Clarification: A prior version of this story mischaracterized which 1960s riots Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, was referring to. He was speaking of protests after the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King.
Taurus pistols promise to “win the fight” with home intruders; Benelli tactical shotguns are ready to defend “Iraq, Afghanistan, your living room”; and you might consider buying Wilson Combat’s $2,500 “Urban Super Sniper” model rifle that is so precise its .223 caliber rounds can hit within an inch at 100 yards.
A USA TODAY review of thousands of gun company magazine advertisements spanning decades shows a gradual marketing shift from guns as tools for hunting to guns as necessities to protect your home and your family. The inflection point – the moment self-defense came to dominate – has been pegged by researchers to about 2011, two years after President Barack Obama took office with a platform that included gun control.
That shift is driving efforts to slow a different trend: Annual gun sales peaked during the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 21.5 million sold in 2020. Another 19 million were sold last year – the second-highest ever recorded.
The US is investing millions to stop gun deaths. Is it going to the right communities?
Democrats and advocates seeking to address gun violence argue that owning a gun does not make your home safer, a case for false advertising, and that marketing offensive “tactical operations” with military-grade weapons constitutes unlawful use of the product.
Just as Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man became flashpoints for a crackdown on cigarette ads in the 1990s, a handful of images are dominating the national debate. Among them is a series of ads from Remington about a “combat” AR-style rifle for “the infinite number of extreme scenarios you’ll face in the worlds of law enforcement or personal defense.”
Seeing an opening, gun control advocates have filed a series of complaints and petitions with the Federal Trade Commission, the independent agency charged with protecting consumers from unfair or deceptive marketing.
In Congress, Democrats are seeking action against gun marketing, too, with a bill aimed at a crackdown and the top oversight committee has been hounding firearm manufacturers for details of their advertising and sales.
The messages use fear to suggest everyone needs a firearm to defend themselves and their property, according to David Pucino, deputy chief counsel at Giffords, the gun control group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords. Pucino maintains that is a lie.
“All public health research shows you’re less safe, your own family is more likely to be the victim,” Pucino said. He pointed to the $73 million settlement in February over gun advertisements in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting as evidence that the dam is breaking in the gun ad space.
In their petition to the FTC, the coalition of Giffords, gun safety group Brady and March for Our Lives pointed to studies showing cohabitants of handgun owners were seven times more likely than adults in gun-free homes to be killed by a spouse and 3.4 times more likely to be the victim of unintentional shootings – a figure that rises even higher for children.
They point to the FTC’s recent orders against the CBD industry, vaping products and various purported COVID-19 remedies as evidence the commission can intervene when manufacturers don’t accurately convey public health risks of their products. Three of the commission’s five current members are Democrats.
“These messages are toxic, and the FTC has clear authority; it’s false and deceptive,” Pucino said.
Gun industry lobby groups including the National Rifle Association have for years pointed to anecdotes of good guys with guns, sometimes citing harrowing and heroic examples in their marketing and advocacy. The petition to the FTC says the statistics prove those claims are the exception rather than the rule.
“The allegation that the advertising is deceitful because they think the research shows you’re more likely to be harmed by a firearm … well, millions of Americans don’t agree with that,” said Larry Keane, vice president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents manufacturers and retailers of firearms. “These groups don’t like the advertising; they don’t like the product and they project their own biases into the ads they see.”
The foundation filed its own letter with the FTC in July responding to the petitions, which said the commission must “zealously guard” its independence from being “drawn into ideological crusades by deep-pocketed special interests.”
Images, products shift from hunting fields to home battlefields
Whether the firearm industry has led or followed a shift in consumer demand is a matter of debate.
Keane says it’s the latter.
“Over time we’ve seen fewer licensed hunters and a changing demographic of gun owners,” he said. “Consumer demand and taste has evolved, and marketing has evolved along with it.”
David Yamane, a Wake Forest professor who has studied the gun marketing shift over the past several decades, said the trends are a “two-headed arrow,” where marketing and taste is iterative and both mirrors and molds consumer behavior.
A USA TODAY text string analysis of the most recent 155 editions of the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine dating back to 2009 shows a distinct focus on home defense, tactical weapons used in military settings and the protection of your loved ones in a gunfight.
The word “defense” appeared in ads and stories an average of 21 times in the magazines, about as often as “tactical.” By comparison, “hunt” and “shooting sports” averaged 11 and nine mentions per edition respectively.
