Would Lee Harvey Oswald Have Used an AR-15?
How advertisers took a shunned weapon and turned it into the symbol of American patriotism
Now, let’s just calm down. It’s a rhetorical question on a number of levels. Most notably, it would have been nearly impossible for Oswald to gain access to this type of firearm … but just nearly. A couple of days before Thanksgiving I finished reading American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15 by Cameron McWhirter and Zusha Elinson. In the not too distant future, I'll have a book notes post on it. Honestly, it'll likely be two posts because that book is a doozy.
Colt acquired the rights to distribute Stoners design for the AR-15 in the late fifties, but didn’t get it to market until 1964, several months after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. However, it was not a popular item amongst gun users, enthusiasts, or collectors even after it entered the market. In fact, it would be nearly thirty years later before the AR-15 would move from something only survivalists and the rarest of collectors purchased to one of the most sought after guns in the market.
In the 80’s there were a number of smaller companies manufacturing the weapon. As a kid going to gun shows with my grandfather, the semi-automatic dealers were always in the back of the hall, or some remote location out of view of the other dealers. That’s where you’d find me sporting a camo t-shirt and Karate Kid-style headband. I would seek them out because that's where I found the stuff I was interested, illegal switchblades, balisongs, and throwing stars.
Now, if scouting through a table full of tools that could help you up your ninja game wasn’t your thing, they leaned on something else to lure in young lads. When traditional gun owners shunned the AR, advertisers thought they might solve their sales problem with Pinup style photoshoots of scantily clad females holding military grade armaments, because of course they did. Tactic number one to increase sales, sex.
This one I remember seeing often. It was quite popular in some of the deer and duck camps I frequented in my youth, not to mention, it originates from my hometown of El Dorado, AR. Later in life I found myself standing in their headquarters, having recently purchased a building that the firm occupied. While moving out they forgot a couple pallets of these things. Different photos, same sales pitch. The stacks of posters were four feet high and they sold like hotcakes.
Sex sells, but only so well. Sales of the weapon would really take off in the early 90’s as soon as they had a clear and present danger, the federal government, and Diane Feinstein in particular. The federal assault weapons ban did more for the promotion of AR sales than it did to slow the spread the sale of semi-automatic weapons to the general public. The legislation became a badge for manufacturers, and owners of pre-ban weapons saw the values of their arsenal skyrocket. With an active adversary, gun advertising companies moved added fear to their creative briefs. However, sex was only a distant second.
In 2010 Bushmaster put out this remarkable piece. I guess they got tired of bikinis and gun oil and decided calling out Incels was a better marketing technique. Ads like this could be found throughout the early 00’s in lifestyle magazines targeting men in their teens - thirties. The fact that men didn’t find this offensive is baffling. The technique, it actually worked.
Post assault weapons ban, “They’re gonna take our guns!” Became a rallying cry of advertisers and gun sales promoters like the National Rifle Association (NRA). Ratings were given to politicians, and if an anti-assault rifle candidate was leading in the polls, they became a reason to buy guns and ammunition. Sales for AR’s went through the roof. Gun legislation and school shootings became PR opportunities to boost sales. There was only one problem, they were about to get what they were asking for, George W. Bush and his promise to end the prohibition enacted by the former administration.
Nothing is more American than the right to bear arms. Once Bush was in office, sales slumped, but the AR had found its place as a symbol of American freedom. Who wouldn’t want to run into their daughter’s AR-15 strapped high school history teacher at the local grocery store? They are obviously a true patriot with their red, white, and blue rifle.
Freedom, fear, and sex are now on full tilt. Any reasoning the opposition side comes up with to alter current gun sales trajectory is also a reason to buy more guns. Parkland, Newtown, Uvalde all resulted in a spike in gun sales and ammunition. The AR-15 symbol can be found on everything from American flags to women’s underwear. With so much going for them, somehow it wasn’t quite enough money. They needed more market share and higher sales. So, they jumped on the next major movement in advertising.
In 2015, we were introduced to a new type of advertising spearheaded by the soon to be next President of the United States, trolling. What do you do when you’ve already tapped the nerve of your market’s basest desires? You turn the camera around. Already own an AR-15? Why not buy three more for your wife and two elementary age children? Put it on your Christmas card and send it to your liberal friends. Want to run for office? How much metal can you spray in a thirty second spot on Newsmax? So, you’ve got .223 Remington and a 45mm AR, but how about one that shoots shotgun shells? Yes, that’s a real thing.
Out of the gun advertisers quartet (sex, fear, freedom, and trolling) I find this last iteration the scariest because it’s not about a need to be desired by the opposite sex. It’s not a reaction to a potential loss of assets, or banning of a product that you desire to own. It’s not even about expressing the freedoms you feel are due to you based on a 200 year old document. It’s about causing pain and harm to others, and when you tie that logic to some of the recent incidents like January 6th, 2021, you’ve got a powder keg waiting to blow.
What gun manufacturers have been selling for the past forty years is a feeling. They want you to know that with their weapons you will be liked, respected, feared, and in control of your own destiny. None of these things are true. These lies have been packaged and sold in the form of a machine that brings death and it is spiraling out of control. However, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Now, let’s fast-forward to 2024.
Over the last six weeks there has been a growing movement in the conservative, right-wing, nationalist side of the web in support of the decision by Texas to defend its border. This is in direct violation of federal law. I saw the movement spill into the mainstream last week. If the AR-15 is not directly mentioned, it’s likely part of the MEME that accompanies the post.
When does trolling become reality? How much money do gun manufacturers need to make before they toss us headlong into an historical turmoil? Have we already leapt off the bridge? I’m no fan of the AR-15. It is a weapon designed to spray as much metal into the air as possible without worrying too much about aiming. It’s the antithesis of the firearms I grew up with, which required precision and care. If guns are tools, which I believe they are, the purpose of this one is clear, devistation.
Lee Harvey Oswald of the early sixties would have balked at such a ridiculous weapon that is clearly designed for people that don’t know much about firearms. However, if he was alive today, I’m not so sure. If he had used that weapon on November 22, 1963, our relationship with it today would be quite different. Of that I have no doubt.