The inside story of how guns are marketed and sold in America

The US arms industry currently fixed on sale military style weapons for consumers, semi-automatic rifles similar to those used by soldiers and handguns with high-capacity magazines such as those carried by police officers. This coincided with increase in mass shootings in which dozens of people are killed or injured in a few minutes – usually carried out by young men with AR-15 style rifles that they were purchased legally.

The gun industry wasn’t always like this. In the early 20th century, gun manufacturers made a dramatic shift in advertising in an effort to sell more guns to Americans who increasingly lived and worked in cities, according to Pamela Haagauthor of America’s Shootout. Guns went from being advertised as tools to plowshares in agricultural magazines to being advertised as central to American masculinity—essential to protecting family and property.

But Amy Swearer, who researches gun issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says these changes are the result of natural shifts in consumer demand. “I don’t think this is a case of the gun industry saying, ‘Well, how can we change American society?'” she says. “The gun industry is saying, ‘Well, we’ve got fewer hunters and more people wanting guns for self-defense — of course we’re going to advertise accordingly.’

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The roots of the arms industry can be traced back to the 19th century era of European imperial expansion. “We were weaponizing imperialism,” says Haag. “The four titans of arms manufacturing in the 1800s—the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, the Colt Company, Remington, and Smith & Wesson—relied most heavily on international military treaties to survive.” Gunmakers were clustered in the Connecticut Valley— Colt, Winchester, Smith & Wesson (Springfield, Massachusetts) – due to the concentration of good sources of power from water mills near the Connecticut River and skilled labor. Others, like Remington, originated not far from upstate New York for similar reasons.

Contrary to the popular image that American lever-action rifles and six-shooters were for cowboys and frontiersmen, the industry’s biggest customers were monarchs such as Czar Nicholas II of Russia and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, as well as other overseas armies and revolutionary groups. During the Russo-Turkish War, for example, Turkish soldiers armed with Winchester rifles – a precursor to “gun that won the american west”— fired 20,000 rounds per minute in one battle during the delay at Plevna in 1877.

After arming armies abroad, the industry turned its attention to supplying Americans back home. “The big gun companies are starting to sell the gun more as something that has mystique and that has emotional, symbolic and even psychological value,” Haag says. “So it’s not just a tool anymore. It kind of becomes a totem. It went from something that was maybe needed but not necessarily loved in the 1800s to something that was loved but not necessarily needed in the 1900s.”

The guns were marketed as necessary for self-defense in the woods or on empty back roads. “Be prepared for country road traffic jams,” proclaimed an early 20th-century Colt ad. The ads promoted keeping a Colt pistol tucked between car seat cushions or in a lady’s muff or handbag. “There’s a lot of effort to create a sense of fear, to create a sense that guns are still needed even in a context where they might not have been needed at all,” Haag says.

Frightened husband with gun and wife on staircase, “Protect Your Family”, advertisement, Smith & Wesson, circa 1901.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group—Getty Images

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In the late 1910s, advertisements for Winchester maintained that “real boys” deserved to own a gun. An advertisement from the era suggested that buying a rifle for “the kid you’re so proud of” equated to other rites of passage in a young man’s life. A manufacturer’s sales publication from March 1921 urged retailers to put guns in the hands of every 12-year-old. A boy needs to be taught how to shoot a gun properly because he’s “going to get one sooner or later,” says one ad.

Fear and ideas of masculinity continue to be central to gun industry marketing campaigns in the 21st century, but they are accelerating dramatically, according to Ryan Busse, a former gun industry executive and author of Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry That Radicalizes America. He says the modern gun industry was born after 1999 Columbine school shooting in Colorado, which killed 13 victims. In 2021 NPR releases classified tapes it revealed that representatives of the National Rifle Association are talking about their response to the shooting. As Busse summarizes those conversations, “They were actually having debates behind the scenes about, ‘Okay, should we surrender and be conciliatory, or do we basically use these kinds of events to incite hatred and fear and division and all the things that drive our politics now?’ And apparently they chose the latter.