Handgun ads in the July 2022 issue market to consumers who carry concealed weapons in everyday situations. Walther advertises its F-series, designed for smaller-handed women, with the slogan: “It’s your duty to be ready.” Sneaky Pete lists what it calls its “deception” belt pistol holsters for $39.95, complete with labels such as “Insulin pump” and “First Aid Kit.”
Democrats and gun control activists say firearm marketing has crossed a line, with many ads intended to attract young men who want to use the battle-tested gear they see in war and video games. They’ve keyed on messages about the military, including “Use what they use.”
The print magazine spots represent a small slice of gun advertising but often reflect the industry’s biggest players, which have taken cues from smaller manufacturers looking to make a splash with edgy marketing. American Rifleman’s editorial content mirrors the ads in vocabulary and imagery – shifting in the 1990s and 2000s to more frequently portray guns as personal protection.
The Wake Forest researchers in 2020 demonstrated how gun advertisements have embraced a “gun culture 2.0” by moving from hunting and recreational shooting to defense and personal protection. They dated the slide to the 1980s, with the two trends crossing around 2011 and continuing until the vast majority of gun ads were directed at consumers purchasing for defense.
Groups have tried petitioning FTC before
When Beretta began advertising in Ladies Home Journal in the early 1990s, gun violence researchers started to take notice of the shift.
The spots featured an unsecured, loaded pistol on a bedside table and instructed consumers to “tip the odds in your favor” and to think of a gun as “homeowner’s insurance.” They led the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence – the precursor to Brady – to file its first petition with the FTC in February 1996.
Joined by children’s health groups and pediatricians, the gun control group argued that ads suggesting you’re safer with a gun were unfair and misleading.
In April, a new petition re-upped that call for action. This time, the effort includes petitions and complaints about Daniel Defense – the manufacturer of the AR-style rifle used in the Uvalde shooting – and against Smith & Wesson by Fred Guttenberg, father of a child killed in the Parkland shooting.
Since its inception in 1914, the FTC has never taken action against gun manufacturers. The commission declined to answer questions for this report.
But the momentum could be shifting. Legislators grilled two gun company executives last month about advertising tactical weapons used in war zones and ads featuring children. After Smith & Wesson failed to testify or provide documents, Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney issued a subpoena seeking sales and marketing information.
Democrats pressed Marty Daniel, CEO of Daniel Defense, at the hearing in July about an ad featuring a child that the company deleted after the Uvalde shooting.
“We took this ad down, although it had a good message,” Daniel said. “We took it down because children had just been killed and we didn’t think it was appropriate.”
This week, Smith & Wesson CEO Mark Smith issued a response to what he called an “unprecedented and unjustified attack” on his company and the firearms industry. However, in a fact sheet, the company listed measures it said would guarantee responsible advertising.
“Content should be directed to adults; Content should promote firearm use only in a responsible manner; content should not contain cartoon-like or game-like imagery; Content should not depict, promote, or encourage unsafe or irresponsible firearm use,” the fact sheet read.
In late July, Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., introduced the Responsible Firearms Marketing Act to crack down on “irresponsible advertising,” pointing to the same cluster of flashpoint ads: Daniel Defense’s social media post featuring a child holding a rifle, Remington’s ads reissuing your “man card” and a “JR-15” rifle designed to be “sized correctly and … operate just like Mom and Dad’s gun.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom called the “Wee1 Tactical” JR-15 .22-caliber rifle’s ads “sick” in July when he signed legislation to restrict marketing to children in the state. The legislation has been challenged in court, and a judge is set to hear arguments on an injunction to block the law next week.
Malinowski’s bill directs the FTC to investigate gun ads and specifically consider any that market to children, encourage illegal use of the product or promote “semi-automatic assault weapons” – with fines of up to $46,517 for knowingly violating the rules.
“The gun industry at some point recognized there was money to be made by appealing to and encouraging the anti-government and increasingly extremist fringe that believes it has to arm itself to the teeth to prepare for some sort of political war in America. It’s irresponsible and dangerous,” Malinowski told USA TODAY.
“There’s not a perfect solution – and we’re a country with freedom of speech and I’m a big believer in that, but I do think that a combination of appropriate regulation and public shaming can go a long way to address this problem.”
