WEEK AFTER THE MASSACRE in Lewiston, Maine, left 18 dead, 13 wounded, and a swath of New England terrorized and on lockdown, the gun industry was thinking about its bottom line.
During a Nov. 1 quarterly-earnings call, Ruger CEO Christopher Killoy touted the company’s profits, and the sales boost from new products like its SFAR — a “small-frame auto-loading rifle,” chambered to fire devastating, high-caliber bullets.
The firearms press is enamored with this new assault rifle, touting it as “easy to carry, fast to the shoulder, and packing the punch of an old-school .30-caliber battle rifle.” But had that deadly punch just been turned on civilians at a bowling alley and billiards bar in Lewiston? Law enforcement recovered a Ruger SFAR from the getaway vehicle of the military-trained shooter, Robert R. Card II, and the arrest warrant for Card highlighted “numerous rifle cartridges” scattered “throughout the premises” of both murder scenes.
Killoy did not mention the killings, directly. But he did address analysts who wanted to know if the company was picking up signals of a buying surge, based on the events of “the last 30 days” — encompassing both Lewiston and the Hamas assault on civilians in Israel. “There may be some good demand signals coming,” Killoy advised shareholders. “For all the wrong reasons, perhaps.”
The modern firearms industry’s mission couldn’t be clearer: profiting off the sales of weapons that can turn lone shooters into mass killers, or armed discontents into a homeland security threat. Documents produced by the industry’s top trade group even advise leaning into the panic buying that can follow mass shootings, by targeting a market segment it calls the “Anxious Buyer,” shorthand for folks who say they “want to buy a firearm before it’s too late.” The market research directs that assault weapons — “more frequently targeted for sales restrictions” — are the “best bets” for these would-be gun buyers.
The mass murder in Lewiston was a tragedy, but not an accident. It is a choice. And it’s one that the gun industry made, and has doubled down on — pushing tens of millions of massacre-ready weapons on the American public. By the industry’s own accounting, America’s domestic assault-weapon arsenal stands at more than 24 million guns — roughly one for every 10 adults — with a record 2.7 million introduced in 2020 alone.
The Lewiston attack was a logical expression of what gun manufacturers now market assault rifles for — deadly domination. The industry pitches “battle-proven” AR-platform assault rifles to civilians with imagery of special-forces troops and taglines like “Core Combat,” “Use What They Use,” and “Your Mission Awaits.” Such slogans dovetail with even more reckless marketing from makers of “tactical” accessories — who pitch “gear for your daily gunfight,” “assault packs,” and carrying cases with names like “Urban Warfare,” and even “Coffin.”
The industry’s alpha-male sales pitches promise buyers the power to “control your destiny.” According to law-enforcement records, Card had been haunted by phantom voices — including taunts that he had a “small dick.” The Ruger SFAR, with its thick barrel, is marketed without subtlety as “Bigger and Stronger Where It Needs to Be.”
The industry is increasingly pushing weaponry on civilians that rivals or even exceeds the firepower commonly entrusted to soldiers. This includes not only AR rifles, but also AR-style shotguns. Other gun-makers invoke dark notions of social collapse or civil conflict that could give heavily-armed civilians the opportunity to engage in battle. Wilson Combat sells the “Urban Super Sniper.” Franklin Armory markets assault rifles in its “Militia Series.” An ad from Patriot Ordnance Factory-USA features a hooded man with an AR-15 standing in the ruins of a city, with the tagline “When corrupt politics fail, our guns won’t.”
A more noble, or less brazen, industry might be inhibited by good conscience — or by the threat of litigation — to curb such messaging, described to Rolling Stone by a former insider as “fucking atrocious” and “not even close to defensible.” But the gun industry is broadly protected from the deadly and predictable fallout of its profit seeking — thanks to a GOP-backed law signed by George W. Bush that shields the industry from consumer and public-health lawsuits.
Gun-industry antagonists liken its marketing to a stochastic call to violence. “If you promote a military mission, you’re going to get one,” says Josh Koskoff, an attorney who has taken on the gun industry, winning a landmark legal settlement for the Newtown, Connecticut, families. “Not everybody’s going to do it. But it doesn’t take many people to execute a military mission, to shatter families and communities, and create national panic and anxiety.” In the case of Card, Koskoff adds, “He’s one person, one weapon — and the entire state of Maine was frozen.”
