The 1990s brought federal gun reform to the United States for the first time in 25 years, starting with the Brady Bill, which passed in 1993 after a seven-year slog through Congress. The foundational gun law required licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks nationwide for the first time.

But there were gaps in the law, one of which — the so-called gun show loophole — allowed the Columbine killers to get guns. Closing this loophole could have prevented the shooting, and a dedicated band of lawmakers in Congress tried repeatedly in the years before the massacre, but were thwarted by the gun lobby.

Meanwhile, the federal assault weapon ban, which passed a year after Brady and lasted a decade, prohibited the purchase of certain types of semiautomatic rifles. But it had the unintended consequence of making the guns more popular. Sales of AR-style rifles exploded after the election of the nation’s first Black president, and today they’re a unifying symbol of the far right. They’ve also been used in some of the deadliest shootings on record.

In the fourth episode of “Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust,” Wall Street Journal reporter Cameron McWhirter and former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman tell host Garrett Graff how a law intended to rid the streets of weapons designed for combat expired just in time for the War on Terror to rebrand the AR-15 as a gun that could protect America.

“Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust” is produced by Long Lead and Campside Media in collaboration with The Trace, and distributed by PRX. Listen and follow on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts.


Garrett Graff: A note for listeners: This episode contains descriptions of gun violence. Please take care while you listen.

Garrett Graff: In October 1997, one-time NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman found himself in an unlikely position. He was at a ceremony honoring that year’s top police officers in the White House Rose Garden, shaking hands with President Bill Clinton.

[Richard Feldman: Good morning. The American Shooting Sports Council is pleased to join you, Mr. President, and these esteemed police heroes being honored here today.]

Garrett Graff: They were announcing a new initiative — trigger locks for guns — intended to protect children from accidental death or injury.

[Richard Feldman: We believe devices which enhance safe storage can be useful in continuing to reduce child accidents.]

Garrett Graff: It was an unusual alliance. President Clinton had made gun regulation a key component of his 1992 presidential campaign and a top priority during his years in office. And he wasn’t exactly a friend of the NRA.

[President Bill Clinton: As is well-known, this administration and the gun industry from time to time have stood on different sides of various issues.]

Garrett Graff: But he saw this policy as a rare opportunity to find common ground with gun manufacturers, and the NRA, which had frequently touted its national gun safety program for elementary school kids, a campaign that featured a cartoonish mascot named Eddie Eagle.

[Eddie Eagle: If you see a gun, stop! Don’t touch. I’m Eddie Eagle and I like you so much. Please be safe. Go away. It’s a must. Go find an adult, someone you can trust. Go tell an adult, don’t hang around. Tell him what you saw, tell him what you found. Stop! Don’t touch…]

Garrett Graff: Clinton had already mandated that guns issued to all federal law enforcement officials be equipped with child safety locks. The administration now wanted to expand the policy so that all guns would be sold with a lock included. Used correctly, the devices would stop an unauthorized user from being able to fire the gun.

Richard Feldman: [You’re] not going to prevent a 15-year-old from using a hacksaw and getting at it, but it’s going to prevent an eight-, 10-year-old from doing it without mommy and daddy knowing about it.

Garrett Graff: You might remember Richard Feldman from the last episode, when he was one of the NRA’s most combative lobbyists of the 1980s, defending the subway vigilante Bernie Goetz and taking on New York Governor Mario Cuomo. In the 1990s, though, Feldman left the NRA and became the executive director of a different lobbying organization, representing not firearm owners, but the leaders of the firearms industry. Now he found himself talking to the Clinton administration about ways to make guns safer.

Richard Feldman: When the White House calls, as a lobbyist, I’m going to meet with them. Whether I agree, disagree, I’m going to meet with them.

Garrett Graff: Feldman considered the proposal and successfully pitched the idea to his board of directors.

Richard Feldman: I said, you know, there aren’t a lot of issues where we have lots of wiggle room, and we have an opportunity to be on the right side of this one. It’s nothing we oppose. We’re all for firearm safety.

Garrett Graff: Eight of the country’s largest handgun manufacturers volunteered to comply with the new safety proposal. It would apply to 80 percent of all guns sold in the country, a turning point for the nation and gun safety. One that could save hundreds of lives a year. That day in the Rose Garden was historic, and a proud moment for Feldman.

[Richard Feldman: By our being here today, we demonstrate that there are issues on which we can all agree and work together.]

Garrett Graff: But not long after the ceremony, he received a call from his former employer.

Richard Feldman: From NRA letting me know that they were furious and that I’d never work in this town again. Wayne LaPierre had a hissy fit, saying that we had given away the Second Amendment and the NRA would have to salvage it from this dastardly deed.

