The Washington Post has published a brief history of the AR-15 rifle and the marketing efforts gun manufacturers used to turn the high-profit weapons into a new American obsession, after the Bush-era expiration of the assault weapons ban. It’s very good and worth a read.

But it also pulls its punches, giving too much credence to the industry’s own narration of events in a manner reminiscent of an older era’s credulous reporting on cigarette company executives and their assurances that they didn’t know nothin’ about addiction, lung cancer, or marketing campaigns that appeared tailored toward prodding school-aged teens into a smoking lifestyle.

Someday we’re going to look back at this era of Washington Post and The New York Times coverage and wonder why, exactly, weapons manufacturers were given every benefit of the doubt no matter how much death their products began to cause. We eventually learned that tobacco executives knew damn well that their products were both deadly and intentionally addictive; it takes no Pulitzer-worthy insight to suspect that current gun company executives know damn well that they are marketing their weapons specifically to appeal to government-hostile malcontents and aspirational mass murderers.

The Post gets real close … and pulls its punches. It tells the story of the AR-15’s rise while dodging the implications of the marketing efforts it recites. There’s a lot of dodging.

The story of the civilian AR-15 is that for a very long time, it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because the AR-15 is a combat weapon, and weapons manufacturers catering to civilians generally pushed weapons as either “sporting” rifles or “self-defense” handguns; a rifle designed mostly to shoot multiple rounds quickly but with no particular precision was seen as unsuited for either of those civilian uses and even gun executives weren’t eager to be associated with a product that excelled only in its anti-human offensive capability.

It’s a murder weapon designed to allow soldiers to kill an enemy quickly and with minimal required skill. The pistol grip and minimal recoil allow soldiers to spray bullets faster than the enemy can. Marketing that as either for “sporting” or “defense” would require either a new definition of “sport” or a new definition of “defense,” but then something happened that made Americans really, really want these guns anyway—or convinced the gun companies that those redefinitions might, in fact, turn out to be obscenely profitable.

Most in the gun industry remained wary. For decades, the AR-15 was regarded as an outsider. Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

As the U.S. military was sent to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, gunmakers looked to play off the conflict-zone images of soldiers in tactical gear holding M16 and M4 carbine rifles. The next best thing for civilians was buying an AR-15.

The Sep. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed the American psyche overnight. It became more paranoid. More aggressive. More bigoted. It took no particular effort for the sitting presidential administration to expand its supposed mandate from a defensive war to a vastly larger offensive one aimed, mostly, at establishing world hegemony at gunpoint; the press was even more eager than the public for this new era of militarism.

But who were the Americans clamoring for the weapons they saw in news footage from Afghanistan and Iraq? Who, exactly, saw those videos and thought, “I want one of those”? Why is that market left so awkwardly unspecified here?

We know quite a bit about those Americans, because we know which gun advertisements worked and which didn’t. The Post notes Smith & Wesson’s rush to produce a “civilian” version of the AR-15, dubbed the M&P 15. The M&P referred to Military and Police, respectively, and the rifle’s name and marketing were aimed at convincing Americans that they wanted the same guns as the soldiers and police officers used. No—Americans needed those same weapons.

Why? For killing people. The intended use is written right there in the name.

The military and law enforcement communities do not purchase guns for sporting competitions, to hunt deer, or to “defend their homes” or the like. The first AR-15 marketing campaigns were not aimed at convincing Americans that the bullet-spraying AR-15 was good for either sport or defense; this was the rifle you needed if you wanted to be like a soldier or law enforcement officer but for whatever reason (cough) don’t want the training and responsibilities required of the job.

And in post-9/11 America, there were a great many people who imagined themselves as something like a soldier or police officer, but without the responsibilities. It was the National Rifle Association that produced the crudest versions of the argument in its magazines and from its talking heads. The world was suddenly awash in terrorists, and those terrorists might be coming to your very own hometown. Who knows what will happen in the War on Terror. Who knows what the large and suspicious Muslim population of the United States might do, or how “they” might “retaliate” for America’s war in Iraq.