Assault rifles were never meant for self-defense or hunting. They are bred for infantry warfare — and designed to mow down enemy soldiers. The Nazi military pioneered the Sturmgewehr, or “storm rifle,” in 1944, a weapon that combined the rapid fire of a submachine gun with the distance accuracy of a rifle, and was used to devastating effect on Russian troops. In this infantry arms race, the Soviet military soon countered with the Avtomat Kalashnikova, or AK-47, a mainstay of armed conflict ever since.
The American assault rifle was developed in the 1950s by a company called Armalite. (The AR prefix stands for “Armalite Rifle.”) The Pentagon sought an infantry weapon that was light, lethal, and versatile — that could match the “killing power” of the bulky, World War II-era M1 in close combat, but still be capable of “penetrating a steel helmet or standard body armor at 500 yards.”
Armalite first prototyped the AR-10 using large-caliber ammo. But in a quest to make the rifle lighter and more maneuverable, it developed the AR-15, with smaller rounds — fired at extraordinary velocity to create “maximum wound effect.” Though marketed today with a cachet of manhood, the military prized the AR platform because its feather weight and minimal recoil were well-suited for the “small stature of the Vietnamese” allies whose “average soldier,” one document stated, “stands five feet tall and weighs 90 pounds.”
The AR-15 was rebranded as the military’s M16, evolving slightly into today’s standard-issue M4. Civilian buyers today can purchase models that are all but identical. They lack the three-round “burst” and fully-automatic-fire modes of a military rifle. But this is not a significant safeguard. Military training exhorts soldiers to use the semi-automatic mode available to civilians — one trigger pull for each bullet — in almost all contexts, to maximize accuracy and lethality and avoid wasting ammo.
“Gun companies make the argument that it’s not a weapon of war because it’s the civilian version. No, no,” insists Jason Kander, an Afghanistan War veteran who ran as the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in Missouri in 2016. Kander is now a board member of anti-gun-violence group Giffords. Running in a red state with an F rating from the National Rifle Association, Kander produced one of the most memorable campaign ads in recent history, assembling an AR-15 blindfolded. “Nobody ever taught me how to assemble an AR-15,” Kander says. He just leaned on the experience of assembling his military-issue rifles in the dark. “The reason I was able to do that routine is because it’s the same weapon,” Kander says. “It was designed to meet the AK-47 on the battlefield.”
Makers of both AR- and AK-platform assault rifles have flooded the American market, with the domestic ARs outselling imports, including AKs, by a margin of nearly four to one.
Law enforcement has linked the Lewiston shooter to a pair of ARs. The Ruger SFAR is advertised as packing the “ballistic advantages” of an AR-10 into the size of an AR-15. Reviewers have touted the gun as a holy “grail” that “cracked the code.” Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, calls the weapon “the latest example of how the gun industry innovates for lethality.” The former industry insider agrees. “That’s an offensive gun,” he says. “That’s not to defend your family from some attacker.”
A second assault rifle, a Smith & Wesson M&P AR-15, was found with Card’s dead body. The M&P branding stands for “military and police” — emphasizing the war-breeding of the gun. A top seller on the civilian market, this rifle has been a weapon of choice for mass shooters from Highland Park to San Bernardino to Parkland to Aurora.
Neither Ruger nor Smith & Wesson have commented on the shooting nor returned calls from Rolling Stone.
AR-PLATFORM RIFLES have been on the civilian market since the 1960s. But early efforts to market the Vietnam War rifle as a hunting gun never landed with consumers — and the weapon remained a niche product into the 2000s. This marginalization was reinforced by the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban. That law didn’t fully prohibit the AR platform, but restricted combinations of common features, including pistol grips and collapsible buttstocks. Even in the panic-inducing year 2001, only 60,500 AR-platform rifles were produced.
Four factors combined to transform the once-marginal AR-15 into “America’s Rifle.” First, the assault-weapons ban expired in 2004. Second — and most crucially — President Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA) in 2005. The new law defused efforts by cities and states to sue gun-makers for the public-health damages of the weapons they sold, much as Big Tobacco was forced to pay massive settlements for the impact of cigarettes. Bush touted PLCAA as safeguarding the industry from frivolous litigation. The GOP-led government’s message to consumers was: Of course guns are deadly. You’re gonna have to live — or die — with that.
