For the last 20 years, buying an AR was the goal of buying an AR: Either they were banned, or they were about to be banned. Back then, you didn’t need a reason to buy an AR other than “It’s an AR, it’s in-sotck, and I want it.”
That is no longer the case, and the downturn in AR sales reflect that fact. Yes, there are people who buy guns for gun’s sake, but I’m not one of them, and I’m not certain that attitude reflects the majority of today’s gun owners, who buy guns for a reason, not because they’re “into guns”.
From my (brief) experience slinging steel over the counter, the big things driving AR’s these days are a) uniqueness or b) price. Either people are willing to pay more for an AR that does more than the average rifle, like, say, an LWRC or a Noveske, or else they want to buy the cheapest (not: I did not say “least expensive”) gun out there.
AR’s needed no other reason to exist beyond “we can buy one”, but that’s no longer the case now. It’s going to be interesting to see what they become over the next few years, as we move into a post-pessimist world of gun ownership. The reason for getting a defensive pistol are self-evident, and even shotguns have an aura of “I’m just protecting what’s mine” about them.
A rifle, though, is different, because a rifle allows for engagements at distances far beyond what non-gun people consider to be an “immediate threat”. Yes, the power of a rifle trumps the power of a pistol, but a shotgun does that as well, without the baggage of being something regularly seen in the hands of the military, not civilians.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not banging on the capabilities of a rifle as a self-defense weapon. I have one dedicated to just such a thing myself, and I also think that an AR-15 is an essential part of anyone’s arsenal, but acknowledging the realities means being able to overcome the problems, and getting the AR off the range and into the home is the logical next step for rifle manufacturers.