Gun debate 101: Is the AR-15 as popular as the iPod?

The commando-style rifle, used in the Sandy Hook shootings, is now the most popular gun in America. Anticipating new gun-control measures, consumers are depleting stocks and driving up prices.

Joshua Lott/Reuters/File
Brandon Smith poses with his AR-15 rifle during a pro-gun and Second Amendment protest outside the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix on Jan 19. Gun rights activists held 'high noon' rallies across the United States to defend the right to own firearms, which they say is being threatened by President Obama's gun-control proposals.

FBI background check data released Wednesday suggests that America's great run on guns continues nearly unabated, as another 2.5 million guns flew off the racks amid manufacturer struggles to keep up with demand.

The most popular and hard-to-find weapon on American shopping lists? Undoubtedly the assault-style rifle, specifically the frame known as the Armalite Rifle-15, or AR-15, the same model used by Adam Lanza during his deadly rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. "The most wanted gun in America," The New York Times intoned in a headline over the weekend, documenting a national obsession with the commando-style rifles.

The main reason gun buyers are lining up, of course, are concerns that Congress will ban the weapons, as many states already have. The result is that stores like Walmart are frequently running out of stock, and many buyers are turning to gun shows to find used versions, at prices that have doubled, sometimes tripled, since the Newtown massacre.

What is the AR-15, and what makes it special?

The AR-15 is a semiautomatic civilian version of an M-16 military machine gun. It is not a true assault weapon, since it can't fire continuously. It's extremely accurate at 200 yards and easy to modify, and thus has many uses, ranging from coyote hunting to hobby shooting at ranges. Its short barrel and modified stock makes it easy to maneuver in tight places, making it a popular home defense weapon as well. A variety of gun companies make their own versions of the basic frame, and quality and price fluctuate from company to company. 

How many assault-style weapons are in circulation in the US?

Gun manufacturers don't break sales down by product, so it's hard to know exactly. But a solid back-of-the-envelope estimate developed by Slate's Justin Peters suggests that there are about 3.75 million AR-15-style weapons in circulation today, with companies like Sturm-Ruger & Co. Inc., headquartered in Southport, Conn., producing perhaps 200,000 of them a year for sale in the US.

As popular as the iPod, though?

Maybe not quite. With 310 million firearms in circulation, AR-15s make up barely more than 1 percent of the total. But given that stores are struggling to keep the weapons in stock, acknowledging the 2.48 million background checks in January (an increase of more than 50 percent since 2007 monthly averages), and noting that Apple sold 5.3 million iPods in the last quarter of 2012, it's not hard to extrapolate the AR-15's immense popularity as a consumer good. And, like iPods, the guns are not cheap: An AR-15 usually costs between $600 and $1,000 but are often selling upwards of $2,000 lately.

Who likes the AR-15?

Given the high prices and anecdotal evidence, the prime buyers of AR-15s are middle-aged to older Americans, mostly men, who have been the main targets of a savvy industry marketing campaign touting the rifle's military bona fides. But when you look at broader societal support for AR-15s, another dynamic emerges.

According to a recent Reason-Rupe poll, 70 percent of people between the age of 18 and 24 said Americans should be allowed to own AR-15s and other assault-style weapons. Meanwhile, 58 percent of older Americans told the pollsters that such weapons should be banned.

Is the AR-15 buying spree tapering off?

Yes, but not because demand has decreased, experts say. Depleted stocks and growing back-order lists result in fewer sales. The 2.78 million background checks for all makes of guns in December were a 12-month peak, the AP reports, and the 2.48 million checks in January were still higher than any month except December last year.

“You can’t do a background check if a guy doesn’t have a gun to buy," Mike Fotia, manager at Duke’s Sport Shop in New Castle, Pa., told the wire service. “There’s nothing to buy.”

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