a collage of gun advertisements

Gun Reform

Clever Marketing Is the Gun Industry’s Most Lethal Weapon

Gun sellers have used fear, masculinity, and American ideals to convince consumers they need firearms—and it’s led to deadly consequences.

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If you’re in the market for a .22 rifle for your kindergartner, Crickett has you covered. Trademarked by Keystone Sporting Arms as “My First Rifle”, the company markets the weapon for “true winners” in a sickly-sweet pink among a range of color swatches. A testimonial praises the weapon as “just the right size” for a five-year-old, without mentioning that, in 2013, a Kentucky boy of the very same age used the weapon to accidentally shoot and kill his two-year-old sister.

A tragedy in every respect, and that’s before you consider that Crickett’s marketing is comparatively antiquated to what has come since. Earlier this year, a company called Wee1 Tactical introduced a gun called the “JR-15”. With the tagline “get em one like yours” and weighing in at 2.2 pounds, it is a “scaled-down” version of the AR-15 semi-automatic weapon favored by mass shooters in massacres including Sandy Hook and Uvalde.

These days, horror is baked into the business model. Gun sales spike after mass shootings. By its own estimates, the gun industry spends $80 million each year advertising their death machines for domestic retail consumption. When we consider the emerging shadow industry of online cowboys, the dollar figures are likely far greater. Following an outcry from anti-gun groups and specifically California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Wee1 Tactical’s online presence has disappeared, but the idea of molding new constituencies for gun ownership is only continuing to accelerate.

In a country where firearms are the leading cause of death for children and teens aged between one and 19, kids are just one segment in a diversity push to sell not simply more weapons, but more lethal weapons. Drawing on the anxieties of a broad range of potential customers, they have made a concerted effort to ensure that, from cradle to grave, a rainbow coalition of Americans are armed to the teeth.

Rebranding the All-American Man

Back in the 1990s, the gun industry realized that it was in trouble. Its traditional “pale, male, and stale” market was dying out. Even worse, the tobacco industry, which once was a counterpart in the image of the all-American man, had seen regulation of its sales and marketing ratcheting up for two decades. But instead of appreciating a changing social landscape, it saw tobacco’s regulation as a cautionary tale, and adopted its playbook for getting around new norms. Developing a powerful lobby with many friends in Congress, the gun industry worked out a way that, instead of reaching for a Camel, a right-thinking man—and his family—could grasp the cold embodiment of the American dream.

Some might say that this was inevitable. Since 1776, guns have been part of the mythology of the nation. For much of the 19th and 20th century, guns were geared toward frontier culture and the ideal of the rugged individual. Owning a rifle meant that you were John Wayne, a strong, white man who could both provide for your family and protect them — and the nation, too.

Only during the civil rights era, people who didn’t look like John began to embrace gun ownership for self-defense. Political figures such as then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan sought to crack down on gun ownership to capitalize on political anxieties, but by the 1990s, the industry was wrestling back control of the narrative. Weaponizing diversity, it doubled down on self-defense as a selling point. Women, people of color, and the gay and lesbian communities were targeted with ads that touted slogans such as “99.8 percent of rapists polled prefer you unarmed”, “Guns are for fags”, and “Gun control: favored by racists”.

Still, by the year 2000, some 60 percent of gun owners cited hunting as their reason for possessing a firearm. But history has a habit of showing up unannounced, and the reverberations of the Columbine shooting, the Y2K panic, and then 9/11 set in motion a cultural shift that was accelerated by the gun lobby’s capture of the political class.

Within a few short years, “mission accomplished” had been declared in Iraq, and the commander-in-chief allowed the assault weapons ban to expire in 2004, meaning that semi-automatic weapons were now deemed acceptable for civilian use. The following year, the iconic American gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson declared it was “aggressively in a growth mode” with the promise of being “loud and visible.”

By today’s standards, their new marketing strategy of “safety, security, protection, and sport” feels almost charmingly antiquated, but the results were stark. Sales, primarily in pistols, rose 30 percent that year, and a further 50 percent in 2006. Americans weren’t suddenly hunting deer with handguns. Two-thirds of gun owners now said self-defense was the reason why they owned a gun. A proliferation of “stand your ground” laws took off, with 12 states enacting them by the close of 2006 (a total of 28 states now have them on the books).

Selling the AR-15 to an ‘untapped market’

Former arms industry executive Ryan Busse testified before Congress this July that the marketing of guns in the George W. Bush era took a deliberately lethal turn. By 2007, he said, most gun manufacturers “began combining guns with the political fear and conspiracy machine of the NRA.” The military-style AR-15, he explained, used to be a “pariah” weapon — but it also “represented a new untapped market” for a gun lobby which “needed new political symbols and profit.”

