Early Sunday morning, Omar Mateen used a Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic rifle to murder 49 people and wound 53 more at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The Sig MCX, described by its manufacturer as a “groundbreaking tactical rifle” and “the first true mission-adaptable weapon system,” was introduced to the civilian market in 2015. Reviewing the gun for the website the Truth About Guns, Nick Leghorn led by noting that Sig Sauer “developed the MCX rifle for America’s special forces. Their goal: a firearm that’s as quiet as an MP5, as deadly as an AK-47, and more modular than anything ever designed.” In a review for Gun Digest, Drew Warden wrote that the MCX “was built to be a compact and lightweight, close-quarters battle (CQB) suppressed rifle.”
In appearance and in spirit, the MCX is a battle weapon. In gun industry parlance, however, the MCX is a “modern sporting rifle.” So, too, are the AR-15–style rifles—manufactured by DPMS and Smith & Wesson, respectively—that Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik used when they shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in December; the Bushmaster AR-15–style rifle used by Adam Lanza when he murdered 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012; and the Smith & Wesson AR-15 variant that James Holmes used, along with other weapons, to kill 12 in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012. The term modern sporting rifle, evoking outdoorsy competition and good, clean fun, sounds incongruous when applied to weapons like these, unless you are prepared to argue that man is the most dangerous game. So what in the world is a modern sporting rifle? And why is the term used to refer to weapons such as the Sig MCX and the AR-15?
Modern sporting rifle is a euphemism that the gun industry created in 2009 to describe modular semi-automatic rifles. The phrase is an artful attempt to recast weapons such as the MCX and the AR-15 (and its variants) as all-American toys. Never mind “quiet and deadly” and “close-quarters battle”: Modern sporting rifle conjures up images of aristocrats riding with their hounds, vacationers knocking clays out of the sky, and ruddy-faced athletes enjoying their autumns in Carhartt jackets and mud-spattered ATVs. The term is a genius act of marketing, meant to bring these deadly weapons into the mainstream and keep them there. It’s also disingenuous hokum that exists to cloud debate, like calling a used car “pre-owned.”
The AR-15–style rifle is the best-known modern sporting rifle. It has been around since the late 1950s, when the ArmaLite Corporation first developed the AR-15 as a civilian version of the M16 automatic rifle. (Today, the trademark for AR-15 is held by Colt. The term AR-15–style rifle refers to the weapon’s countless variants.) From 1994 to 2004, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban prohibited the sale of the Colt AR-15 and other AR-15 variants. When the ban expired, AR-15s went back on the U.S. market and have been a great boon to the firearms industry ever since.
(It’s important to note that the Sig MCX is not technically an AR-15 variant. The guts of the Sig MCX are different from those of the standard AR-15 platform—Sean Utley at Tactical Life writes that the Sig MCX uses a gas piston system to cycle the action, whereas the standard AR-15 uses direct impingement. But the Sig MCX shares parts and design elements in common with AR-15–style rifles. The two might not technically be related, but they are certainly neighbors, and both fall comfortably into the modern sporting rifle category.)
AR-15–style rifles are popular with shooters because they are reliable, simple, cool-looking, and easily customized. (In its 2015 annual report, Remington Outdoor Company, the nation’s leading manufacturer of modern sporting rifles, noted that sales of “component systems and parts often [yield] higher margins than complete rifles.”) In 2012, I estimated that there were about 3.75 million AR-15–style rifles in existence in the United States, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that figure has tripled since then. Though some gunmakers have seen a recent decline in modern sporting rifle sales, in its 2015 annual report Remington reported that “[m]arket demand for modern sporting rifles (‘MSR’s) has seen growth in the opening price point segments,” and noted that while its net firearms sales declined by 11 percent in 2015, sales of modern sporting rifles rose by $12.8 million. Remington attributed the overall decline in sales to, among other things, “a soft hunting season”—which, logically, should have affected modern sporting rifle sales too, if said rifles are actually as prevalent among hunters, as industry types would claim.
Restrictive gun laws do hurt sales, though. Starting in 2009, a Democratic president in the White House brought a renewed risk of legislation that might restrict or prohibit domestic sales of the AR-15 and its kin. That year, the National Shooting Sports Foundation—a trade organization for the firearms industry—coined the term modern sporting rifle as an exercise in pre-emptive tactical semantics: an attempt to reframe the debate around the AR-15, refuting those who would describe it and its siblings as assault weapons. The rebranding initiative was led by an industry executive named Randy Luth, who founded DPMS Firearms, a leading manufacturer of AR-style weapons. Luth was intent on marketing AR-15–style rifles to hunters: In a 2009 article, Luth wrote that “promoting the use of AR rifles for hunting” was his “obsession.” Both Luth as a businessman and the NSSF as a trade organization have a vested interest in claiming that modular, militaristic semi-automatic rifles are perfect for hunting and sporting purposes. But while these weapons can indeed be used for hunting—in a pinch, you can also use a pickup truck as a golf cart—no one actually needs a device that fires 45 rounds per minute to put down a deer. Rather, the industrywide adoption of the modern sporting rifle terminology is plainly a diversionary tactic and a political ploy, to be used against anyone who dares to observe that modern sporting rifles are often the weapons of choice for America’s mass shooters.
Other weapons have factored into mass attacks, of course. Great damage can and has been done by psychopaths armed with handguns, shotguns, bolt-action rifles, and knives. But the modern sporting rifle pops up in mass shootings again and again, and it’s not hard to understand why. These rifles can be relatively inexpensive and do not require any specialized training to use. They are lightweight and durable and can accommodate high-capacity magazines. The guns are built to resemble military-grade rifles and are often marketed to police departments and law enforcement agencies. In its annual report for the fiscal year ending on April 30, 2015, Smith & Wesson stated that its “M&P branded modern sporting rifles are specifically designed to satisfy the functionality and reliability needs of global military, law enforcement, and security personnel.” In 2012, reviewing the DPMS A-15—one of the two AR-15 variants that would later be used by in the San Bernardino shootings—for the Kit Up blog at Military.com, a reviewer noted, “My ultimate goal was to get an M4 military style rifle like the type I carried in Iraq; the DPMS had those features and was affordable.”
Even some gun advocates have criticized the modern sporting rifle term as lame and unconvincing. In 2011, writing at the Gunmart blog, one progun blogger admitted that “a big problem with the ineffectiveness of the phrase is that it just sounds like we are trying too hard when we use it. Its [sic] like we are almost acknowledging the fact that we are trying to game the debate and I believe it comes across as an obvious ploy.”
Writing in response for the NSSF’s blog in 2011, Bill Brassard admitted as much: “Whenever someone in the gun-owning community mistakenly calls an AR-platform rifle an assault rifle or an automatic rifle, they are assisting anti-gun organizations and lawmakers who are eager to introduce legislation to restrict ownership of these and potentially other semiautomatic firearms.” If this is true, then the converse is also surely true: Calling an AR-platform or Sig MCX rifle a modern sporting rifle plays into the hands of lawmakers and lobbyists who would thwart any and all efforts at gun control, gunmakers that are financially invested in keeping these weapons on the shelves, and ghouls who diminish the mass death and misery dealt out by modern sporting rifles on an alarmingly regular basis. And it props up a lie meant to ensure that the next Omar Mateen will have no problem getting his hands on a military-style weapon.