The National Rifle Association founded its case for the AR-15 and other military-styled rifles not on the invention of some new sport, but on overt bigotry, racism, and paranoia. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre was insistent upon it. The magazines leaned heavily on courting a specific new kind of gun owner, one whose need for self-defense had escalated from needing to defend against a lone burglar to needing to defend against:

• Organized terrorist attacks in or near your neighborhood

• “Urban” looters invading your town en masse after a natural disaster or “race riots”

• The United States government itself.

Each of these scenarios was presented to gun owners as a reason that a mere handgun or hunting rifle could no longer be called adequate self-defense. It was not that American gun owners might need to defend themselves against individual criminals; the new standard became the perceived ability to “win” in an armed standoff against dozens of attackers.

The three marketed-use cases for the guns came in sequence. It was the 9/11 attacks that created a new market for jingoistic, military-themed pseudopatriotism. It was Hurricane Katrina and its images of widespread devastation and desperate New Orleans residents “looting” necessities from damaged stores that launched widespread Very White paranoia about their own neighbors asking them for help during a disaster.

And it was the election of the first Black American president that sent a very particular subset of the public into spasms of panic about what might happen if their government, their lily-white government that was surely slipping away with every passing decade, turned against them.

In 2008, economic crisis and political upheaval bolstered the AR-15’s market appeal, according to several industry insiders, as the stock market collapsed under the weight of soured mortgage securities and the country elected its first Black president, a Democrat portrayed by conservatives as an anti-gun radical.

The far-right militia movement had been growing since the 1990s, gaining new life after the Waco siege, but gun manufacturers had previously been loath to create advertising campaigns premised on militia visions of violent revolution or apocalyptic government collapse. As the paranoia of 9/11 and supposedly omnipresent terrorist threats took hold, however, gun companies were handed a new way to market “Military & Police” killing weapons as patriotic purchases.

What sort of Americans are obsessed with the notion of having “Military & Police” authority and weaponry without signing up to be part of either? Militia groups. Spray-and-pray AR-15s quickly became the new hoarded weapons of anti-government militia groups, and anti-government militia groups are nearly synonymous with white nationalist, antisemitic, and other conspiracy-premised beliefs.

It would be impossible to harbor fantasies of defeating the United States federal government with non-military weapons, and so another marketing cycle was born: With every instance of some elected official or anti-violence expert suggesting that the proliferation of offense-focused, military-styled weapons was only exacerbating gun violence, those that catered to those who did harbor fantasies of taking on entire terrorist cells, foraging disaster victims, or government employees responsible for monitoring federal rangelands were easily roused to panic over the thought that someone might put boundaries on the new madness.

To be sure, as the AR-15 became synonymous with gun ownership as means of offense, rather than defense, industry lobbyists began arguing that the design could indeed be used for “sport,” suggesting evasively that modern hunters needed new, more damaging weapons to keep pace with the … escalating dangers posed by modern deer, or for schoolyard protection against wild bears, or to fend off increasing numbers of feral hogs. But there are few long-lasting marketing campaigns selling the rifle as your best defense against schoolyard bears or feral hogs; we have all seen the marketing over the past 20 years, and it is focused on testosterone, and pseudomilitary capabilities, and defending your family when confronted by other human beings.

The Post alludes to the weak attempted rebranding of the AR-15 as a “modern sporting rifle,” but with a dismissal from a gun industry executive who notes that the “true AR enthusiasts, they kind of saw through it.” The Post recalls gun manufacturer partnerships with video game companies, a competition to license specific rifle brands in military-themed games like “Call of Duty”—something much akin to the tobacco industry’s own teen-friendly marketing efforts in past decades.

But still, the only “sport” readily identified with the AR-15 is firing off a few dozen rounds toward nothing in particular at the shooting range (or in rural backyards); there’s no “sport” that’s not better accomplished by other guns. And there is no journalistic backlash against AR-15 marketing campaigns that specifically sell the rifle as the gun of choice for the paranoid, the insecure, the aspirational insurrectionist, or those with paramilitary fantasies.