Garrett Graff: After all those years fighting for gun rights on behalf of the NRA, and then the gun industry, Feldman was deemed a traitor for compromising.

Richard Feldman: The worst thing you can say to a gun rights person is “He’s a compromiser.” Well, what’s wrong with that? We sometimes have to give an inch, but giving an inch here can mean gaining a couple of yards there.

Garrett Graff: Feldman was fired two years later, he says, in part, because of the trigger lock deal. But he doesn’t regret any of it.

Richard Feldman: I didn’t lose any sleep over it. I knew I was doing the right thing for the right reasons at the right time.

Garrett Graff: But the challenge of a voluntary deal is, well, it’s voluntary. A follow-up study by the Violence Policy Center a year later found that 16 of the 20 handgun manufacturers that promised to include safety devices with their guns didn’t. As for the four that did, well, three of them had already been supplying safety devices before the White House agreement was finished. Gun industry representatives disputed the report’s findings, but the appetite for federal action stalled. The industry had seen the deal as a cynical way to stall mandatory federal regulation. And it worked. As Bill Clinton’s presidency came to an end, the Violence Policy Center wrote, “Firearms manufacturers are virtually the last unregulated manufacturer of a consumer product in America, a status the industry is eager to preserve.” That 1997 moment in the Rose Garden was perhaps the high-water mark of a decade-long effort to turn a tide of gun violence that threatened to swamp America’s cities in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But it’s clear a quarter century later that the attempt to regulate guns in those years actually had the opposite effect: It turbocharged the gun industry and radicalized gun proponents for the 2000s. I’m Garrett Graff, and from Long Lead, PRX, and Campside Media — in collaboration with The Trace — this is season three of Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust. Episode Four: “The Right to Bear AR-15s.”

Garrett Graff: For 20 years, ever more guns had sloshed across the country. According to government statistics, there were 16 million handguns in the U.S. in 1960. But by 1989, according to the ATF, there were some 66 million handguns. That flood of guns — and a rising number of headline-grabbing mass shootings — had attracted the attention of lawmakers, the media, and law enforcement. The country’s cities seemed awash in gun violence. The Los Angeles Times found that in 1991, more than 8,000 people were killed or wounded by guns in Los Angeles County alone — a total, the paper noted, that was more than eight times larger than the total number of U.S. dead and wounded in the entire Gulf War. A total that included an increasing number of victims who were children. And that’s just one city. Nationally it seemed like another moment like the 1930s, when the country had acted decisively to end the gangster shootings of Machine Gun Kelly and Pretty Boy Floyd. Beyond the effort to install gun safety measures like trigger locks, the 1990s saw two landmark pieces of federal firearms legislation: the assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill.

Richard Feldman: During the 1990s, we were largely in a defensive posture. There was the Brady law, which I certainly worked against when I was at NRA.

Garrett Graff: The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, known as the Brady Bill, was passed in 1993, six years after it was first introduced. The law implemented a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases, a so-called “cooling off” period meant to limit crimes of passion and give the government time to run a background check. That waiting period would be in effect until 1998, long enough for the government to build a system where all federally licensed firearms dealers would be required to submit potential gun buyers to an instant criminal background check. The bill was named for former President Reagan’s beloved press secretary, Jim Brady. Remember, Brady was shot in an assassination attempt on the President in 1981. He was injured so badly that initial news accounts reported that he’d been killed.

[News clip: We just learned that Jim Brady has died. And we better just have a moment of prayer and silence for Jim Brady, who died.]

Garrett Graff: He survived but suffered brain damage and was paralyzed. When he died in 2014, his death was ruled a homicide stemming from the effects of the shooting. In the years following the attack, Brady’s wife Sarah became his biggest advocate. Notably, she hadn’t immediately become a gun safety advocate — in fact, it wasn’t until four years after her husband’s shooting that she decided to dedicate her life to the cause. As she later told the press, the incident that finally persuaded her to join the cause happened when her son, Scott was five years old.

[Sarah Brady (C-SPAN): We were visiting Jim’s family in Southern Illinois. And some friends came to pick Scott and me up and take us swimming. And Scott and I jumped into the pickup truck that belonged to the foreman of her company. And as we did, Scott picked up a gun off the seat.]

Garrett Graff: He turned around and pointed it at his mom. She chided him, thinking it was a toy, then realized with horror it wasn’t.

[Sarah Brady (C-SPAN): And as I took that gun from Scott, the cold reality hit me that it was a fully loaded .22 that my child had picked up. And how close again we came to another tragedy.]

