The gun industry has long understood that it faces a slow-motion demographic collapse. With the industry’s customer base growing older, household gun ownership in America has steadily declined. As its primary market of white males ages and dies off, the firearms industry has set its sights on America’s children. Much like the tobacco industry’s search for replacement smokers, the gun industry is seeking replacement shooters to purchase its deadly products.
Firearms companies have teamed up with “corporate partners” like the National Rifle Association of America, the gun industry’s trade association the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), and online publications such as Junior Shooters in an industry-wide effort to market firearms to kids. They do this by promoting websites and magazines targeted at children, designing “kid-friendly” guns to appeal to the youth market, and even working to create the equivalent of “’reality’ video” games to encourage gun use from an early age.
Junior Shooters, Winter 2009
The industry’s focus on recruiting children into the gun culture has been acknowledged since at least the 1990s:
- A 1993 issue of NSSF’s SHOT Business raises the question, “Kids can’t buy guns, you say? Well, yes and no. It’s true that most students from kindergarten through high school can’t purchase firearms on their own. But it’s also true that in many parts of the country, youngsters (from preteens on up) are shooting and hunting. Pop picks up the tab.”5
- In answer to the question, “How old is old enough?” the NSSF pamphlet When Your Youngster Wants a Gun… (distributed by the organization up until 1994) responds: “Age is not the major yardstick. Some youngsters are ready to start at 10, others at 14. The only real measures are those of maturity and individual responsibility. Does your youngster follow directions well? Is he conscientious and reliable? Would you leave him alone in the house for two or three hours? Would you send him to the grocery store with a list and a $20 bill? If the answer to these questions or similar ones are `yes,’ then the answer can also be `yes’ when your child asks for his first gun.”
NSSF pamphlet When your youngster wants a gun…
- At the NRA’s 1996 Annual Meeting in Dallas, Texas, then-President Marion Hammer introduced her 10-year-old grandson Michael, stating, “I know that when NRA reaches out and takes the hand of a child, we are touching America’s future.” Hammer also outlined the NRA’s agenda to “invest” in America’s youth, win their “hearts and minds,” and ensure the organization’s longevity: “I pledge to you to dedicate my term in office to two demanding missions. One is building an NRA bridge to America’s youth. The other is being fiscally far-sighted to provide for bold new programs that will teach America’s children values to last a lifetime. It will be an old-fashioned wrestling match for the hearts and minds of our children, and we’d better engage our adversaries with no holds barred….If we do not successfully reach out to the next generation, then the freedom and liberty that we’ve lived for ─ and that many of our ancestors have died for ─ will not live beyond us.”
- A New England Firearms advertisement that appeared on the cover of the September/October 1998 issue of the gun industry publication Shooting Sports Retailer warned, “It’s not ‘who your customers will be in five years.’ It’s `will there be any customers left.'” The cover shows a family shooting, with the parents slowly fading away as a child aims a long gun. Inside the magazine, a full-page ad from the company warns, “Building the next generation of customers takes work and commitment. But it must be done. The greatest threat to the firearms business may not be the anti-gunners. It is a future which lacks gun owners and users due to lack of interest. In effect, [the] greatest threat we face is the lack of a future customer base for the products which we all sell. Coming to grips with this challenge is not easy but it must be done.”6
The warnings made in the 1990s are being echoed in the new millennium. In a 2007 “Retailing Intelligence Report” column titled “Shooting for a New Audience” (subtitled “Reaching New Demographics is Critical to Our Industry”) in the gun industry trade publication Shooting Sports Retailer, industry marketing consultant Bruce Bear warned:
If we don’t improve at cultivating new hunters and shooters, the sport we love and industry we work in will eventually die away. That’s a strong diagnosis, but a realistic one. Like many enthusiast sports in this busy, competitive world, people are leaving faster than new ones are coming in — and this is a recipe for industry-wide trouble down the road.
Urging that the gun industry “Reach Out to Young Guns,” Bear warns, “It’s absolutely critical for us to pass a love of shooting and hunting on to the next generation,” and quotes a Dallas-area gun store owner: “Many baby boomers are getting older and getting out of hunting and shooting, and we need new people to replace them.” Adds Bear, “Working with kids and their parents is not only good business, it is helping families discover the fun of sharing shooting sports together.”7
The industry’s concern is easily understood looking at the demographics regarding not only hunting, but household gun ownership overall. According to the General Social Survey (GSS)8 conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago:
- From 1977 to 2014, the percentage of American households that reported having any guns in the home dropped by 40 percent.
- During this period household gun ownership hit its peak in 1977, when more than half (53.7 percent) of American households reported having any guns. By 2014, 32.4 percent of American households reported having any guns in the home, a drop of more than 20 percentage points.
- In 2014, less than a third of American households reported having a gun in the home.
One of the “main reasons” cited by NORC for the decline in household firearms ownership is “the decrease in the popularity of hunting.” In 1977, 31.6 percent of adults lived in a household where they, a spouse, or both were hunters (see Table Two). By 2014 this number had dropped by more than half, to 15.4 percent.9
According to a survey from a 2015 National Shooting Sports Foundation marketing study, 72 percent of gun owners began hunting between the ages of six to 15 years old. After age 15, the percentages drop precipitously: 12 percent began hunting from age 16 to 20; three percent began hunting from age 21 to 25; and only six percent began hunting over the age of 25 (seven percent began hunting at age five or less). Recognizing that hunting is the primary means by which youth are introduced to guns, the focus on children is no surprise.10
The gun industry’s recognition that it relies on winning the “hearts and minds” of America’s children has not changed since NRA President Marion Hammer’s day. What has changed is the openness with which the industry and its lobbying partners carry out this mission, the lethality of the types of firearms they are promoting, and the sophistication of their marketing efforts to children. Bolt-action rifles are being supplanted by military-style assault rifles. Six-shot revolvers have given way to semiautomatic pistols. And just as before, a constant, underlying goal of this outreach effort is to ensure not just the financial well-being of the industry, but the political viability of the pro-gun movement.
While under federal law an individual must be 18 years old to purchase a rifle and 21 years old to purchase a handgun from a Federal Firearms License (FFL, the basic federal license required to deal in firearms) holder, federal law as regards possession is far more lax. Federal law is mute on long gun possession by those under the age of 18, and while federal law ostensibly prohibits handgun possession under the age of 18, there are numerous exceptions. State law on gun possession varies by jurisdiction.
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