There’s something in particular that boosts AR-15 sales with great regularity, each year that it happens, and this is another part of the equation that the Post dodges completely in favor of gun-executive rhetoric.

Mass murders. AR-15 sales soar each and every time an AR-15 is used in a mass murder. And the Post continues the tradition of every other journalistic outfit in America in swallowing the industry explanation for post-mass-shooting sales spikes. It started when an AR-15 was used to murder 20 children and six adults inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, proving the rifle’s effectiveness at the one job it was designed for: killing other human beings, many of them in a small enough span of time that your targets have no reasonable chance of escape.

But the focus on banning the AR-15 only made the gun more popular with firearms enthusiasts, NRA leaders later said.

“People who never planned to buy one went out and got one,” said Grover Norquist, an anti-tax activist who was on the NRA board. “It was an f-you to the left.”

Translation: A certain breed of Americans rushed out to buy the gun that murdered 20 grade-schoolers. Those Americans were willing to drop big money on, allegedly, a purely performative move to anger other Americans they never met. Do we believe that?

“It became a political symbol,” said Keene, who also served as the longtime chairman of the American Conservative Union.

The gun used to shred the bodies of 20 grade-school children became a political symbol of what?

In December 2012, the same month as the Newtown shooting, monthly gun background checks hit what at the time was an all-time high of 2.8 million and stayed elevated for months.

Stores were picked clean of their AR-15 inventory. Prices jumped.

While the government doesn’t break out AR-15 sales, the industry group NSSF estimated that companies produced at least 3.2 million AR-15s firearms in 2012 and 2013 alone — more than they’d made in the entire previous decade.

It wasn’t until the AR-15 was successfully used in the most horrific mass murder in modern American history that sales began to truly soar and it became the staple of a certain kind of gun ownership.

It wasn’t Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t the election of the first Black president. It wasn’t the Iraq War, or 9/11. The event that singlehandedly doubled the number of AR-15s being bought by American civilians was the rapid execution of 20 American children at the hands of an aggrieved nobody with no skills or training or ideology or family to “protect.” It was a brutal mass murder, and AR-15 sales have spiked every time a mass shooter uses one to kill their designated enemies.

This does not sound like a consumer base that is confused as to what the weapon excels in. This does not sound like Americans are rushing to engage in sport, every time a particularly heinous mass murder crosses their television screens.

The gun industry has always claimed that the spike in assault rifle purchases after mass murders is due to supposed public fear that the specific weapon that was used for the crime would soon be banned; I’d like to see some explicit evidence for that, given the simultaneous widespread acknowledgment that Congress was never going to pass any such restrictions after Sandy Hook, has never come close to passing any other restrictions ever since, and that in fact, gun laws have been weakening steadily even as new mass murders in American schools become a regular part of news cycles.

The industry claim is that gun sales peak after mass shootings as a specific sort of consumer rushes to get a product so deadly that Congress might ostensibly in theory do something about it. But that’s the industry’s self-promoting extrapolation. What we know for certain is that gun sales peak after mass shootings as a specific sort of consumer rushes to get whatever gun was last proven capable of killing large numbers of people before police arrive—or, in the case of the Uvalde, Texas, mass murder, capable of holding police at bay while continuing the executions.

Gun sales after mass murders are spiked by consumers who want to purchase the latest proven tool of mass murder. Perhaps they want to buy each specific weapon because they truly fear they may not be able to in the future—but they still want to buy the specific weapon used to kill a large number of children, or not-white Americans, or gay Americans, or other targets of the murderer’s ire. They gravitate toward the weapons that have proved themselves useful in the precise scenario gun extremists claim as the reason they “need” the offense-focused models:

• There are a large number of people who presumably need killing.

• I need to kill them quickly, before they can fight back.

• I need to be able to stand my ground even against armed law enforcement officers in order to continue that killing.

It is the militia model, one-to-one. Sales of AR-15s spike after each instance in which a mass murderer lives out the stated militia goal of killing many human beings quickly in service to a cause that the rest of society likely does not share. Even if there is no plausible chance of new gun restrictions, sales still spike.