Garrett Graff: It was, in fact, the same kind of cheap gun, a $29 so-called “Saturday Night Special,” that had been used to shoot her husband. Four years after her life had been changed by an assassin’s bullet, her own toddler had almost shot her by accident. The Bradys started working with a lobbying group called Handgun Control Inc., and fought for gun regulations. Handgun Control Inc. had nowhere near the budget or influence that the NRA had. They were forced to compromise much more often. And even though Jim Brady was a friend of the President, and had worked with him during both his campaign and presidency, Reagan did not support the Brady Bill until after his time in the White House. His successor, Reagan’s vice president George H.W. Bush, never supported the bill at all. But the Bradys were determined and driven by a sense of moral obligation. And by the early 1990s, Handgun Control Inc. and other pro-gun regulation groups were starting to gain ground and raise more money.

[Sarah Brady: Every year in this country, more than 40,000 Americans are killed with a firearm. Every two hours another child is killed with a firearm. And with each death, and each wound, another American dream, another American family is shattered. This must stop.]

Garrett Graff: On the national political landscape, crime was on the rise and Bill Clinton and Democrats in Congress rode to office with a tough-on-crime message. Guns were seen as a national problem. Handgun Control Inc’s message connected with the nation’s new mood and the man in the White House. The Brady Bill was finally a priority, and it was shepherded through Congress by the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Delaware Senator Joe Biden. When President Clinton finally signed the Brady Bill into law in 1993, Jim Brady spoke at the signing ceremony.

[Jim Brady: This is a very important day for me and for Sarah. What we are witnessing today is more than a bill-signing, it’s the end of unchecked madness and the commencement of a heartfelt crusade for a safer and saner country.]

Garrett Graff: It was a major milestone for gun reform, and it even won over some gun rights proponents.

Richard Feldman: I was against it until I really sat back and thought about the policy in the Brady Bill, and all of a sudden a lot of the policy made a lot of sense. Why would I want violent, predatory criminals, unsupervised juveniles, or dangerous, deranged individuals to be able to walk into one of my dealers and walk out with a functional firearm. Well, if we’re in agreement what in God’s name are we fighting about? We don’t have to give up our freedoms to better protect us as a society. It’s all doable.

Garrett Graff: But the law made some exceptions. Brady allowed gun sales to proceed if the government’s background check wasn’t completed within three business days. And background checks were not required at all for sales between private individuals — family, friends, or small-time dealers at gun shows. This would become known as the “gun-show loophole.” After the Brady Bill passed, some lawmakers in Congress would try for years to amend it and close the loopholes. One of them was future Illinois governor, Rod Blagojevich. That’s right, Blago.

[News clips: He was elected twice as a charismatic populist with a possible White House future, but any presidential aspirations came crashing to a halt 18 months ago when Rod Blagojevich was arrested and charged. / Blagojevich was accused of trying to trade or sell the then U.S. Senate seat held by Barack Obama. / After a trial and then a retrial he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.]

Garrett Graff: Blagojevich ultimately served more than seven years in prison before his sentence was commuted in 2020 by President Donald Trump. But earlier, throughout the 80s and 90s, Blagojevich first worked as a prosecutor, then as an Illinois state representative, before being elected to Congress. He said many of his constituencies were affected by gangs and gun violence.

[Governor Rod Blagojevich: The district I was a state rep in was all urban, Chicago, and the, uh, Congressional district that I would go on to represent for six years, that too was, uh, predominantly urban. And the neighborhood I grew up in had a lot of that as well. So, it was just a natural thing for me to get involved in. I gravitated to it immediately.]

Garrett Graff: Blagojevich knew that the gun show loophole was putting illegal guns on the streets of Chicago, and he wanted to close it. So, when he became a Congressman in 1997, he made that a priority. In May 1998, Blagojevich introduced an amendment to the Brady Bill, which would later be referred to as the Gun Show Accountability Act.

[Gov. Rod Blagojevich: Last year there were nearly 5,000 gun shows in America, where anyone can buy as many firearms as they want with no questions asked. That’s how a criminal in Florida with 16 felony convictions purchased firearms and killed four people in a one-day shooting spree. Last weekend in his national radio address, President Clinton announced a report confirming that gun shows are becoming a buyer’s mecca for criminals with over 56,000 illegal firearms transfers. Mr. Speaker, it’s time for Congress to act. There shouldn’t be a place anywhere in America where criminals can buy guns with no questions asked.]

[Gov. Rod Blagojevich: We pursued it and tried real hard to pass it and ran up against the usual frustrations that you get from the other side. … On the Republican side, of course, it’s the doing the bidding of the NRA and the special interest groups and not even trying to explain to their constituents who understandably have fears and concerns about what they call the “slippery slope.” You’re gonna prevent me from getting an assault weapon. Now, eventually, you’re going to come after my hunting rifle. This is their fear, and it’s real.]