NRA magazine marks slow shift to home defense
American Rifleman’s editorial journey from hunting to self-defense can be traced through magazine archives dating back to the 1920s, housed at the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Early on, covers featured a wide range of gun-related activities – hunting, gunmaking, competitions, many just close-ups of a firearm.
Inside, advertisements often promoted gun-related equipment, ranging from steer hide shell cases to power scopes and anti-glare shooting glasses by Ray-Ban. Also scattered through the years were ads for war memorabilia – including Nazi-era – and a push for kids to learn to shoot dating back to the 1930s.
When ads touched on defense, the early focus was military defense against America’s foreign enemies, not self-defense against criminals and intruders. In one April 1923 issue, DuPont advertised gunpowder by reminding people of the battle of the Alamo and how their company – established in 1802 – “helped to blaze the trail of freedom for 121 years.”
By the late 1960s, however, change was afoot. A September 1967 issue featured an article by John E. Osborn, a former U.S. Secret Service agent and lifetime NRA member, titled “Guns, Crime and Self-Defense.” In it, Osborn argued that “murders, kidnappings, rapes, hold-ups, and other crimes of violence would be drastically reduced if the law-abiding citizenry were permitted to keep and bear arms for defense.”
The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy galvanized American attitudes toward gun ownership and prompted the Gun Control Act of 1968. It put limits on interstate commerce and bolstered gun shop regulation. That laid the groundwork for the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which set up the existing boundaries for who is to be prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms.
Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, said up until the ’60s, America’s gun population was primarily focused on hunting and shooting. And while self-defense was an element, it was a limited one. But the riots of the late 1960s changed that, and the fear of growing crime caused an uptick in handgun ownership.
“That’s when self-defense anchored itself as part of the gun debate,” he said.
The NRA was changing too. In the 1970s, the organization considered moving from Washington, D.C., to Colorado Springs to build a national center focused on hunting and shooting. But in May 1977, in what became known as the Revolt at Cincinnati, then-Executive Vice President Maxwell Rich was replaced by Harlon Carter, a lobbyist and former NRA president.
“Under Carter’s leadership, the NRA developed into a powerful political force. It adopted a ‘no compromise’ stance in defense of the Second Amendment that is often controversial,” according to a Cincinnati Enquirer article.
If the covers of American Rifleman are any indication of a shifting gun culture, it shows a clear foothold for guns for self-defense in the 1980s, with articles about the changing gun laws and what it meant for armed citizens. The magazine’s January 1984 issue featured a story titled, “Women Gunowners: Tired of Living in Fear,” and the November issue had another on “The Right To Bear Arms for Self-Defense.”
By the mid-1990s, promoting guns for self-defense had become more overt. The front cover in December 1995 features the SIG P239, a semi-automatic pistol then-considered a popular choice for law enforcement – and concealed carry.
Inside the issue a photo accompanying a story shows a woman in her car, looking over her right shoulder – her left hand on the steering wheel, right ready with a pistol.
“Those that choose to carry are making up an important market segment, and the publicity about right-to-carry laws has made even those who don’t care to carry sit up and take notice of concealable arms,” according to the article, written by Robert W. Hunnicutt, the magazine’s technical editor.
An advertisement for the “smaller semi-automatic SIG Sauer P230 pistol,” describes its “ergonomically ideal grip angle” and says it “is the ideal personal protection handgun: safe, compact and concealable.” Another shows a purse to “conceal with style,” and multiple ads market gun vaults, one of them underground.
By 2003, hunting ads had become the minority.
Kids have long been part of marketing pitches
While featuring children in gun ads recently became a political flashpoint, an emphasis on youth has existed in gun magazines for decades.
The NRA focused on teachers, seeking to counter what it viewed as anti-gun curriculum. “It was the only way to get into schools,” Sugarmann said.
In the January 1986 issue, an NRA ad called on teachers to step up, stating concern about anti-gun and anti-hunting bias based on a textbook that said the Second Amendment was not significant anymore “except for its propaganda weight in arguments over gun control.” The ad states: “It’s taking a toll on a youngster’s attitude on firearms rights.”
A Violence Policy Center report found that in 1907, NRA advertisements called on boys to become a “Junior Marksman” or organize NRA rifle clubs in their schools to “instill the principle of manhood and loyal citizenship in the youth of the land.”
The center's report cited a September 1963 American Rifleman editorial that said “the desire to shoot a gun, like the desire to drive an automobile, is one of the strong instincts of many youngsters. A gun should not be a forbidden implement which must be investigated by a child in secret and without the practical skill to handle it. A knowledge of firearms should be a part of the education of every boy (and every girl who is so inclined) until he becomes so familiar with them that he will do no harm to himself or to others.”
