Many Americans would be surprised at the age at which some parents introduce their children to firearms. This was made clear in April 2013 when a two-year-old Kentucky girl was unintentionally shot and killed by her five-year-old brother with a 22 caliber rifle he had received as a birthday gift. The gun, a Crickett rifle manufactured by Keystone Sporting Arms, the self-proclaimed “leading rifle supplier in the youth market,”11 is specially designed for children. On its webpage, a friendly cartoon character stepping into the Joe Camel role for the company, “Davey Crickett,” holds a rifle and stands atop the company’s slogan: “My First Rifle.”12 “Crickett Logo Wear” in the company’s catalog includes an armed Davey Crickett Beanie Baby (“not for children under three years of age”13), a Davey Crickett “trading pin,” and a “My First Rifle” dog tag. The company also has a promotional YouTube video for its child-sized weapons.14
Various “Crickett Logo Wear” for children from Keystone Sporting Arms
On the company’s website, cartoon “story books” from Little Sportsman Inc. include My First Rifle as well as a series featuring a freckled-faced protagonist named “Little Jake” which includes the titles Little Jake and the Three Bears and Little Jake On Safari.
In Little Jake and the Three Bears, Little Jake decides he needs a bear rug for his bed to keep warm during the “long cold winter.” He then gets on his ATV, visits his friend the game warden to get his “bear-hunting license,” and then visits his “favorite sporting goods store” where his friend Jerry sells him the necessary “hunting supplies.” Little Jake then waits for bear hunting season to begin, “getting very excited” and noting, “It was almost like waiting for Christmas.” After coming across bears that were either “too small” or “too big” to keep him warm, he finds one that is “just right,” and shoots it, noting that the bear “never felt a thing.” The story ends with Little Jake in bed, covered by his bear rug, eating “tasty bear sausages.”
In Little Jake On Safari, Little Jake, his dad, and their hunting party interrupt their hunt for buffalo in Africa to aid a local village where there “has been a big bull elephant destroying their crops….” Little Jake and the hunting party go to the village, where they look over a scene of bent corn and smashed watermelons. After it’s explained to Little Jake that “These are not the cute, loveable animals you see in cartoons and at the circus” but “one of the smartest and most dangerous animals on earth,” the hunting party eventually comes across the elephant, who charges. Little Jake aims “for the brain” and brings the elephant down with two shots from his elephant gun with a “Bang!” and a “Bam!” The local villagers come, and before they start “harvesting the huge animal,” begin “singing and dancing around, happy that the elephant would never again destroy crops or hurt anymore [sic] people.” In the end, the tribe’s chief gives Little Jake the elephant’s tusks as a gift “so that you will always remember the time you saved my village.”
In a bizarre and brazenly transparent disclaimer, the publisher of the Little Jake series explains that even though Little Jake looks, talks, and acts “like a child”:
Little Jake is a fictional character in his late teens. While small in stature so that young children may relate to him, Little Jake is old enough to hunt and fish safely on his own without adult supervision. As this series evolves with new titles, readers will learn more about Little Jake, his background and family. Soon we will be introduced to Little Jane (Little Jake’s younger sister) through her own book series.15
Despite the presumed acceptability, and even desirability, of the combination of children and guns presented on the Keystone website, across the country, sorrow at the tragedy of the Kentucky shooting was followed by shock and surprise that not only could a five-year-old legally possess his own gun, but that there was a significant faction of the gun industry geared toward this market.
A 2014 article from NRA Family InSights on guns for children under eight years of age offers a snapshot of just one gunmaker’s efforts, Marlin, to target children, right down to the creation of a real-life “Marlin Man” by the company:
There’s been a lot of talk about getting kids interested in shooting. Now, we’re finally seeing firearms manufacturers getting serious about it. Several companies are offering firearms sized just for kids. Marlin has taken a very bold step in that direction. They’ve done things right with their new XT line of .22 rifles. These rifles are not just sized for kids; they’re completely designed for kids.
Marlin took a different approach than many companies, which just put a shorter barrel on a rifle and cut the stock off a bit. Marlin engaged in a lengthy research program using real kids as test subjects. They looked at every aspect of a rifle in an effort to determine what they could do to make it more kid-friendly.
Their efforts paid off and in a big way. I got to see this first-hand at an event held at the Glade Springs Resort in West Virginia. Like many companies that launch a new firearm, Marlin invited several firearms journalists to come and see these new rifles. But this time, Marlin went a step further: They asked the writers to bring their kids.
This made perfect sense, because what better way to evaluate rifles sized specifically for kids than to let kids shoot them? Before the event got underway, the kids spent the morning riding horses. And then, when they arrived at the range, they got to meet the Marlin Man and his horse in person. The Marlin Man is the mounted cowboy Marlin has used as a logo for many years. He was brought to life for the kids at this event and he stirred the cowboy in everyone present.
The kids were turned loose on the range, which was staffed with Marlin employees and members of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. After two days of shooting thousands of rounds of .22 LR ammunition, the verdict was in: Marlin’s XT 22 Youth rifles are winners. If you’re a kid looking for your first rifle, this is the gun you need to tell your parents about.16
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