Why are we so willing to take gun manufacturers’ word as to the reasons “why” sales of their products soar after each bloody demonstration of the weapon’s effectiveness at doing precisely what it was designed to do in the first place?

We know the weapons are marketed for their military association. We have voluminous—omnipresent, in fact—examples of the National Rifle Association and other gun lobby groups pushing the value of the weapon in imaginary apocalyptic scenarios, highlighting in particular scenarios that might require killing large numbers of less-armed opponents. We have seen industry spokesmen and allied lawmakers specifically note the need for “patriots” to own weapons capable of fending off even the nation’s own government, if the government does something that a group of gun owners believes is worthy of a violent response.

We know that the industry has been lying brazenly about the effects of the weapons. It’s not even pretense at this point; the gun lobby lies religiously about the supposed “safety” of gun ownership, about gun violence statistics, about the behaviors of their customers, and about everything else. Like tobacco executives insisting that nobody could possibly have foreseen an epidemic of lung cancer tied to their products, the industry and its allies insist that the low rate of gun deaths among all other civilized nations is not a product of tighter laws, but the uniquely violence-prone nature of the American public.

Is marketing aimed at equating the ownership of one particular brand of rifle with patriotism, with military service, or with police service not intended specifically to coax Americans who already harbor violent fantasies of acting as pretend military or law enforcement heroes? Are we to believe that the National Rifle Association latched on to the rhetoric and imagined enemies of the far-right, white-nationalist militia movement as mere coincidence, as the industry pivoted to a new style of gun designed specifically for paramilitary use?

This is becoming close to a repeat of the tobacco industry fraud on the public, or of previous industry claims about the supposed safety of lead paint, leaded gas, or asbestos. Industry rhetoric is still taken at face value despite a plain history of the industry lying about each and every danger associated with their astonishingly lucrative new product.

The AR-15 is an offensive weapon marketed toward aspirational “good” mass shooters. It is marketed as “cooler” than other gun styles. More manly. More deadly. The weapon professionals use when going up against other armed humans. It soars in sales in proportion to news events that a specific subset of Americans believe “might” necessitate mass violence; it soars even more when actual mass violence proves the gun to be effective at mass violence.

Nobody’s confused about this. Americans know why they’re buying the guns.

Rittenhouse, later found not guilty based on claims of self-defense, explained during his trial why he chose an AR-15: “I thought it looked cool.” Rittenhouse could not be reached for comment.

The AR-15 was also especially alluring to the gunman who killed 10 Black people at a supermarket in Buffalo in May 2022.

“The AR-15 and its variants are very deadly when used properly,” he wrote in a manifesto filled with hateful vitriol. “Which is the reason I picked one.”

The story of the AR-15 in America is the story of an industry that seized on white nationalist and xenophobic fervor after 9/11, saw opportunity in the expiration of an assault weapons ban even as America entered a new era of polished, flag-waving militarism, and invented, out of all those things, an entirely new reason for gun ownership that premised itself specifically on a new supposed need for Americans to take paramilitary action against their neighbors, against outsiders, or against government itself.

This is not a need that was taken seriously until the gun industry, struggling from the decline of sport shooting and saturation of handgun markets, needed a new product to sell. It is not a need that was recognized by past generations. It was not one that police departments, even as fake police officers brandished industry products in slick magazine ads, believed Americans ought to have. It is not one that the military itself abides, as it enforces strict weapons safety protocols that absolutely forbid the showboating buffoonery that graces conservative lawmakers’ Christmas cards and which is now declared by civilian gun-toting malcontents as “necessary” to their freedoms.

The latest version of the Smith & Wesson “M&P 15” is now called the M&P Volunteer, notes the Post. It plays even more explicitly on militia themes of a “volunteer” military, or “volunteer” vigilantes that mimic the authority of trained professionals while leaving out the training and professionalism.

The gun is the movement, and the movement is the gun. Everything else is just marketing meant to deflect from the surge of mass violence that resulted when the gun industry looked out over the growing American militia movement and decided that paranoid private militarism was too lucrative a market to ignore.