Garrett Graff: The “other side” back then wasn’t just Republicans. Gun rights were a bipartisan issue. There were many rural and small-state Democrats who opposed gun regulations. Constituents in rural districts valued their guns, used for hunting and self-defense. When I was growing up in Vermont, I worked for then-Governor Howard Dean and on his 2004 populist presidential campaign. At the time, he was proud of his A rating from the NRA, which today would be considered a scarlet letter by Democratic voters. But in the 1990s, many lawmakers and political leaders on both sides thought their careers depended on the approval and support of the NRA.

[Gov. Rod Blagojevich: And that’s one of the reasons why you can never really pass anything because you had these, these Democratic members of Congress who sided with most of the Republicans opposing any kind of gun control legislation. And so you, you put it out there, you did the best, try to get co-sponsors and try to promote your legislation and then do all of those things, frankly, that you have to do to get things done — the wheeling and dealing that I went to prison for, which is routine politics and good government, if you do it for good. But it was stuck. And then we had the shooting at Columbine, and then it exploded, no pun intended, as an issue.]

[President Bill Clinton: There may have been a gun show sale involved here uh, depending on who bought it, we don’t know what the background check would have occurred. What we do know is that if all of these proposals were in place, they would save more lives, more places.]

Garrett Graff: The shooters at Columbine were minors when they were planning their attack. So they needed someone of legal age to buy the weapons they planned to use. They got a semi-automatic handgun with help from a co-worker. They also asked their friend Robyn, who was 18, for a favor. She said later that she thought they wanted the guns for hunting, so she didn’t think much of it. They could have gone to a local retailer, but then Robyn would have to go through a background check, thanks to the Brady Bill. Robyn didn’t want her name on any records, and the shooters didn’t want to purchase the guns from a licensed dealer. So instead they went to a gun show, where they could buy the guns through a private sale — no background check required. Robyn simply showed her driver’s license. She purchased three long guns in cash, and didn’t even get a receipt. Diane Sawyer later interviewed her about the incident during a Good Morning America special in 1999.

[Diane Sawyer: Anything you hear this morning [that would] have stopped you from accompanying them and help them buy the guns?]

[Robyn Anderson: Would’ve stopped me?]

[Diane Sawyer: Yes.]

[Robyn Anderson: From going with them?]

[Diane Sawyer: Yes.]

[Robyn Anderson: Um, I guess if it had been illegal. If I had known that it was illegal, I wouldn’t have gone.]

Garrett Graff: Robyn was not arrested or charged with a crime because technically she hadn’t broken the law. It wasn’t illegal in Colorado for an adult to give a rifle to a minor. If Blagojevich and others had succeeded in closing the loophole in the law before Robyn went to the gun show, maybe the Columbine shooters wouldn’t have been able to get their guns.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich: Did I feel vindicated? Did I feel angry? I didn’t feel vindicated. I felt angry and frustrated and disillusioned a little bit with the legislative process because, you know, here you have something that seems so basic and it’s stuck in gridlock because of politics. It was just another, you know, frustrating experience with the legislative process. But you never give up.

Garrett Graff: After Columbine, a similar policy was proposed in Congress, which would have required background checks on firearm sales at gun shows and flea markets. In the wake of the shooting, Americans begged lawmakers to act. And lawmakers begged their colleagues to put politics aside.

[Pres. Bill Clinton: We have all been sobered by what we have been through in these school shootings and the 13 children a day that die by gun violence in ones and twos and never make the evening news. This is too important an issue to be decided by strong-arm lobbying tactics in Washington. The heart and soul of America is on the line.]

[Congress member: Republicans, Democrats, we have to pass this amendment tomorrow. Show the American people that inside the Beltway, we actually can listen.]

[Congress member: I ask each member, Republican and Democrat, to search their conscience, to use common sense, to not listen to the political pressures, and to simply keep the highest and best interest of all of their constituents, and especially their children, in their heart and their mind as they cast this vote.]

Garrett Graff: The legislation made it through the Senate, but died in the House. Once again, Congress had failed to act. The 1990s were a period of particular struggle — as Congress weighed gun restrictions on the federal level and the NRA’s lobbyists worked to loosen gun laws at the state level. But, looking back now, it’s clear that the biggest impact were the unintended consequences, and, in particular, one federal effort to regulate guns that would, in fact, launch the gun industry to new heights. That’s after the break.

