Last week, Walmart announced it would stop carrying AR-15s and other semi-automatic rifles — not because of the notorious shooting sprees involving the guns, but because people simply weren’t buying them. “This is done solely on what customer demand was,” a company spokesman said of the decision.
Jeff Furlong, a custom gun shop owner who entered the industry in 1998 as an assembler at Bushmaster, suspects it was more complicated than that. “There’s still a huge demand for the AR-15 and other rifles in that category,” he tells The Trace. The AR-15 is known for being highly customizable and easy to doctor, while retaining its reliability and functionality. One Wired writer called the rifle the “personal computer” of the gun world, and Furlong says that for many people, it’s a waste of money to buy a standard model at Walmart when they have very specific customizations in mind.
“If you buy an AR-15 at Walmart, the problem is that you’re going to buy a complete rifle, and then you’re going to strip it down and take off all the stuff that’s basic and standard,” he says. “Then you’re either going to give that stuff away, throw it away, or put it in a box and never use it again. You’re paying for items that you’re not going to use, and then you’re going to go out and spend more money to buy all these accessories and put them on that rifle.”
It’s true with tennis players, cyclists, and gun owners — serious hobbyists tend to avoid big-box retailers, especially when they lack specialist equipment and in-house customization. “The AR-15 buyers that I know are a little more finicky,” Furlong says. He can rattle off a bevy of custom orders his clients have made, from professional shooters who request AR-15s with specific barrel twist rates, to men who ask for guns with pink grips and handguards as presents for their wives.
Even if you don’t order from a specialty shop, it’s easy to modify an AR-15 with limited technical experience. Furlong says their are hundreds if not thousands of companies offering specialty parts, and an overwhelming number of tutorials available online. It’s also cheaper.
Chris Waltz, president and CEO of AR-15 Gun Owners of America, agrees that there are cheaper alternatives to purchasing an AR-15 from a store like Walmart, but he doesn’t buy the company was struggling to offload its stock. “We don’t believe for a second that it was because of slumping sales,” he says. “We all know that the anti-gun front already had their hooks in Walmart.” Waltz says that the company carried guns at good prices from good retailers, including well-known brands like the Bravo Company and Smith & Wesson.
“It’s not like most AR-15 buyers are going to go down to Walmart and be like, ‘I need some cantaloupe, a bottle of soda, and an AR-15,’” says Furlong. “Customers will come here [to a custom shop], or they’ll build it themselves, because they know exactly what they want. They don’t want the rifle that everybody else has.”
[Photo: flickr user John McStravick]