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Gun debate 101: Is the AR-15 as popular as the iPod?

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Gun manufacturers don't break sales down by product, so it's hard to know exactly. But a solid back-of-the-envelope estimate developed by Slate's Justin Peters suggests that there are about 3.75 million AR-15-style weapons in circulation today, with companies like Sturm-Ruger & Co. Inc., headquartered in Southport, Conn., producing perhaps 200,000 of them a year for sale in the US.

As popular as the iPod, though?

Maybe not quite. With 310 million firearms in circulation, AR-15s make up barely more than 1 percent of the total. But given that stores are struggling to keep the weapons in stock, acknowledging the 2.48 million background checks in January (an increase of more than 50 percent since 2007 monthly averages), and noting that Apple sold 5.3 million iPods in the last quarter of 2012, it's not hard to extrapolate the AR-15's immense popularity as a consumer good. And, like iPods, the guns are not cheap: An AR-15 usually costs between $600 and $1,000 but are often selling upwards of $2,000 lately.

Who likes the AR-15?

Given the high prices and anecdotal evidence, the prime buyers of AR-15s are middle-aged to older Americans, mostly men, who have been the main targets of a savvy industry marketing campaign touting the rifle's military bona fides. But when you look at broader societal support for AR-15s, another dynamic emerges.

According to a recent Reason-Rupe poll, 70 percent of people between the age of 18 and 24 said Americans should be allowed to own AR-15s and other assault-style weapons. Meanwhile, 58 percent of older Americans told the pollsters that such weapons should be banned.

Is the AR-15 buying spree tapering off?

Yes, but not because demand has decreased, experts say. Depleted stocks and growing back-order lists result in fewer sales. The 2.78 million background checks for all makes of guns in December were a 12-month peak, the AP reports, and the 2.48 million checks in January were still higher than any month except December last year.

“You can’t do a background check if a guy doesn’t have a gun to buy," Mike Fotia, manager at Duke’s Sport Shop in New Castle, Pa., told the wire service. “There’s nothing to buy.”

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