Garrett Graff: Behind Richard Feldman’s desk today at his home, there’s a gold statue of an Eagle hanging on the wall. There’s also a photo of President Reagan. Reagan’s dressed casually in a bright red shirt and khaki pants. And he has one eye shut as he peeks through the scope of a black AR-15-style rifle.

Richard Feldman: I didn’t have to give him much of a lesson. He knew how to shoot pretty well. Uh, but I was there when he fired it. My hearing’s never been quite the same.

Garrett Graff: Feldman can be seen smiling in the background as he watches the president shoot. The gun was a gift from Feldman and Colt, one of the gun companies Feldman worked with at the time. And the gun wasn’t just a gift, it was also a statement.

Richard Feldman: I gave him a Colt Sporter, which is an AR-15 clone gun, knowing full well that the AR-15 is sort of on the minds of so many people. And it looks evil and nasty and ugly and — unless you like it, in which case it looks beautiful and lovely and pretty. So, the beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.

Garrett Graff: But by 1994, a few years after his presidency, Reagan would become one of three former presidents to sign a letter to House members urging them to ban the domestic manufacture of AR-15s and other so-called assault weapons. The eventual passage of that 1994 legislation, known as the Assault Weapons Ban, marked the other major federal move during the Clinton years to rewrite our nation’s relationship with guns. Of course, today, the AR-15 is the nation’s most infamous weapon. It’s been used in half of the nation’s 10 deadliest mass shootings — including at Sandy Hook Elementary, a Las Vegas music festival, the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub, as well as Parkland High School, and a Dark Knight movie showing in Aurora, Colorado. So how did the AR-15 go from being banned to one of the best-selling rifles in American history? In the ‘90s, lawmakers had hoped the Assault Weapons Ban would turn the tide against criminals using high-powered military-style weapons — just as the National Firearms Act had brought to an end the era of the gangster shoot-out 60 years earlier. Most so-called assault weapons are what’s known as semi-automatic rifles, which means they shoot a single round at a time. But some can also be easily transformed into automatic weapons that can spray rounds of ammunition in a matter of seconds. As lawmakers pushed for the ban, they cited horrifying incidents of gun violence. Listeners of season two will remember the assassination of Denver talk radio host Alan Berg by the Neo-Nazi group The Order. He was gunned down in his driveway with a weapon known as a Mac-10, shot a dozen times in just seconds.

[Paul MacGregor (KOA): The only witnesses that we’ve heard of told police that they had heard uh tires scream about the time the shots were fired. There were a number of shots in rapid succession.]

Garrett Graff: There was a mass shooting on the Long Island Rail Road.

[Eyewitness News Anchor: A shooting rampage on an L I double R train, six people were killed and 19 others injured.]

Garrett Graff: Another at a law firm in California.

[KTVU Fox News: A profile is emerging tonight of the man police say carried out the worst massacre in San Francisco history.]

Garrett Graff: And the particular horror of a shooting in Stockton, California. It’s an incident now largely forgotten, but one that, until Columbine, ranked as the nation’s deadliest. On January 17, 1989, a gunman had entered the playground at Cleveland School in Stockton, armed with an AK-47 and more than 300 rounds of ammunition. He opened fire on 400 elementary school children during recess. Five kids between the ages of six and nine were killed, and 29 children injured, as well as one teacher. Senator Howard Metzenbaum expressed his horror during a 1989 Senate Hearing about the attack.

[Senator Howard Metzenbaum: I have to say, that was an unbelievable kind of incident — to walk into a schoolyard and mow down five little children who were not harming anyone just shocks imagination, shocks the conscience of all of us.]

Garrett Graff: That year, he proposed that guns like the AK-47, designed for war and favored by criminals, be strictly prohibited.

[Sen. Howard Metzenbaum: We know of only one instance in which this was used for hunting — when a psychopath in California went hunting schoolchildren. Today, AK-47s are flooding into the U.S. market. And who wants them? Hunters? Sportsman? No. More likely drug dealers.]

Garrett Graff: When President Clinton signed the assault weapons ban as part of his crime bill in 1994, the legislation had passed with bipartisan support. More than 50 Republicans had voted for it. It banned a specific set of guns, including the AK-47, the Uzi, the Tec-9, and the AR-15, which was the civilian version of the US Army’s main rifle, the M-16. It also banned large-capacity magazines and a broader category of weapons that had military-style characteristics, like bayonet mounts, folding or telescoping stocks, and, amazingly, grenade launchers. The ban though was far from ironclad. If you already owned any of the banned guns, you could keep them. And the law expressly named more than 650 other firearms that weren’t banned. Nevertheless, lawmakers and law enforcement officials hoped the nation had turned a corner. And, in some ways, perhaps it did — briefly. The legislation seemingly had a meaningful impact: A later study published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery found that mass shootings were statistically less likely to occur during the decade that the ban was in effect.

