Family of AR-15 inventor Eugene Stoner: He didn't intend it for civilians

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Once Banned, These Assault Rifles Are Hugely Popular in the U.S.

The AR-15 is the most talked about gun in America.

But the AR-15's creator died before the weapon became a popular hit and his family has never spoken out.

Until now.

"Our father, Eugene Stoner, designed the AR-15 and subsequent M-16 as a military weapon to give our soldiers an advantage over the AK-47," the Stoner family told NBC News late Wednesday. "He died long before any mass shootings occurred. But, we do think he would have been horrified and sickened as anyone, if not more by these events."

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AR-15 rifles are displayed on the exhibit floor during the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., on Friday, May 20, 2016. The nation's largest gun lobby, the NRA has been a political force in elections since at least 1994, turning out its supporters for candidates who back expanding access to guns. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
AR-15 rifles are displayed at the SIG Sauer GmbH booth on the exhibit floor during the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S., on Friday, May 20, 2016. The nation's largest gun lobby, the NRA has been a political force in elections since at least 1994, turning out its supporters for candidates who back expanding access to guns. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Civilian legal AR-15 rifles are displayed for sale at a vendor's booth during the Fall 2015 Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in West Point, KY, U.S., on Friday, Oct. 9, 2015. The Machine Gun Shoot is a three day bi-annual event that attracts gun dealers, collectors, and enthusiasts from all across America in what is considered one of the largest gun shows in the world dealing specifically with high caliber weaponry. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
This February 4, 2013 photo illustration in Manassas, Virginia, shows a man holding a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. US President Barack Obama Monday heaped pressure on Congress for action 'soon' on curbing gun violence. Obama made a pragmatic case for legislation on the contentious issue, arguing that just because political leaders could not save every life, they should at least try to save some victims of rampant gun crime. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
POMPANO BEACH, FL - JANUARY 16: An AR-15 is seen for sale on the wall at the National Armory gun store on January 16, 2013 in Pompano Beach, Florida. President Barack Obama today in Washington, DC announced a broad range of gun initiatives that his administration thinks will help curb gun violence. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 18: In this photo illustration a Rock River Arms AR-15 rifle is seen on December 18, 2012 in Miami, Florida. The weapon is similar in style to the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle that was used during a massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Firearm sales have surged recently as speculation of stricter gun laws and a re-instatement of the assault weapons ban following the mass shooting. (Photo illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
AURORA, CO - JULY 22: A Bush Master AR15 assault rifle is displayed at Firing-Line July 22, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado. Firing-Line is located not far from where suspect gunman James Eagan Holmes, 24, is accused of killing 12 people at a screening of the new 'Batman' film last Friday. The firearm is similar to the one used in the rampage. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
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The inventor's surviving children and adult grandchildren spoke exclusively to MSNBC by phone and email, commenting for the first time on their family's uneasy legacy. They requested individual anonymity in order to speak freely about such a sensitive topic. They also stopped short of policy prescriptions or legal opinions.

More from NBC News: AR-15 Style Rifle Used in Orlando Massacre Has Bloody Pedigree

But their comments add unprecedented context to their father's creation, shedding new light on his intentions and adding firepower to the effort to ban weapons like the AR-15. The comments could also bolster a groundbreaking new lawsuit, which argues that the weapon is a tool of war — never intended for civilians.

Eugene Stoner would have agreed, his family said.

The ex-Marine and "avid sportsman, hunter and skeet shooter" never used his invention for sport. He also never kept it around the house for personal defense. In fact, he never even owned one.

And though he made millions from the design, his family said it was all from military sales.

"After many conversations with him, we feel his intent was that he designed it as a military rifle," his family said, explaining that Stoner was focused on making the most efficient and superior rifle possible for the military."

He designed the original AR-15 in the late 1950s, working on it in his own garage and later as the chief designer for ArmaLite, a then small company in southern California. He made it light and powerful and he fashioned a new bullet for it — a .223 caliber round capable of piercing a metal helmet at 500 yards.

The Army loved it and famously renamed it the M16.

Gun Manufacturers' Stock Prices Surge After Orlando Massacre

But after Stoner's death in 1997, at the age of 74, a semi-automatic version of the AR-15 became a civilian bestseller, too, spawning dozens of copy-cat weapons. The National Rifle Association has taken to calling it "America's rifle."

The bullets that tore through the Pulse nightclub in Orlando were Stoner's .223 rounds, fired from a AR-15 spin off made by Sig Sauer.

In all, an AR-15 style rifle has been used in at least 10 recent mass shootings — including at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and a work party in San Bernardino, California.

"What has happened, good or bad, since his patents have expired is a result of our free market system," Stoner's family said. "Currently, a more interesting question is 'Who now is benefiting from the manufacturing and sales of AR-15s, and for what uses?'"

That's the question for the rest of us.

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