The new get-out-of-lawsuits-free card emboldened gun-makers in ways few saw coming. A formerly stolid industry began a deadly race to the bottom, pitching AR-15s not for the licit purposes of hunting and self-defense, but with messages that melded military firepower, manhood, and sexual prowess. The Bushmaster gun that Newtown, Connecticut, killer Adam Lanza wielded to massacre first-graders was infamously promoted with the slogan “Consider Your Man Card Reissued.”
A third change gave such marketing a patriotic punch: America was now at war, fighting on two fronts, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obeying the same perverse profit motives that brought the Hummer into suburban driveways, gun-makers turned the AR-15 into a marker of patriotic consumerism. Even now, this phenomenon has hardly abated. “There’s a certain type of middle-aged man in this country who, when they find out that I was in Afghanistan,” Kander says, “will pull out pictures of his guns.”
The fourth change that supercharged already-soaring sales? The election of Barack Obama. A combustible mix of racial anxiety and fears of new regulation elevated the assault rifle into a totem of right-wing tribal identity. The effect of these four factors is reflected in the number of ARs minted by U.S. manufacturers — jumping from 140,000 in 2005 to nearly 700,000 in 2009.
The gun industry’s embrace of military lethality was born, in part, of desperation. The traditional long-gun market, selling to hunters, was cratering and continues to do so. The percentage of U.S. homes with a hunter fell from 32 percent in 1977 to 14 percent in 2021. The industry needed “replacement shooters,” says Sugarmann, whose group tracked the hunting decline.
The marketing push to young men included getting brand-name AR guns included in video games like Call of Duty. Critics liken the effort to the cigarette industry’s worst past practices — targeting kids too young to buy a weapon, but not too young to develop brand loyalty. “It is Joe Camel, right?” says Kander. “It is candy cigarettes.”
Documents commissioned by the industry’s powerful trade group the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) in 2017, and reviewed by Rolling Stone, reveal the industry crowing at its success at turning assault weapons — or what it blandly calls modern sporting rifles or MSRs — into cash cows: The buyers are “6 years younger on average” and willing to spend “1/3 more” for a gun. These documents highlight the appeal of the guns to what the industry labeled “Fun Fanatics,” or Americans who are “not outdoorsy” and for whom “hunting is of little interest,” but who get hyped by the “adventure and social aspects” of shooting.
The AR platform is endlessly customizable. Strip away the deadly end use, and the AR industry may remind you of other markets that cater to gearheads. NSSF marketing touts “the marvelous MSR.” It extols how AR-15 buyers “want our gun to look cool and express who we are,” adding that — with the right mods — “you could find yourself the envy of everyone else on the range.”
A single AR setup can easily top $2,000, though the bullets are cheap — making a day of target shooting a bro-time alternative to a round of golf. But the deadly design of these weapons is always lurking behind the militaristic cosplay. “Nine out of 10 times, it’s a fantasy,” says Sugarmann. “But for a small percentage, folks are buying these guns for a specific purpose, for which they were designed, which is to kill as many people as possible, in as short a time as is available.”
When that happens, the choice of an assault weapon is crucial. According to Everytown for Gun Safety research of mass shootings that killed at least four people, the use of an assault weapon produced twice as many deaths and six times as many people shot.
“This is a product that had been on the market for 40 years, without being routinely used in a mass shooting,” says Koskoff, the lawyer for the Newtown families. “And in a relatively short amount of time, beginning around the mid-2000s, the new form of marketing of this weapon took off. This industry turned around from a hunting-based market to a military-based market.” In the countless mass shootings that followed, he says, “we reaped what they sowed.”
JUST DAYS AFTER THE UVALDE, Texas, massacre in May 2022, I attended the NRA’s convention in Houston. The star attraction, packing in throngs of Texans, was the gun show on the main floor of a three-block-long building — billed as “14 Acres of Guns and Gear.”
The gun show was conscience-searing. It revealed the darkest impulses of the modern gun industry — and gun culture that can’t be bothered to tone down its own-the-libs ethos even in the aftermath of the murder of 19 schoolchildren. Vendors hawked baseball hats for “Ammosexuals,” T-shirts for “Gunaholics,” and hashtagged gear for adherents of the “#PewPewLife.” One shirt featured a cartoon of a randy-looking .50-caliber bullet with the message “I wanna be inside you!!”
