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A Hot-Selling Weapon, an Inviting Target

June 3, 2007
A Hot-Selling Weapon, an Inviting Target
LAST February, Jim Zumbo, a burly, 66-year-old outdoors writer, got a phone call at his home near Cody, Wyo., from the rock star â€" and outspoken Second Amendment champion â€" Ted Nugent. “You messed up, man,†Mr. Zumbo says Mr. Nugent told him. “Big time.â€

Two days earlier, Mr. Zumbo, a leading hunting journalist, outraged Mr. Nugent and many other gun owners when he suggested in a blog post that increasingly popular semiautomatic guns known as “black rifles†be banned from hunting. Mr. Zumbo, stunned that hunters were using the rifles for sport, also suggested giving the guns, prized for their matte black metal finishes, molded plastic parts and combat-ready looks, a new name: “terrorist rifles.â€

Gun enthusiasts’ backlash against Mr. Zumbo was swift. He parted company with his employer, Outdoor Life magazine. Mr. Zumbo says on his Web site that he was “terminatedâ€; the magazine says that it and Mr. Zumbo agreed that he would resign.

But a week after hearing from Mr. Nugent, who has a devoted following among gun owners, Mr. Zumbo visited him in Waco, Tex., to make amends. For his part, Mr. Nugent was prepared to give Mr. Zumbo a lesson on the utility and ubiquity of black rifles.

“These guns are everywhere,†Mr. Nugent explained excitedly in a recent phone interview. “I personally don’t know anybody who doesn’t have two in his truck.â€

Despite their menacing appearance â€" and in some cases, because of it â€" black rifles are now the guns of choice for many hunters, target shooters and would-be home defenders. Owners praise their accuracy, ease of use and versatility, as well as their potential to be customized with an array of gadgets. While the gun industry’s overall sales have plateaued and its profits have faded over the last decade, black rifles are selling briskly, says Eric Wold, an analyst in New York for Merriman Curhan Ford.

Moreover, manufacturers say, for every dollar spent on black rifles, gun buyers spend at least another customizing the guns from an arsenal of accessories. All of this has combined to make black rifles a lone bright spot for long-suffering American gunsmiths.

Yet Mr. Zumbo is not alone in finding the popularity of black rifles and the trade in them to be disquieting.

Gun-control advocates say black rifles are simply assault weapons under a different name â€" and just as dangerous as they were when Congress instituted a ban on some of them in 1994. The ban did not eliminate black rifles; manufacturers were able to make minor changes to comply with the law and kept selling them. (The ban expired in 2004.)

“What you have are guns essentially designed for close combat,†says Dennis Hennigan, legal director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, who notes that a Beretta black rifle was among the weapons obtained by men suspected of plotting a terrorist attack on Fort Dix, N.J. “If your mission is to kill a lot of people very quickly, they’re very well suited for that task.â€

But efforts to ban black rifles seem to have only fueled their rise, analysts say. And while some major gun makers were reluctant to defy the spirit of the 1994 ban, dozens of small companies emerged, and their sales surged. (It didn’t hurt that many gun owners feared greater restrictions down the road, a fear that manufacturers were more than willing to exploit.)

“Whenever there’s a push like this, business increases as people buy a firearm while they can,†says Mark Westrom, president of ArmaLite Inc., a maker of black rifles in Geneseo, Ill. “If you want to sell something to Americans, just tell them they can’t have it.â€

EVEN as politicians debate increased gun regulation in the wake of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in April, gun control advocates say they are pessimistic about the chances of reining in black rifles. Illinois legislators who were trying to pass a statewide assault-weapons ban this spring ran into fierce opposition from Mr. Westrom and several other makers of semiautomatics who argued that the proposed law would cost the state jobs and hurt the economy. (The measure is still under consideration.)

The most popular black rifle has been in production since the early 1960s. In response to the Army’s need for a lightweight infantry rifle, ArmaLite had developed the AR-15, which could switch between semiautomatic (only one round per pull of the trigger) and fully automatic firing (continuous firing when the trigger is pulled). The Colt Firearms Company bought the rights to the gun and the military soon adopted it, calling it the M-16. From Vietnam through the Persian Gulf war, the M-16 was the most common combat weapon, and it remains in use by many American forces.

Because of restrictions on the sale of automatic weapons, civilians could buy the AR-15 only in a semiautomatic version. But in the 1980s, Colt drew unwanted attention when it was discovered that the gun, which had begun showing up in the arsenals of drug dealers, mobsters and antigovernment militias, could be easily converted to an automatic.

Colt redesigned the weapon to make converting it much more difficult, but when Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the AR-15 was banned alongside the AK-47, the TEC-9 and 16 other semiautomatic weapons. The act also prohibited semiautomatics that could accept detachable magazines from having more than one of five generic features that were believed to increase the likelihood that the gun would be used in a crime. The National Rifle Association lobbied hard against the bill, but many hunters agreed with the premise that assault weapons were of little use in their sport.

“These killing machines are the weapon of choice of drug traffickers, violent youth gangs and the seriously deranged bent on revenge through mass murder,†Senator Charles E. Schumer, then a House member from New York who was one of the bill’s champions, said in April 1994. “They have no place in our society.â€

But if the spirit of the law was a blow to black rifles, the letter of it allowed them to live on and thrive. Colt focused on supplying weapons to the military and law enforcement. But competitors were already copying the rifle, since the original patents granted to ArmaLite had expired. All they had to do was rejigger their designs to reduce the number of offending features.

