Group’s firearms sales totaled $1.3 billion. “The orders are coming so fast, they can’t make guns fast enough,” said a Republican state senator of the company’s upstate New York plant.
American gunmakers made 1.9 million AR rifles for sale in the United States in the year after Sandy Hook, the most they had ever manufactured in a single year. The output represented 17 percent of the record 10.8 million guns built in America that year. Once they were all sold, it would bring the number of AR rifles in private hands in the United States to more than 7 million.
Chris Waltz always had an entrepreneurial bent. In the army, he had a travel business. He sold cruises, airplane tickets, and vacation packages to fellow soldiers. Later, he sold herbal dietary supplements. He owned “Tikis by Design,” and sold tiki-style bars, huts, platforms, and tables. He imported bamboo products from China to sell to zoos, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses. But these business ventures never took off. He still had piles of bamboo and dismantled tiki huts stored in his backyard.
But his AR-15 Facebook page quickly became a successful business. He initially sold T-shirts and badges, but then began selling AR-15 accessories like scopes from an American company that manufactured them in China. Waltz cleared $100,000 in scope sales alone in the first year, he said. He sold other parts for the gun: magazines, pistol grips, sights, anything a gun owner could want for their AR-15. As long as Waltz didn’t sell the receiver, he didn’t need to be a licensed firearm dealer. He built up a customer base from Florida to Alaska. He filled his home with plastic racks to store gun parts, accessories, and shirts. It drove his wife crazy, so he leased space on a commercial strip in Warner Robins, Georgia, behind a hearing-aid store and a beauty salon. He hung a sign over a doorway that said, “Have you hugged your AR-15 today?” He hung a Three Percenter flag up in a hallway. Within months, he had six employees, including two of his daughters and his wife.
In 2015, Waltz got a federal firearm license so he could sell AR-15s. At first, he just sold receivers. Then he started selling fully assembled guns. Whenever politicians started talking about gun control, sales spiked.
He bought a large motorboat, then another. He helped his kids out with their finances. He shopped for a second home in Florida with his wife. Within a year, Waltz had gone from angrily typing at his kitchen table to owning a thriving AR-15 business.
The gun had become legendary. Its fans linked it to historic events long before the gun was ever invented. They emblazoned it on American revolutionary flags and Confederate battle flags. One popular slogan associated with the gun came from a famous battle in ancient Greece. Three hundred Spartans led by King Leonidas faced off against a much larger Persian army at a narrow pass called Thermopylae. The historian Plutarch described a supposed exchange between Leonidas and the Persian leader Xerxes. The Persian leader demanded that the Greeks lay down their arms. Leonidas’s defiant reply: μολὼν λαβέ. The phrase transliterates as “Molon labe.” The English translation: “Come and take them.”
American gunmakers made 1.9 million AR rifles for sale in the United States in the year after Sandy Hook, the most they had ever manufactured in a single year.
At the beginning of the Texas Revolution in 1835, Texans fought off Mexican troops trying to seize a cannon. The Texans created a flag with an image of the cannon, a star, and the phrase “Come and take it.” In 2006, the blockbuster movie 300 depicted the famous Greek battle. American gun activists adopted “Molon labe” and “Come and Take It” for their cause. By the time of Sandy Hook it was linked to the AR-15. Bumper stickers, buttons, patches, T-shirts, and caps bearing “Molon labe”—sometimes in Greek lettering and often next to a silhouette of Stoner’s gun—proliferated. A gun developed for the U.S. military and a phrase supposedly said by a Greek king facing certain death fused together as a symbol of a new strident, libertarian gun-rights movement.
Perhaps no American embodied this new mythos more than C. J. Grisham, an outspoken five-foot-five army master sergeant stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. Three months after Sandy Hook, the thirty-eight-year-old was hiking with his fifteen-year-old son in a rural area not far from the base. Grisham had a Colt AR-15 slung across his chest. Carrying a rifle was a habit that he developed growing up on a farm. The gun also gave him comfort. After a tour in Iraq, he constantly feared that he would be ambushed, a symptom of his PTSD. The AR-15 calmed him. It was the same type of gun that had kept him safe in combat.
“It’s like a security blanket,” he said.
As Grisham and his son walked along a road that day, a woman became alarmed and called police. The responding officer approached father and son and, without asking, grabbed Grisham’s AR-15 and pulled it toward him.
“Is there some reason why you have this?” the officer said. “Because I can,” Grisham answered.
For a split second, Grisham grabbed for the butt end of the rifle as it hung between them, pointing toward the ground. The officer slammed Grisham onto the hood of his car and handcuffed him.
Grisham was arrested for resisting arrest. He argued with the officers that under Texas law he could carry any rifle, including his AR-15. Grisham’s son recorded the arrest on cell phone video, and Grisham posted it to YouTube as a clarion call to fellow gun owners.
Grisham organized a protest in the city where the arrest took place.
About four hundred people, many carrying AR-15s, showed up and marched in the streets of Temple, Texas. The police put snipers on the rooftops, took pictures of the crowd, and brought in federal law enforcement officers for support. Throughout the summer of 2013, Grisham and supporters armed with AR-15s showed up in coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, and department stores. Grisham’s activism was fueled by the anger and humiliation he felt over the arrest. Every protest he attended, he did so with his AR-15 slung across his chest, like it was the day he was arrested. The gun was loaded with a full magazine and one round in the chamber. “It was kind of my finger in the air toward the police officer who arrested me,” he said.
He started an organization called Open Carry Texas and gained thousands of followers. The group became a political force in the state. Conservative politicians sought Open Carry’s endorsement. His movement to normalize carrying weapons in public, especially AR-15s, made national news in August 2013 as part of an event called “Starbucks Appreciation Day.” The coffee chain had won gun-rights activists’ favor by resisting calls from gun-control advocates to ban firearms from its ten thousand stores.
A new gun-control group, Moms Demand Action, condemned their plans. The group had been created by an Indiana mother after Sandy Hook. Her idea was to model her group after Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and chapters sprouted up around the country. Moms Demand Action countered the pro–gun rights day with a boycott called “Skip Starbucks Saturday.”
Starbucks became an unexpected battleground for America’s fight over the AR-15. Police arrested Grisham’s supporters numerous times for carrying firearms at the stores and charged them with disorderly conduct for displaying firearms “in a public place in a manner calculated to cause alarm” under Texas law.
Sandy Hook parents called on Starbucks to ban guns from their stores. Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz told customers not to bring their guns to Starbucks anymore, but stopped short of a policy banning firearms. Moms Demand Action claimed victory; Grisham
kept going to Starbucks with his AR-15. The two groups battled in the public square. Grisham called Moms Demand Action members “thugs with jugs.” They labeled him “downright scary.” America’s culture war over the AR-15 was raging. It had spilled from the halls of Congress, to kitchen tables, to Facebook, and into the local coffee shop.
Excerpted from American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15 by Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Copyright © 2023 by Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson.