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The debate over gun control in America often centers around firearms production and distribution. But in recent years gun company marketing techniques have come under scrutiny, as major manufacturers seek out a new and arguably vulnerable audience. Paul Solman has the story.
The debate over gun control in America often centers around who should own guns and what kinds are appropriate.
But, in recent years, the marketing techniques of gun companies have come under scrutiny.
Paul Solman has that story.
Thinking about buying a gun?
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Be like rapper Post Malone, #gunporn. And even if you're still in grade school or use a pacifier, you can get your Man Card at the top of the testosterone food chain.
Sarah Gaither, Duke University:
This is a Bushmaster firearms ad. And this is a very clear, unambiguous statement that if you are feeling insecure about your manhood, struggling with issues of fragile masculinity, the easiest way for you to reissue that masculinity is to buy their gun. Very simple.
Psychologist Sarah Gaither studies male aggression.
When we think about what it means to be a man, it's very fixed, right? You have to be aggressive. You have to be tough. You have to protect your family.
And the messages that gun ads in particular are showing are specifically targeting men who are struggling with this notion of what it means to be a man in our society.
And sometimes leads them, she says, to violence.
Not true, says the National Shooting Sports Foundation's LARRY KEANE.
Larry Keane, National Shooting Sports Foundation:
Well, advertising commercial products is protected by the First Amendment, so long as it's truthful and doesn't incite violence. And I don't think the advertising by the industry, generally speaking, does anything remotely like that.
OK, a little backstory. In the '90s, gun marketing focused on hunting and target practice. But with hunting slumping, by the mid-2000s, gun companies started to shift their advertising to a new audience.
Ryan Busse, Former Firearms Executive:
I sold lots of guns. Probably personally responsible for selling a couple million guns.
As a firearms salesman, Ryan Busse watched the pivot, especially to young men.
That demographic group, say 18 to 35, has been a near exclusive focus for the firearms industry for the last 15 years.
In 2005, President Bush signed a bill that gave broad legal protection to gun manufacturers, a law that made it significantly harder to hold the companies accountable, including for how they marketed their weapons.
Busse, a gun owner and enthusiast since childhood, began to worry. Then, in 2012, the Sandy Hook shooting pushed him over the top, and out of the industry.
What I'm really worried about is, it's accelerating. The sort of stuff that I know is coming down the pike with regard to advertising is all about encouraging this odd faux machismo, masculinity, own the room with guns. And it's really, really dangerous.
Here, if you get a gun and ammunition, you can be just like this man in the military. You can act like you're a military member. You can act like you are defending your country every single day of the year and not even enroll in the military.
Whenever anyone is struggling with belonging issues, wanting to fit in, wanting to aspire to be someone that they think they need to be, they're looking for messages everywhere as a way as a cue. Those are the men who we find are more likely to be aggressive, more likely to look to guns or other means of aggression to sort of reassert their manhood.
I also showed several of the ads to Larry Keane.
Are the ads not aimed, to some significant extent, at young men?
They're directed at law-abiding Americans. Adult young men who have a constitutional right when they turn 18 are fully vested in their constitutional rights and they purchase firearms for hunting, target shooting and self-defense, just like other Americans.
Well, and some of them for mass shootings, a few of them.
You can't even measure how small it is in the total universe of people who purchase firearms.
So, what about this one? I mean, isn't this an appeal to a young man to feel more manly?
I would reject the premise of that. They may be appealing to young men. They're also appealing to lots of individuals who are law-abiding and want to purchase those products for lawful purposes.
I'm afraid that the audience will think you're being disingenuous by not seeing that as an appeal to a person's lack of sense of manliness.
If you have any questions about any particular ad, you should address it to the company that produced the ad.
Well, we did reach out to gunmakers. None of them responded, for example, Smith & Wesson — that's their corporate headquarters — makers of the semiautomatic M&P 15, in 2020, the bestselling rifle in America.
Experience more performance.
An M&P, or military and police, shown in this ad, looks just like the gun in the first-person shooter game "Call of Duty," so popular among young men, the same gun used in several shootings, at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012, in Parkland in 2018, and, more recently, at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois.
Mark Barden, Father of Sandy Hook Victim: That is Daniel, in a nutshell, smiling and running.
Seven-year-old Daniel, so kindhearted, he used to rescue worms from frying in the sun and return carpenter ants to their families outdoors.
Nearly a decade ago, he was one of 20 children and six educators shot and killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. His mom, Jackie Barden.
Jackie Barden, Mother of Sandy Hook Victim: I was in my school. I was a schoolteacher. And I had I said, nothing is going to happen. It's Daniel. It was his school. Nothing will happen to him. He's special. I mean, I really believed that up until the end.
The gun used in the shooting, a Remington Bushmaster, subject of the Man Card campaign.
We both were, just how did this happen? How does somebody come across these weapons? I didn't even know about an AR-15 or magazines. And I was just aghast that I started seeing these Man Card ads, and I just couldn't believe that that was out there, that people were seeing it.
The Bardens and eight other families wound up suing Remington for marketing AR-15-style guns to civilians.
This February, Remington's insurance companies paid out $73 million, which the Bardens hope will restrain other gunmakers. The settlement also required Remington to release thousands of pages of internal marketing documents, expected to soon be released to the public.
Hopefully, that will be a wake up call to the industry.
Daniel's dad, Mark Barden.
There's a direct correlation between the reckless advertising and marketing practices that Remington was using and acts of violence by people who were targeted by that marketing.
That was what sort of what inspired us to say, is there a legal recourse here to just advertise more responsibly and certainly less recklessly?
I told the Bardens one of Larry Keane's responses.
Some of them for mass shootings. And he says: "You can't even measure how small it is in the total universe of people who purchase firearms."
Is he actually trying to say that it's — the lives lost are worth it or insignificant or don't matter in the grand scheme of things? It's not a high enough number? What's the threshold?
Now, Keane's group is headquartered in Newtown, only three miles from Sandy Hook Elementary.
You're a spokesman for the industry. But if you had experienced what folks in, say, Sandy Hook experienced, your family, would you speak differently about this, do you think?
It's a terrible tragedy. But what we see all too often is, particularly in these high-profile events, is, it's not a failure of gun control, but it's a failure of the mental health system in our country to provide these individuals with the help that they needed long before these incidents occurred. And we continue to see that.
So, Keane says, his group supported some parts of the gun legislation recently signed into law, which provides roughly $13 billion for mental health and school safety.
But the group ultimately opposed it. Both the Bardens and Ryan Busse like the law, but think the industry needs to be much more seriously reined in. Unlike tobacco or alcohol, gun marketing is not federally regulated.
It's just wrong. It may be legal, but it's certainly not moral. We have to figure out as a country what is necessary to rebuild this system of mores and norms that the industry itself once adhered to not very long ago.
So, we have to figure out a way to put this back where it belongs. Otherwise, it's going to rip the country apart.
As if we're not being ripped far enough apart already.
For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman.
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Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
Layla Quran is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour. She was previously a foreign affairs reporter and producer.
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