At booth after booth, gun companies displayed military-grade assault rifles — branded with fearsome names like “Hellion,” “Nemesis,” and “Khaos.” Gun-maker Black Rain Ordnance, whose branding includes the biohazard symbol, sold an AR painted with the Texas flag it called the “Patriot.” The words on the dust flap for the gun’s ejection port proclaimed “Let It Rain.”
Some vendors even toyed with the imagery of the Boogaloo movement — violent accelerationists who seek the breakout of a new Civil War. Rather than military fatigues, these extremists dress in loud Hawaiian prints. Stag Arms was selling an AR-15 rifle painted in a floral design it calls “Aloha Camo.” A clothing vendor nearby was selling luau shirts with AR-15s mixed into the floral print.
The takeaway from such marketing was clear — these guns aren’t for responsible self-defense, they’re for projecting deadly power, or even taking up arms in acts of war. And consistent with the push to make guns even more deadly, several vendors were hawking shotguns built to fire like semi-automatic assault rifles. I saw one AR-style shotgun with a drum magazine attached. Another model, an AK-variant 12-gauge assault shotgun, was branded the “Komrad.”
The industry now faces a new challenge. It has so successfully saturated the market with “normal” AR-15s that gun-makers are pushing the envelope into deadlier-than-military-weaponry to prop up sales. Sugarmann points to assault shotguns as proof of the violence-is-the-endpoint marketing. “AR-15-style shotguns — that’s a devastating weapon,” he says. “That’s where you’ve abandoned any sporting purpose.”
In the 2000s, a new kind of marketing took off, and the industry turned from hunting-based to military-based. We reaped what they sowed.
THE MAYHEM IN MAINE was more than a massacre. After his killing spree, the military-trained gunman slipped into the night, sparking a manhunt that froze upper New England as if Card were a nor’easter. Businesses shuttered. Schools and universities closed — bracing against the possibility of another assault. It took two days and the combined resources of hundreds of local cops and deputies, state troopers, and federal agents from the FBI, ATF, and the U.S. Marshals to finally track down this man-of-mass-destruction. Card was discovered dead by suicide near a recycling facility where he had worked.
The attack was a shock for Maine — a state with a proud, traditional gun culture rooted in hunting that had seemed culturally insulated from the nation’s epidemic of mass shootings. Matt McTighe is the COO of Everytown, and a Mainer, who lives and works 40 minutes from Lewiston. “Everybody in Maine right now is still grieving,” he tells Rolling Stone, “and dealing with the shock that it did happen here.”
The danger posed by the gun industry has two prongs, one commercial and one political. On the commercial side, the industry considers itself immune from the consequences of its ever-deadlier products. Politically, this industry lobbies relentlessly against even modest gun-safety regulations — leaving the rest of us exposed. For some gun-makers, this deadly Catch-22 is the sales pitch. Shield Arms has used the tagline “We make the stuff they want to ban.”
Could the shooting in Maine have been prevented with stronger gun laws? Consider that in 2019 the gun lobby in Maine beat back an attempt to pass a “red flag” law that would have made it straightforward to seek a judicial order to remove guns from an individual posing a threat. Instead, Maine adopted a cumbersome “yellow flag” law that requires a gun owner to first be taken into police protective custody, and then deemed a danger by a doctor, before finally a judge’s order could be sought to take away the person’s guns.
Even with such high bars for gun removal, however, it’s alarming that the Lewiston shooter did not clear them. Card was a sergeant in the Army Reserve — with a firearms obsession. According to law enforcement, his mental health began to unravel when he began complaining of nonexistent voices taunting him in public early this year. By May, family members reported concerns about Card’s paranoia, anger, and access to weapons to the Sagadahoc County Sheriff’s Department — which in turn alerted the military.
In July, Card’s deteriorating mental state during a military assignment near West Point got him referred for mental treatment — and ultimately committed for two weeks at a New York psychiatric hospital. When Card returned home in early August, the military put him on restriction, blocking his access to weapons, ammunition, and “live-fire activity.”
But in September, the Army Reserve kicked the Card problem back to the sheriff, with an alarming email describing that Card was “hearing voices” accusing him of being “a pedophile, saying he has a small dick, and other insults.” It underscored that Card had recently gotten into an altercation with a fellow reservist, who had heard him threaten to shoot up his base in Saco, Maine. The explicit warnings included a text from that reservist reading: “I believe he’s going to snap and do a mass shooting.”