Garrett Graff: Looking back now, though, it’s clear that the Assault Weapons Ban backfired.

Richard Feldman: If the government announced tomorrow in six months we will end the sale of  television sets, there would be a run on TVs, there wouldn’t be a TV for sale in 24 hours. It’s the same in guns. If you’re going to ban something people say, why? Whatever it is, if they’re going to ban it, I guess I need to own it.

Garrett Graff: The law that was supposed to keep military weapons out of the hands of violent criminals, and make schools and workplaces safer, actually boosted sales and helped launch the biggest expansion of guns in American history.

Cameron McWhirter: The Assault Weapons Ban is still exalted by some elements of the gun control community to this day as if it was some great success. But it did very little to reduce the sales of AR-15s. And simultaneously it turned this gun into this political symbol, which it still remains to this day.

Garrett Graff: This is Cameron McWhirter, co-author of the book American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15.

Cameron McWhirter: So the gun became an object that, if you are an advocate of the Second Amendment, you had to own as a testament, even if you didn’t shoot it very often.

Garrett Graff: The AR-15, the gun that today more than any other embodies the nation’s divide over firearms, has had a long, winding history. Today the term AR-15 is commonly used to refer to a wider family of guns known as AR-15-style rifles. These are lightweight, rapid-fire rifles that use the gasses from a fired round to power the reloading of the next one, allowing a shooter to fire as fast as they can pull the trigger — or, in the fully automatic mode designed for the military, to shoot an entire magazine in one go simply by holding down the trigger. So when we talk about AR-15s in this episode, we’re usually referring broadly to AR-15-style rifles. The original AR-15 was simply the fifteenth gun designed by the research and development team at the gun manufacturer ArmaLite. While many wrongly assume that AR stands for “assault rifle,” it originally stood for either ArmaLite or ArmaLite Research. No one exactly remembers. The gun was the West’s answer in the Cold War to the Soviet-made AK-47. And it was used by U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War, a version known as the M-16. But the military’s hurried rollout of the M-16 created issues with the gun in the field.

Cameron McWhirter: The gun would jam when they were in combat, which was a real problem.

Garrett Graff: In their book American Gun, Cameron McWhirter and his co-author Zusha Elinson write about Vietnam veterans who were shaken by their experiences with the M-16 — American soldiers killed in action, found alongside disassembled rifles and cleaning rods. They spent their last moments trying to unjam their own gun.

Cameron McWhirter: And then, of course, we lost the Vietnam War, and so it had this stain of a lot of veterans did not like this rifle.

Garrett Graff: For a long time, the gun was also looked down upon by civilian gun buyers — hunters and sportsmen.

[Newsreel: Fire off a burst of 10 shots. Pull the bolt again, you’re reloaded!]

Cameron McWhirter: From the beginning of the ‘60s, they tried to sort of market a small niche rifle for hunting varmints, and it just never took on because people thought it was made of plastic. It wasn’t made of traditional wood. It shot a small caliber.

Garrett Graff: In fact, AR-15s were considered too easy to shoot. They didn’t require the skill of a traditional rifle or long gun. And, besides, if you’re a good hunter, what do you need a 30-round rapid-fire magazine for? You should be able to fell a deer with a single shot.

Cameron McWhirter: The gun just wasn’t popular at all, with one exception …

Garrett Graff: That exception happened to be members of a rising far-right movement, radicalized by the raids at Ruby Ridge and Waco — people who feared the government was plotting to disarm Americans. The gun figures prominently on the cover and in the story of The Turner Diaries, the race-war fan fiction novel that you may remember from last season that becomes a cult classic and inspiration to the far-right in the 1980s and 1990s. When Eugene Stoner, the man who designed the weapon known as the AR-15, died in 1997, his obituaries heralded him for inventing the M-16, and none of them even mentioned the civilian version of his gun — the now-infamous AR-15. Just four years later, though, the world changed.

[News clip: Jim, just a few moments ago, something, believed to be a plane, crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center.]

Cameron McWhirter: 9/11 happens. Our soldiers who use versions of M-16s, or M-4s, which are shorter versions of the same type of rifle, all headed off to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Garrett Graff: The new and improved AR-15 would become America’s rifle in the War on Terror. The updated version of the military rifle, known as the M-4, was the gun that American troops used to charge into Afghanistan after Osama bin Laden. And it was the gun they took with them in 2003 to capture Baghdad. And the guns started to show up more in daily life at home, too, as the National Guard and heavily armed police were stationed in the spaces that could be the next target for terrorism.

