Anyone seeking to limit the sale of assault weapons must reckon with the fact that millions of Americans own guns that might be classified as one, and for many it is no more exotic than, say, a motorcycle or sports car, from which they derive a similar satisfaction.
"It's very stress-relieving," said Chad Knox, a paramedic who shoots targets and hunts small pests with a semiautomatic rifle on his 40 acres in Marietta, Ohio. "Some people crochet, some people shop, some people shoot guns."
Mr. Knox owns an AR-15 style rifle, a 55-year-old design based on a military weapon that has become notorious because it was used by gunmen in a series of mass shootings in recent years, including the attack in Newtown, Conn., last week.
Outlawed for a decade by the federal government, certain models of the AR-15 could again be forbidden if President Obama can persuade Congress to restore the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004, as he has indicated.
But to many owners of military-style semiautomatic rifles, who reject the term "assault weapon," the AR-15 and its brethren do not evoke fearsome images of attacks on people. They use their guns for target practice and hunting small game like rabbits, squirrels and coyotes.
They also say that as a self-defense weapon, the AR-15, which is based on the military's M-16 and M-4, has its limits: It cannot be carried in public, and in the home it is potentially less accurate than a shotgun.
Mr. Knox, 28, praised the gun's light weight and relatively gentle recoil.
"If I'm going to be out hunting or I want to get a young person interested in hunting," an AR-15 is his choice, he said. "It's a very user-friendly gun."
What most owners seem to appreciate about this type of firearm is the pleasure of target shooting with a long-range weapon that fires bullets semiautomatically, or each time the trigger is pulled. They also like the detachable magazine that can hold a lot of bullets. High-capacity magazines have been singled out by gun control advocates as accessories that should be illegal.
Arnie Andrews, the owner of an auto body shop in Crown Point, Ind., who shoots his Olympic Arms AR-15 rifle a few times each summer at a shooting range, uses a 20-round magazine, which is the former military standard. (It has been updated to include 30 rounds.)
"It's a challenge to see how well you can do," Mr. Andrews, 58, said of target shooting. "It's like bowling or any other kind of sport. You want to see if you can do it better the next time."
Although gun dealers say the AR-15 style is the most popular rifle in the country, a number of gun enthusiasts disdain them.
Kent Carper, a former police chief and current president of the Kanawha County Commission in West Virginia, owns many guns but said he has never wanted what he called an assault rifle.
"I never bought one of those extender clips, which I don't understand at all," he said. "You've seen too many tragedies now with assault rifles and extender clips."
"The argument is you have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms, so you have an absolute right to have a clip with as many bullets as you want," Mr. Carper said. "If you follow that to its logical conclusion, you can have bullets like missiles."
Some owners described the pleasure they took from shooting as akin to a thrill sport. Every couple of months, when Patrick Mason has saved enough money for 500 rounds of ammunition, he drives into the desert outside Las Vegas with a friend or two, a barbecue grill and a haul of fruit for target practice.
"I don't want to shoot holes in pieces of paper, I want to watch a watermelon be destroyed," said Mr. Mason, 23, an assistant manager at a yoga studio in Las Vegas.
"It's fun and it makes you smile but it's a skill, its own art form," he said. "I don't want to make it sound weird, but it's almost like holding a live animal. You've fired the thing, and it's kicked around, and there's the smell."
Mr. Mason does not hunt and does not consider his shooting to be a sport. It gives him an electrical charge of excitement, he said. "When I put 20 rounds downrange, I'm like, man, I need a burger, yes!"
While some AR-15 owners use their guns for hunting, others believe that using a semiautomatic weapon is not sporting. "Hunting is taking one shot. It's not pumping round after round,'" said Bill denHoed, who, with a brother, owns Den Hoed Wine Estates in Prosser, Wash.
Mr. denHoed, 54, who has owned a Colt AR-15 rifle for a quarter-century, confines its use to a shooting range on a family vineyard near the Columbia River.
But he acknowledged that a semiautomatic weapon could have a place in hunting pests, which in his part of the Pacific Northwest include coyotes.
"There's a lot of ranchers in the outskirts of the valley where they run cattle," he said. "Come February when they calve, the coyotes love to eat the calves. Some ranchers give permission to folks to hunt coyotes. A lot of them use that very particular gun that's raising all the awareness now, the Bushmaster."
Its ability to shoot rapidly, Mr. denHoed said, makes it easier to thin a pack of predators.
AR-15 owners dismissed the argument that taking their weapons off the market would limit mass shootings.
They did so without vehemence, partly, it seemed, because they shared the collective horror over the Connecticut massacre, in which 20 young children died, and partly because they believed that this latest effort to reduce violence by reducing citizens' access to guns would be futile.
They did not believe that a renewed ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as President Obama has signaled he will press for, beginning in January, would hamper future mass murderers like Adam Lanza, who authorities said used a Bushmaster version of an AR-15 in last week's shootings.
"If I thought banning weapons would solve this, I'd probably be for it," said Everett Wilkinson, a Marine Corps veteran who lives in Palm Beach County, Fla., and owns several AR-15 style guns. "But the issue we have is not banning weapons, it's crazy people."
Other gun owners shared his view. "They'll use something else, a bomb next time or who knows what," Mr. Andrews said. He has a permit to carry a concealed handgun and has taken courses in how to respond to a gunman.
"Honestly, if you were in a bad situation, you'd want me to be there," he said.
Steven Yaccino contributed reporting.
Correction: December 20, 2012, Thursday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of bullets in a standard magazine used with semiautomatic rifles used by the United States military. The magazine contains 30 rounds, not 20. (When the gun, the M-16, was first adopted by the military, the standard was a 20-round magazine, but it has been enlarged since then.)nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.