NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Bill Smith took aim with his custom-built Noveske AR-15 on a recent Saturday at a gun range in Franklin, Tenn. He pulled the trigger, sending a booming concussion through the air as a .223 bullet pierced a paper target.
Smith, 41, is no extremist.
"I'm a network administrator. I work in an office," he said. "Some people want to play golf on the weekends, I prefer to go out and target shoot. I own weapons to defend my family and loved ones, but, for the most part, I'm just a normal person."
Most people at the Charlie Haffner Memorial Range in Franklin were shooting some variant of the AR-15 on that day, a gun that has become as popular as it is feared.
Fair or not, the AR-15 rifle - a descendant of the M16 used in the Vietnam War - is at the center of a debate about gun ownership in America.
It has been the weapon of choice during three mass shootings in the United States since July.
A gunman used an AR-15 to slaughter 20 children and six adults Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Earlier in December, a gunman went on a shooting spree in an Oregon mall with an AR-15, killing two people. And, last summer, a gunman armed with an AR-15 sprayed an Aurora, Colo., movie theater where 12 people were killed.
The AR-15's stopping power, bullet capacity and its use in several mass shootings scare gun control advocates. Its modular design and reliability, however, have made the gun popular for hunting, target shooting and self-defense.
Some stores, including Dick's Sporting Goods and Wal-Mart, have stopped or limited sales of AR-15s in light of recent tragedies. Fears of an impending ban have led to a run on both the rifles and the .223 ammunition. The FBI and Tennessee have seen a record number of background checks in recent weeks stemming from new gun sales.
Similar firearms were outlawed in the United States from 1994 to 2004. And now, for the first time in a decade, federal legislation is being considered to restrict certain guns from sale.
"I think Newtown did that. ... Speaking in a broad sense, our country looked in the mirror, looked at ourselves and said, 'Is this who we really are?' " said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that supports the ban of weapons such as the AR-15. "I think the bottom line is, there really is no argument besides the fact 'I want it' to defend the sale of these weapons."
One thing is clear, said Stuart Fischoff, professor emeritus of media psychology at California State University, Los Angeles: History and pop culture have infused the AR-15 with a powerful mythology and symbolism.
"There's a multiplicity of reasons why people get enamored with certain weapons, particularly in terms of military weapons," said Fischoff, himself a gun owner. "The pride, the fun, the tinkering. ... Just the whole human predisposition to collectibles. The pro-military aspect is going to have a connection, too, to people."
The "AR" in AR-15 doesn't stand for "assault rifle" as some believe. Instead it referred to the company that created it for the military in the 1950s, ArmaLite, according to a company history of the gun. It was renamed the M16 for the U.S. military, while the version available to civilians remained the AR-15.
The modern AR-15 still looks like its military cousin. But it is not a machine gun. Being a semiautomatic rifle, the AR-15 fires only one shot for each trigger pull. A standard model has a 30-round magazine using .223 ammunition, though they can be modified to accept other calibers and configurations.
"They're like Legos for adults," said Smith, who shoots the AR-15 for competition purposes.
Bill Bernstein, owner of East Side Gun Shop in Nashville, Tenn., said that the AR-15 is also a natural fit for gun owners who love to tinker or those with military experience who are accustomed to firing similar guns in the service. And then, there are the intangibles.
"The ease that you can shoot one with and the fact that it looks typically like a military weapon makes it popular," he said.
Very popular, in fact. Bernstein said that fears of a potential ban have about doubled the prices of AR-15s on the market.
"People's main fear is, 'I need to buy it now because I won't be able to get it in the future,' " he said.
Bernstein said there was a similar run on these types of guns in 1993, when the federal government banned guns such as the AR-15 in a sweeping anticrime bill. He said he is against such bans, but thinks history may soon repeat itself.
"I strongly, strongly expect that there's going to be more regulatory scrutiny of the selling of those guns," he said.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, is already talking about reinstating some form of the 1994 "assault weapon ban." In general, the 1994 ban made it illegal to buy, possess or transfer any semiautomatic rifle that had a detachable magazine, plus any two of the following features: a folding or telescoping stock, a pistol grip, a bayonet mount, a flash suppressor or threading for one or a grenade launcher attachment. Also banned were "large capacity ammunition feeding devices" - basically any ammunition system that held more than 10 bullets.
The ban codified the phrase "assault weapon." It is a phrase that makes gun owners bristle. They prefer instead "modern sporting rifles."
The ban was largely ridiculed by gun advocates. Manufacturers were often able to make simple modifications - a thumb-hole stock instead of a pistol grip, for example - to get around the ban. And the ban was not retroactive, meaning any such guns or large magazines in circulation before the ban remained legal to own.
The ban expired in 2004 and evaluations of its effectiveness have been largely inconclusive. A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that year found, "insufficient evidence" that the ban was effective or ineffective. A report to the National Institute of Justice by University of Pennsylvania researchers that same year concluded that the effect of extending the ban would have an effect, "perhaps too small for reliable measurement."
Sugarmann, with the Violence Policy Center, acknowledged that the 1994 ban was easily circumvented. He said that this time there's discussion of banning rifles with just one of those features, as opposed to two.
He conceded that guns like the AR-15 can be used in hunting or target shooting, but said that their true purpose is to kill.
"They are based on weapons of war that were specifically designed for anti-personnel use that are now being sold on the civilian market," he said. "The point is that just because you can use the gun to fire at a target does not in any way obviate the threat that it poses."
Brian Haas, The Tennessean