During the administration of George W. Bush, the gun industry achieved great results legislative victories. In 2004, Congress let the federal ban on assault weapons lapse — allowing the sale of previously restricted types of semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines. The following year, Bush signed the Lawful Arms Trade Protection Act, which says gun manufacturers and dealers cannot be sued for damages caused by “criminal or illegal misuse of firearms products.” Busse says it allowed gun manufacturers to market and sell their weapons without regard to who would buy them or how they would be used. National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre called it “the most significant pro-gun legislation” in recent years.

Busse argues that the election of President Barack Obama and conspiracy theories, including birtherism and false claims that the Obama administration planned to confiscate or restrict gun sales, marked another turning point in the growth of the gun industry: namely, the focus on assault weapons. AR-15 rifle and other militarized firearms. “The industry starts from [never having sold] more than about 7 million units in the year before Barack Obama was elected to an organization that by the time he left had sold almost 17 million units, many of them AR-15s,” says Busse. “By 2020 [the industry’s] preferred candidate [Former President Donald] Trump poured fuel on the nation and the industry sold almost 22 million units. So the industry more than quadrupled in size in less than a decade and a half.”

Read more: I have been a lifelong supporter of the Second Amendment. It’s time for common sense gun control

And gun marketers have tapped into this trend – drawing on previous ideas of fear and masculinity. In 2012, Bushmaster, a subsidiary of Remington that specializes in AR-15-style assault rifles, is known to have run an ad in Maxim magazine that said “Consider your man card reissued.” Later that year, the Bushmaster rifle was used in Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting which killed 26 people. In 2020 Remington filed for bankruptcyand sold out the Bushmaster brand. In 2022, the company agreed to a $73 million settlement with Sandy Hook parents.

Busse claims that while three to seven million guns are sold each year for purposes such as hunting, sport shooting and target shooting, marketing that takes advantage of people’s uncertainty during the pandemic has driven annual sales of certain guns above the mark of 10 million in 2020.

“Large part of the [the advertising is] wrapped up in all the things that create fear in our society,” he says, “that Trump just instinctively knew how to put on steroids — shutdowns of COVID-19, black lives matter, impending race war, civil war, more shutdowns — all the things that create anger and, importantly, hatred, fear, conspiracy.

The Heritage Foundation’s Swearer says that argument misses a rapidly growing segment of gun owners —Black women. “These kinds of characterizations of these ads as fearing whites coincide with the most explosive increase in non-white gun ownership in possibly American history,” she says. Some people of color report buying guns to protect themselves in response high-profile assassinations on Black men and women.

Some of the oldest gun manufacturers made weapons for military use; Remington and Colt did M4 rifles for the Army and after the US invasion of Iraq Smith & Wesson sent pistols of the US Armed Forces in Iraq so that they can be given to the Iraqi military and security forces.

Swearer claims the gun industry markets weapons used by the military and police to show off their quality, citing Smith & Wesson’s M&P (military and police) line of firearms. “You have arms control advocates who will [say] they deliberately sell military and police products to civilians in this kind of criminal way to supply military and police products to non-military and police people. Rather, she says, the goal is for consumers to think, “If the police use it, if the government thinks that’s OK, if the military wants to use these products, that probably tells me it’s a pretty high standard… It’s not that emphasis on [the] offensive, attacking nature of it; it’s the same tactic they use.”

But Busse believes the focus on military weapons has already led to violence in the US. He cited research that Buffalo shooting the suspect was sporting tactical gear and the racist politics he outlined in his manifesto before killing 10 mostly black people in a supermarket.

Busse predicted more such shootings in the age of social media. As he says, “I think we’ve got a lot more of them on the way, and I think they have a direct relationship to a lot of the marketing in the industry that we’re seeing out there now. I think these shooters are being created.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman c [email protected].

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