Smith & Wesson, the brand once synonymous with Dirty Harry’s .44 magnum, leapt into the domestic market with the M&P15, which stands for military and police. Launched in 2006, the M&P went on to become the best selling “rifle” in the country. If there were ever a symbol of how the idea of the gun-toting American hero has changed from Clint Eastwood’s gruff detective seeking justice, the M&P15 was the weapon of choice for the Parkland school shooter and teenage ‘local business protector’ Kyle Rittenhouse in the protests following George Floyd’s death.

Ryan Busse told Congress that it was these kinds of weapons that, by 2008, saw the gun industry fully unmasked. That year, he said, manufacturer Ruger dispensed with “the responsible citizen motto from most of its public advertising.” Old-school gun industry types who objected to this new thrust were cast aside. “Everyone was told that ANY new gun buyer or ANY marketing was good so long as it furthered political aims and sold guns.” [emphasis his]

Brothers in arms with the Republican Party, these merchants of death were hell-bent on creating a highly politicized constituency that would come to see themselves as self-defense ‘heroes’. By now, they were George Zimmerman, not Clint Eastwood — and certainly not John Wayne. But just as Trumpism cast aside Bush-era conservative politics, so too did newcomers in the gun industry.

Here, Daniel Defense stands out in a rogue’s gallery of upstarts — like Wee1 Tactical — with no qualms about selling battlefield weapons to suburbanites. Daniel Defense, whose provocative advertisements lionizing operator culture feature slogans like “Use what they use,” saw two of America’s worst mass shooters to do just that. Its flagship AR15-style rifle was used by the 2017 Las Vegas shooter, and more recently, the Uvalde school shooter.

While every mass shooting has its own bibliography of failures, a tweet from Daniel Defense only one week before the horrific massacre put the extreme turn of the gun industry into context. The company posted a photo of a toddler holding the gun, with a play on a Biblical proverb. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” it read, “and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

For a country that barely makes its own stuff anymore, one thing it continues to manufacture is a steady stream of gun owners. So while we associate the all-American gun owner with angry young men, they are beginning to look much more representative of the country. From those first buds of selling self-protection to a diverse market in the 1990s, the industry is using crisis to continue a hard pivot toward the people who are too often the victims of gun violence.

Acknowledging that they can’t simply rely on amped-up white men, a 2015 National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) industry summit labeled its theme for the year “diversity”. NSSF Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Chris Dolnack, said that it was time to “address this subject and innovate change” and that the industry was focused on making changes “to embrace a new consumer audience.” Forget that old advertising industry maxim that sex sells: when it comes to guns, it’s fear and crisis that really gets people locked and loaded.

Marketing fear for profit

Josh Sugarmann, founder of the Violence Policy Center, says that from natural disasters to a new president to Covid, the gun industry has a cure-all. “No matter what the issue is, the answer is always buy a gun,” he said. As someone who has tracked the industry since 1988, he has found that the industry has “gotten much better at micro-exploitation.” He points to an NRA campaign during the earliest days of Covid which preyed on the very real feelings of uncertainty and helplessness.

“Americans are flocking to gun stores because they know the only reliable self-defense during a crisis is the #2A,” the NRA tweet read. “Carletta Whiting, who’s disabled & vulnerable to #coronavirus, asks Dems trying to exploit the pandemic: Why do you want to leave people like me defenseless?”

Sugarmann says that the industry is nakedly capitalizing on the vibe that “the world’s going to hell, you gotta buy a gun.” In particular, it’s targeting Asian Americans — who traditionally have low gun ownership and support stricter gun control — but who faced an upswell of hate crimes as a result of Covid panic. To the industry, not only are Asian-Americans the fastest growing voter group in the United States with increasing size and consumer power, they are “viewed as an untapped market by gunmakers.”

The NSSF reports that, between 2019 and 2002, there was a 43 percent increase in Asian-American gun ownership, a 49 percent rise by Latinos, and a 58 percent increase among Black people. Women are also the targets of renewed campaigns, with a recent study finding that Twitter and YouTube influencers are prime avenues for sales. The study’s authors found that “videos with women included protection themes” were viewed two-and-a-half times more often than videos without women, though they couldn’t account for whether this appealed to women themselves or men seeking to protect them. Either way, they noted that “YouTube and Twitter subsidize gun advertising by offering server and streaming services at no cost to gun manufacturers,” and that the social media companies are cashing in.

Now anyone can take up arms against a changing world. Remember those two-thirds of gun owners who claimed they needed them for self-defense in 2005? Their number rose to 88 percent in 2021. A diverse coalition is coming together around the most American of ideas: consumption is king. The best way to manage hate, fear, crisis and uncertainty is to go out and buy the thing that you’re terrified of.

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