Cameron McWhirter: They’re standing at our railroads, they’re standing at our airports, they’re standing at our federal buildings, and they’re protecting us.

Garrett Graff: Through all that fear and uncertainty, the U.S. military, the police, and their AR-15s offered a sense of security and national pride.

Cameron McWhirter: And the gun really, it was revived as an American gun, as a gun that could protect America. It started to become a symbol. People were getting tattoos with the AR-15 silhouette on it as an American response to terrorism.

Garrett Graff: As it turned out, the assault weapons ban had left room for some styles of AR-15 to continue manufacturing. And, actually, the nation’s gun manufacturers had turned out even more AR-15s during the ban than before it. In the first three decades of the gun’s existence, they had made just 400,000 AR-15s. But from 1994 through 2004, they’d made nearly 900,000. And much of that came after 9/11. From 2001 to 2003, the nation’s production of AR-15s nearly doubled. As part of the effort to win Republican votes in the 1990s, the assault weapon ban had a fixed 10-year expiration date. In 2004, Congress had to vote to renew it. And, in that post-9/11 moment, with NRA friends George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in the White House, it was the NRA that felt the wind at its back, not gun safety advocates. The ban was finished.

Cameron McWhirter: They didn’t put up a massive fight to try to get the ban continued. Instead, it just sort of floats away, and the gun companies are there to immediately crank up production of the AR-15.

Garrett Graff: With a new untapped market suddenly available, gun manufacturers decided to capitalize on the weapon’s newfound symbolism. The truth of the matter is it’s hard to build a company around making guns only for the military. Militaries, outside of wartime, usually aren’t that big. And the size of the civilian market dwarfs anything the military could hope to buy. The industry rebranded the AR-15 and other similar weapons from modern hunting rifles into modern “sporting” rifles — a must-have accessory for American patriots and rugged sportsmen.

Cameron McWhirter: Some of these larger makers of the AR-15 really started to market the gun using sex appeal, uh, referring to guns as sort of macho devices that men had to have, that it was a manly thing to have. They started advertising in magazines like Maxim, which was sort of for young bros, you know, offering this gun as, they literally stated in one ad, as a way to get your man card back. You know, get your man card, be a man.

Garrett Graff: Everything that makes the gun suitable for soldiers also makes it appealing to the average Joe.

Cameron McWhirter: This is one of the easiest guns in the world to shoot. So lots of men started to buy them. So there’s this massive production of the AR-15, prices drop and it’s ubiquitous. Now, if you go to a gun shop, you can find an AR-15.

[Video clip: Behind me are four machines that are all performing the same basic function. We’re taking our block of aluminum here, and it’s turning it into what we’d recognize as an AR-15 lower. But they’re going, again, 24/7, never stopping, only stopping to adjust cooling, those sorts of things.]

Garrett Graff: For many shooters, the AR-15 is a lot of fun, particularly for a generation raised on first-person shooter video games. Because of the gun’s design, it has surprisingly little recoil, making it easy for novices and casual shooters to master. And the gun is perfect for hobbyists. You can accessorize to your heart’s content: different colors, different scopes, different stocks, different pistol grips, laser sights, flashlights, and more. And the lightweight, easy-to-use design makes for a particularly enjoyable shooting experience — one, though, that comes with a particularly powerful and deadly round, a high-velocity bullet specifically designed to kill humans on the battlefield. Ironically, the gun industry itself had long looked down on AR-15 owners. Industry insiders called them “couch commandos,” and they laughed at hunters who showed up in the field with an AR-15. Now though, these very same people had become a target consumer. And there was another change taking place that was just as important for transforming the AR-15 into America’s favorite gun. Wall Street noticed how profitable the AR-15 was turning out to be, and a private equity group called Cerberus put in a surprise bid for the gun manufacturer Bushmaster in 2005. It was the first step to modernizing and growing what had long been basically a family business in America. Cerberus and new Wall Street private equity owners of gunmakers also got an important piece of help from the Bush administration. In 2005, President Bush signed into law another piece of legislation known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (“PLCAA”). The bill gave the gun industry broad immunity from civil liability lawsuits, one of the most basic tools consumer advocates and regulators use to force corporate accountability — to be responsible corporate citizens, make safe products, and market truthfully. It freed the gun industry from the chance of costly threatening lawsuits like those that had forced the tobacco industry to stop marketing to kids. In other words, the gun industry was now able to draw a line between its products and what people did with them. However a customer might use a gun wasn’t their legal problem anymore. We’ll talk more about PLCAA in a future episode. Freed from concerns about product liability and feeling a new profitable opportunity, gun manufacturers turbocharge production. By 2008, AR-15s represented one out of every 10 guns sold in the country. And then came Barack Obama.

