Dec. 19, 2012 -- Two reasons explain why the Bushmaster rifle--the weapon implicated in the mass murder of children in Newtown, Conn.--is disappearing fast from gun store shelves: It's been vilified. And it remains hugely popular.
Customers are buying Bushmasters so fast that stores have trouble stocking it. "We sold 14 yesterday," says Ross Meyer of Gunworld & Archery in Elko, Nev. "That's way up. All of our suppliers are out of them."
Says Andrew Molchan, director of the National Association of Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers (NAFLFD): "Naturally, when something's a lot in the news, it has increased sales. I doubt there's much inventory left at this point. There are no discounts, that's for sure."
Daniel, an assistant manager at Discount Shooters Supply in Roseville, Calif., tells ABC News, "We don't really have a lot in stock, because it's been so popular. They've been selling faster than manufacturers can produce them." His store, he says, has only one left on display. "Here in the Sacramento area, I hear other stores are experiencing the same thing."
The Bushmaster is only one version of a generic rifle called the AR-15, a civilian cousin of the M-16 developed for the U.S. Army in the 1960s. Other manufacturers produce versions of their own, most at a lower price than the Bushmaster, which retails, says Molchan, for $700 to $900.
Read more: Newtown Massacre: What Is a Bushmaster .223?
Smith & Wesson, Colt, Remington, Ruger and Olympic Arms and others make AR-15s. "There probably are 30 to 40 different manufacturers," says Daniel of Discount Shooters. Prices for Bushmasters have risen by as much as 50 percent since Friday, the store reports.
The weapon's notoriety, though, cuts two ways.
Cerberus Capital, a New York City firm that owns Bushmaster, announced Tuesday it would be selling the company and the subsidiary that includes it. Calling the Connecticut shooting a "watershed event," Cerberus in a statement said, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and communities impacted by this tragic event."
Major retail chains, including Dick's Sporting Goods, have announced they are suspending sales of Bushmasters or similar rifles, partly as a gesture of respect to the Connecticut dead, but also to insulate themselves from public censure.
Dick's, in a statement posted on its website, says: "We are extremely saddened by the unspeakable tragedy that occurred last week in Newtown, CT, and our hearts go out to the victims and their families, and to the entire community. Out of respect for the victims and their families, during this time of national mourning we have removed all guns from sale and from display in our store nearest to Newtown and [have] suspended the sale of modern sporting rifles in all of our stores chainwide."
Walmart, without making any public comment, has pulled Bushmasters from its website.
Molchan of the NAFLFD dismisses such gestures as commercial expediency: "Dick's? The AR-15 represents maybe 1/ 200th of their gross sales. They'll suspend selling it, but they'll get $10 million in free publicity. Even more so with Walmart. [The gun is] maybe 1/10th of 1 percent of their gross sales. I guess it's the right thing to do. It's certainly the right P.R. thing to do."
Why do people--despite the tragic killings in Connecticut--continue to buy this gun?
Because, they say, for want of a better word, it's fun. And because they fear political forces and new regulatory restrictions may soon make guns like it more difficult, if not impossible, to buy.
Gunworld's Ross Meyer describes the AR-15 as "the Barbie Doll of rifles." By that he means it's among the most customizable of weapons. Manufacturers produce all kinds of add-ons that allow a sportsman to make his rifle one of a kind, truly his own.
"You can add scopes, flashlights, lasers," he says. "You can really tech it out. And being semi-automatic, it's fun to go out and shoot." Plus, he says, "There's the military angle." The AR-15 is the gun many military vets learned to shoot in basic training. As civilians, it's the gun they already feel comfortable with and know.
Many AR-15 owners use them for "plinking" varmints.
Dr. George Winch, Jr., of Elko, says he has plenty of friends who use their rifles to keep their animals safe from coyotes. One friend, he says, has added a silencer to his AR-15 so he can sit on his back porch and shoot coyotes at night, without the noise disturbing neighbors.
Tyson Boulette, an electrician who describes himself as "a regular old family guy," works underground at a gold mine in Elko. He tells ABC News that three or four years ago he bought a version of the AR-15 made by Sig-Sauer. "I'd always wanted one," he says. "I like recreational shooting." He customized his with a SWAT-version hand-grip, a tactical flash-light and lasers mounted on the side.
Does he plink with it? "Yes, I shoot rabbits and ground squirrels."
Asked to explain the gun's appeal to a non-shooter, he says: "Some people, they have a nice Corvette in their garage. They don't drive it every day. They just wanted one. It caught their eye. They think it looks great. " He just wanted a Sig-Sauer, he says. He thinks it looks great. He likes the military style and the fact it's not too expensive to shoot. Plus, it's fun.
Fun because of the semi-automatic feature. "You can shoot 30 rounds in 10 seconds or less. It's kind of an adrenaline rush." It's comfortable, too. "The gun doesn't produce enough kick to hurt you." And, if you don't want to use the semi-automatic feature, "You can squeeze the trigger one by one and get a different feeling."