Sheriff deputies twice approached Card’s single-wide trailer in Bowdoin in mid-September — but could not get him to answer the door. The department then sent regional law-enforcement agencies a warning that Card “made threats to shoot up the National Guard armory in Saco” and was “committed over the summer … due to his altered mental health state.” It advised that he should be approached with “extreme caution.”
This alert was canceled on Oct. 18 — a week before Card’s rampage began, on Oct. 25. According to an arrest warrant for Card, he had come to believe local businesses were “broadcasting online that [he] was a pedophile” — including both the bowling alley and the billiards bar he targeted for mass murder.
INDUSTRY WATCHDOGS SEE the Lewiston massacre as evidence that the “normal” mass shootings America is accustomed to could grow even more horrific. “As we see more militarized marketing of these weapons, we are seeing more people with a military background in these attacks,” Sugarmann says. “It’s a foreboding event. And I think that this can all be laid at the feet of the gun industry.”
Card was a lone wolf battling mental health demons, but the impact of his attack is a wake-up call — about how much chaos can be caused by a single war rifle. If 10 men got together and carried out a similar coordinated attack, America would not be talking about a local tragedy but about a threat to national security. “If you had 50 [gunmen],” says Koskoff, “you could bring every state to its knees.”
This frightening evolution of mass shootings is happening at a moment of dire instability in the United States. A disturbing new survey from PRRI finds that nearly a quarter of Americans, and one-third of Republicans, agree with the statement that “because things have gotten so far off-track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
The gun industry is now making bank from the anxiety that the country is edging toward civil war, and may need to be fought over by factions of armed citizens. Franklin Armory is unabashed about its “Militia Series” rifles, telling Rolling Stone they’re intended to ensure that average Americans are “adequately prepared” in the event they’re “called upon” to, for example, “suppress insurrection.” Industry advertising increasingly features men who look like irregular soldiers in bombed-out buildings, or 1776-style revolutionaries in tricorn hats — toting modern assault rifles.
Democrats are pressing for action. President Biden passed historic legislation in 2022 to offer federal funding for state red-flag laws, and Biden renewed his call to ban assault weapons in the aftermath of Lewiston. Rep. Jared Golden, the Democrat who serves the people of Lewiston, was a rare Democrat who opposed such a ban. But Golden has reversed course. “The time has now come for me to take responsibility for this failure,” he told grieving constituents, as he pledged to “work with any colleague to get this done in the time that I have left in Congress.”
For the moment, politics in Washington appear deadlocked. The House GOP has just elevated a new speaker in Mike Johnson — who has blamed mass shootings on the mainstreaming of no-fault divorce, abortion, and the teaching of evolution, which he casts as a failure to instruct “right and wrong.”
Yet those who tangle with the gun industry insist it’s not too late — and that the arms manufacturers can be held to account. The gun industry’s perception of invincibility is overplayed, according to Koskoff. The lawyer found a crack in the armor of the PLCAA — centered on the reckless marketing of the Bushmaster brand. He fought a David-vs.-Goliath battle against the manufacturer on behalf of the Newtown shooting victims, winning a $73 million settlement from the then-bankrupt company’s insurers.
Koskoff believes the industry’s marketing of militaristic “missions” puts it in a position of vulnerability. “There’s no noncriminal use for civilians, really, in the way they’re promoting them,” he says. “If you ask somebody to make a list of ‘missions’ that could be carried out with an AR-15 — by a civilian — you could give them till the end of time, and then they wouldn’t be able to think of something that would be lawful.”
To Kander, the most crucial reform is to smash the PLCAA shield law. “Everybody always forgets that Congress is not the reason that smoking is so reduced in this country,” he says. “It is juries. And if you let juries just decide what reasonable care a gun manufacturer should take in who they sell guns to, you’d have a very different gun culture in this country. You’d have a lot less people get killed.”
The will to act on deadly weapons also follows a boom-and-bust cycle — and the opportunity to act is while the pain and outrage are at their rawest. Otherwise the numbness to the ravages of gun violence creeps back in, and the gun industry goes back to designing and marketing the next nightmare. “In the wake of incidents like Lewiston, a window opens for a brief moment,” says Sugarmann. “People focus on the gun industry, its products, and the impact these weapons have — not just on an individual but on communities. And then, unfortunately, that window closes, and people go back to their daily lives — until the next mass shooting.”