Children were a mainstay on covers, shown as far back as the 1940s target shooting or posing with a gun.
A March 1949 edition of the magazine featured a gun advertisement for a Harrington & Richardson Arms Co. “Targeteer Junior” .22 Caliber Bolt Action Repeater. A sketch of a boy target shooting appears under the title, “Lets Small Fry Score High!” The advertisement also reads, “No straining or distortion of position when youths from eleven to early teens put the ‘Targeteer Junior’ to their shoulders.”
Over the years, the magazine depicted shooting guns as a family activity, or as part of a tradition to be passed down.
The September 1967 issue, with four teens on the cover who had won the junior rifle championship, also included an article, “A Boy’s First Hunt” by Margaret Jensen, about her son going on a hunting trip with his father.
“Such a once-in-a-lifetime day offers memorable opportunity to teach the rare satisfaction of being a good sportsman, of understanding that hunting regulations must be observed, that shooting is only part of the sport, and that much real pleasure comes with the camaraderie and good companionship of hunting,” she wrote.
Advertisements in the March 1982 issue focused on family, particularly the father-son relationship. One by Sturm, Ruger & Co. included a poem, “A Father’s Advice,” where a paragraph reads, “Never, never let your gun, Pointed be at anyone. That it may unloaded be, Matters not the least to me.”
Despite a push for safety around children according to a report by the Violence Policy Center, between 1986 and 1995 more than 2,200 children under the age of 14 in the U.S. died from unintentional shootings.
In response, NRA President Marion Hammer helped develop Eddie Eagle in 1988, a mascot who taught children from preschool through sixth grade about gun safety. Children were told that whenever they came across a gun, they had to follow a four-part mantra: “Stop! Don’t touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult.”
The policy center argues that the NRA developed Eddie Eagle not to increase safety “but to protect the interests of the NRA and the firearms industry by increasing the acceptance of guns by children and youth.”
Gun industry says market will set guardrails for ads
The firearms industry sees the current campaign to influence the FTC as an end-run at gun control – and sees gun marketing as protected broadly by both the First and Second Amendments.
Keane, the gun lobbyist, said activists are trying to “weaponize” the decision of the Connecticut Supreme Court that allowed the suit against Remington in the wake of Sandy Hook to proceed based on the company’s marketing tactics. He cast doubt on any notion that the FTC would jump into the heated debate.
The free market should be left to decide if advertisements cross a line or are in poor taste, he said. The National Shooting Sports Foundation doesn’t screen advertisements in sponsored marketing material or at the industry’s annual SHOT Show convention in Las Vegas.
“We don’t police or review them; it’d be an impossible task,” Keane said, although he added: “If somebody tried to buy space and put a topless woman up there we’d probably not allow that.”
Platforms that host advertisements are free to set their own rules, however. Primetime broadcast television has shunned gun ads for years. In 2013, Fox rejected a Super Bowl ad from Daniel Defense, pointing to an NFL prohibition on gun and ammunition ads.
The NRA did not answer questions about the gun control efforts to crack down on ads or its own advertising practices. Media kits provided to advertisers in NRA publications reads: “The National Rifle Association … reserves the right to reject any advertising for any reason at any time.”
USA TODAY and Gannett publications generally accept gun advertisements that adhere to internal guidelines, but reserves the right to refuse ads with "military-style weapons, graphic imagery or for other reasons."
Yamane, the Wake Forest professor, writes and speaks about liberal gun owners, including himself. He said that although it makes sense for the FTC to get involved in regulating firearm ads, the bar for proving misleading advertisements is high.
“There’s the issue of if on average gun ownership makes people less safe, that average would include tens of thousands for whom guns made them safer,” Yamane said. “I wonder how this would apply to other forms of security advertising. I’m bombarded by ads for security systems and cameras claiming they make you safer. Should the FTC regulate that?”
Nick Penzenstadler is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigations team. Contact him at email@example.com or @npenzenstadler, or on Signal at (720) 507-5273. Amritpal Kaur Sandhu-Longoria is the consumer watchdog on USA TODAY’s investigations team. Send her your tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, @AmritpalKSL, or on Signal at (434) 473-4073.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gun ad crackdown coming? Critics say firearm marketing needs rules