Cameron McWhirter: He was very cautious about what he said at the time, but it didn’t matter because the NRA was screaming at the top of its lungs: This guy’s coming for your guns.

[Newsreel: Their warning includes a ban on the use of firearms to defend yourself in your own home and closing 90 percent of the gun shops in America. That’s what the NRA said Barack Obama would do if he were elected president. / Where is this guy from? He’s probably never been hunting a day in his life. On November 4, defend freedom. Defeat Obama. / A victory on election day by Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would embolden enemies of freedom and every other fearmongering, gun-hating, big government extremist in Congress will come at us with every gun ban, gun tax, and anti-gun scheme they can think of.]

Garrett Graff: The NRA spent 15 million dollars on ads targeting Obama’s presidential campaign. In November 2008, after Barack Obama’s election, the nation saw more FBI background checks for gun purchases than in any month in modern history.

Cameron McWhirter: And so there was a period in the lead-up to Obama becoming president and the early period of him taking office that was known as the Barack Boom, in which gun sales, particularly AR-15 sales, went crazy. It was unprecedented growth.

Garrett Graff: The AR-15 became so popular that gun makers who had long avoided making their own versions couldn’t pass them up any longer. As part of the Barack Boom, Ruger launched its first AR-15, and Colt, which had long made the military version, but avoided making a civilian gun, changed its mind too. The company estimated it might make $100 million a year in new revenue marketing a civilian version of the gun. Along the way, the type of person buying a gun, and why they bought the gun, changed: A survey of AR owners showed that almost all of them were male, very few had military or law enforcement experience, and they were also wealthier than other gun owners. And owning a gun was no longer about hunting. The top three reasons they purchased an AR-15? Number one: target shooting. Number two: home defense. And number three: collecting. Notably, in 2010, 80 percent had purchased their first AR-15 since 2008, when Barack Obama was elected. A Rubicon had been crossed. The gun marketing worked. America — or at least a certain slice of America — now saw the AR-15 as the ultimate gun. And they were a political statement.

Cameron McWhirter: The AR-15 has become a device that today is now almost an anti-government symbol for the gun rights movement, when it was created by a guy who wanted to help his government. He thought he was helping the U.S. military, and its allies.

Garrett Graff: And it would be used in ways its inventor could never have imagined…Not just against America’s enemies but also at home, against the nation’s very own civilians. Its school kids, office workers, and worship-goers.

McWhirter: Eugene Stoner died in the ‘90s. He didn’t see what his gun has become, but he would not have wanted any of this at all. … Every time there’s a mass shooting, his daughter is waiting with dread to see whether it’s going to be an AR-15 or an AR-10. And it is really something that has haunted them.

Garrett Graff: Next time on Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust.

Jennifer Mascia: The NRA and the gun industry that was producing these weapons put the message out there that you’re not safe unless you have a gun. It’s no big deal. Guns are dangerous but it’s all right. Anybody can have one.

[Clip: If I don’t want to be thirsty, I drink water. If I don’t want to be hungry, I eat food. And if I don’t want my family attacked or murdered, I own a gun.]

Jennifer Mascia: Guns have reshaped American society. Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t think twice about going to a parade. We didn’t worry when we were going to the mall or sitting in a movie theater. Things have really changed.

[Sandy Phillips: We talk about Uvalde Strong, Las Vegas Strong, Aurora Strong, you know we have all these “strong, strong, strong” which I absolutely hate because what it says to those who are directly affected is “pick yourself up by your bootstraps. You know, you’re broken!]

Long Shadow: In Guns We Trust is produced by Long Lead and Campside Media in collaboration with The Trace, and distributed by PRX.

This series is hosted and reported by me, Garrett Graff. It was created by myself and executive producer John Patrick Pullen, of Long Lead.

Jennifer Mascia of The Trace, a nonprofit newsroom that covers guns in America, is my co-reporter and a contributing producer for this season.

The show is written by Emily Martinez. Aleah Papes is the associate producer and a contributing writer as well. Matthew Shaer and Emily Martinez also served as executive producers on this season.

Our theme song was composed by Netta Hadari. Sound design by Claire Mullen. Additional engineering by Yi-Wen Lai-Tremewan. Music by Blue Dot Sessions and APM.

This series was recorded by Joe Egan at Egan Media Productions.

Fact-checking by Emily Barone and Sarah Baum. Audience development by Heather Muse. Cover art by Long Lead’s creative director, Sarah Rogers. Special thanks to Lindsey Kilbride, Ashleyanne Krigbaum, and Jennifer Bassett who consulted on the podcast.

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Thanks for listening.