Demand for black rifles, meanwhile, began to grow. A new generation of hunters, many of whom had fired M-16s in the military, adopted them for shooting predators on rural property and stalking small game. The .223-caliber ammunition they used was inexpensive and easily found. The guns began to get a reputation for being durable despite their light weight; they also loaded automatically (unlike bolt-action hunting rifles) and their recoil was gentle enough for even novice shooters and children to withstand. Once the AR-15 was deemed accurate enough for use in high-powered rifle competitions, it soon became standard issue for target shooters.

And with the basic design of black rifles open to industrywide adaptations, gun makers began adding their own innovations and accessories to refine and improve the AR-15’s performance. By 2004, when the assault weapons ban expired, black rifles had emerged as a major category in firearms. But while Colt’s sales had shrunk in the intervening years, output exploded for black-rifle specialists like Bushmaster, Rock River Arms and DPMS.

“The little guys perfected the platform,†says Michael Bane, a gun blogger and writer who is the host of “Shooting Gallery,†a program on the Outdoor Channel on cable television. “They had the 10 years of the ban to get their chops down.â€

But for most of those 10 years, these small manufacturers managed to fly under the radar of many gun owners, including Mr. Zumbo, a self-described traditionalist who says he had seen only one black rifle during a lifetime of hunting. “I had absolutely zero idea of the number of people who are into these types of firearms,†he says.

Not so for Mr. Nugent, who stocked up on black rifles before the ban took effect and estimates that he now owns about two dozen. If the boom in black rifles began in spite of the federal assault weapons ban, it has accelerated only in the two and a half years since the ban expired. Manufacturers have been freed to revive once-prohibited features like collapsible stocks, flash suppressors and large-capacity magazines.

Analysts say that images from the Iraq war showing American soldiers armed with black rifles have also helped sales, as have concerns about domestic safety after Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina. “People on the street want to use what the people in the military and law enforcement are using,†says Amit Dayal, an analyst at Rodman & Renshaw in New York.

Based only on the volume of accessories sold â€" such as high-powered scopes and flashlights â€" Mr. Bane estimates that as many as 750,000 black rifles, including about 400,000 AR-15s, change hands each year. Brownells, a company in Montezuma, Iowa, a big seller of firearms parts and accessories, says AR-15 gear has become its best-selling product category.

Because all but a few gun manufacturers are closely held private companies, overall sales figures for the black rifle industry are hard to come by. But companies are required to report their overall rifle production to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and based on that, many of the small manufacturers that have specialized in the guns are “on the verge of being big,†Mr. Bane says. One, Stag Arms of New Britain, Conn., opened in 2004 and is already producing 2,500 to 3,000 black rifles a month, according to the president and owner, Mark Malkowski. That would be 30,000 to 36,000 a year, roughly the same number that Colt was producing in the late 1990s.

Buoyant demand has enticed a number of established gunsmiths into the market, too. Smith & Wesson, known for its revolvers, has made black rifles a strategic priority in its turnaround. It introduced its first model in early 2006. It was so popular that the company had to supplement manufacturing of the gun, which had been outsourced, just to meet consumer demand.

“It’s our hope that we would be the share leader in the category,†says Leland A. Nichols, Smith & Wesson’s chief operating officer. He said that in the company’s own surveys of consumers, its brand outpolled all other black rifle makers before it even had a product on the market.

A similar story is unfolding at the Remington Arms Company, long one of the strongest brands in hunting rifles. The company started its first line of black rifles earlier this year. In April, Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity firm that recently made a deal to buy Chrysler, agreed to acquire Remington for $370 million, adding it to the gun maker Bushmaster in the fund’s portfolio and raising the possibility of collaboration between the two companies.

“A month ago black guns were not a business opportunity,†says Al Russo, a spokesman for Remington, citing the growth potential that the Cerberus deal offers. “Now they are.â€

Despite their popularity, black rifles remain a target for advocates of gun control. Seven states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as several major cities, including New York and Chicago, have enacted bans on certain firearms they have deemed assault weapons, including some black rifles.

In February, Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat, introduced a renewal of the federal ban on assault weapons that would greatly expand the measure. But few expect the bill to gain any traction.

“It’s highly unlikely that any legislation to move an assault weapons ban is going to happen,†says Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Violence Policy Center, a gun-control lobbying group. “That’s the sad reality on the Hill right now.â€

MS. RAND says it is hard to know how often black rifles are used in crime, because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has not reported such statistics to the public since 2001. But based on anecdotal evidence, Ms. Rand says, criminals are favoring imported semiautomatics like AK-47s and SKS rifles, which are cheaper to obtain than AR-15s.

“We were never claiming that every buyer of an assault weapon is a criminal or is a potential mass killer,†says Mr. Hennigan of the Brady Center. “But the consumers of the assault weapons are going to include a higher percentage of violent criminals than other guns.â€

Gun rights advocates scoff, saying that a .223-caliber bullet that comes out of a black rifle is the same as one fired from other guns. Mr. Nugent scoffs as well.

“It’s just a neat tool,†he says. “Black rifles are cool. Case closed. The more the better.â€

Mr. Zumbo, chastened by the outcry that his black-rifle comments set off, says he hopes to resume writing about hunting and to revive his popular cable television show, which was put on hiatus when it lost sponsors after the blog post. He says his time at Mr. Nugent’s ranch reminded him that gun owners have to reject banning any firearm, lest it open the door to banning them all. He also says that, like it or not, black rifles e now mainstream.

“Having met the people who shoot these things, they were regular folks; they weren’t sinister people who were bent on causing harm, they weren’t hostile people,†he says. “They were interested in the guns because they were fun to shoot.â€
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