Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard Durbin (D-IL) speaks in front of published advertisements for assault weapons during a hearing about the mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, and civilian access to military-style weapons in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on July 20, 2022, in Washington, DC. Credit - Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images
America’s gun industry is currently fixated on selling military-style weapons to consumers—semi-automatic rifles similar to those used by soldiers, and handguns with high-capacity magazines like those carried by police officers. This has coincided with a rise in mass shootings in which dozens of people are killed or wounded in a matter of minutes—usually carried out by young men with AR-15-style rifles that they purchased legally.
The gun industry wasn’t always this way. In the early 20th century, gun manufacturers made a dramatic shift in advertising in an effort to sell more guns to Americans who were increasingly living and working in cities, according to Pamela Haag, author of The Gunning of America. Guns went from being advertised as tools next to plows in agricultural magazines to being marketed as central to American masculinity—essential for protecting family and property.
But Amy Swearer, who researches gun issues at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says these shifts resulted from natural changes in consumer demand. “I don’t think this is a case of the gun industry sitting there going ‘Well, how can we change American society?'” she says. “It’s the gun industry saying, ‘Well, we have fewer hunters and more people who want guns for self defense—of course we’re going to advertise accordingly.'”
The gun industry’s roots can be traced to the 19th-century era of European imperial expansion. “We were arming imperialism,” says Haag. “The four gun manufacturing titans in the 1800s—the Winchester Repeating Arms company, the Colt company, Remington, and Smith & Wesson—relied most heavily on international military contracts to survive.” Gunmakers were clustered in the Connecticut Valley—Colt, Winchester, Smith & Wesson (Springfield, Mass.)—due to a concentration of good power sources from water mills near the Connecticut River and skilled labor. Others, like Remington, originated not far away in Upstate New York for similar reasons.
Contrary to the popular image of American lever-action rifles and six-shooters being for cowboys and frontiersman, the industry’s biggest clients were monarchs like Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire—as well as other armies abroad and revolutionary groups. During the Russo-Turkish war, for example, Turkish soldiers armed with Winchester rifles—a precursor of the “gun that won the American West”—unleashed 20,000 shots per minute in one battle during the 1877 Plevna Delay.
After arming militaries overseas, the industry turned its attention to supplying Americans back home. “Major gun companies begin to sell the gun more as something that has a mystique and that has emotional, symbolic and even psychological value,” says Haag. “So it’s no longer just a tool. It’s kind of becoming a totem. It’s changed 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.”
Guns were marketed as necessary for self-defense out in the woods or on empty backroads. “Be prepared against country road hold-ups,” one early 20th-century Colt ad proclaimed. 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 were still needed even in a context where they might not have been really needed at all,” says Haag.
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In the late 1910s, ads for Winchester maintained that “real boys” deserved to own a gun. One ad 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 March 1921 sales publication for the manufacturer urged retailers to put guns in the hands of every 12-year-old. A boy should be taught to shoot a gun correctly because he’ll “get his hands on one sooner or later,” one ad intoned.
Fear and ideas about masculinity continued to be central to gun industry marketing campaigns in the 21st century— but accelerated dramatically, according to Ryan Busse, a former gun industry executive and author of Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America. He says the modern gun industry was born after the 1999 Columbine school shooting in Colorado, which left 13 victims dead. In 2021, NPR published secret tapes that revealed National Rifle Association representatives talking out their response to the shooting. As Busse sums up those conversations, “They basically had debates behind the scenes about, ‘Okay, do we give in and be conciliatory, or do we basically use these sorts of events to stir up hatred and fear and division and all the stuff that rules our politics now?’ And they obviously chose the latter.”
During the George W. Bush administration, the gun industry scored major legislative victories. In 2004, Congress let the federal assault weapons ban lapse—allowing previously restricted types of semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines to be sold. The following year, Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which says gun manufacturers and dealers can’t be sued for harms caused by the “criminal or unlawful misuse of firearm products.” Busse says it allowed gun manufacturers to market and sell their weapons without regard for who would buy them or how they would be used. National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre called it “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation” in recent years.
Busse argues the election of President Barack Obama and conspiracy theories including birtherism and false claims that the Obama Administration was planning to seize or restrict the sale of guns marked another turning point in the gun industry’s growth: Namely a focus on the AR-15 assault rifle and other militarized firearms. “The industry goes from [never having sold] more than about 7 million units in a single year prior to Barack Obama being elected to an entity that, by the time he leaves, selling almost 17 million units with lots of them being AR-15s,” Busse says. “By 2020 [the industry’s] preferred candidate [Former President Donald] Trump pours fuel on the nation and the industry sells almost 22 million units. So the industry more than quadrupled in size in less than a decade and a half.”
And gun marketers leaned into this trend—drawing on previous ideas of fear and masculinity. Famously, in 2012, Bushmaster, a subsidiary of Remington that specialized in AR-15-style assault rifles, ran an ad in Maxim magazine that said, “Consider your man card reissued.” Later that year, a Bushmaster rifle was used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 26 people dead. In 2020, Remington filed for bankruptcy—and sold off the Bushmaster brand. In 2022, the company agreed to a $73 million settlement with Sandy Hook parents.
Busse argues that while three to seven million guns are sold each year for uses like hunting, sports shooting, and target shooting, marketing that preyed on people’s insecurities during the pandemic drove annual sales of certain guns over the 10-million mark in 2020.
“Much of [the advertising is] wrapped up in all of the things that create fear in our society,” he says, “which Trump just instinctively knew how to put on steroids—COVID shutdowns, Black Lives Matter, an impending race war, civil war, more shutdowns—all the things that create angst, and, importantly, hatred, fear, conspiracy.”
Swearer, of the Heritage Foundation, says this argument misses out on a fast-growing segment of gun owners—Black women. “These sorts of characterizations of these advertisements being about white fear is coinciding with the most explosive rise in non-white gun ownership, possibly in American history,” she says. Some people of color have reported buying guns to protect themselves in response to high-profile killings of Black men and women.
Some of the oldest gun manufacturers make guns for military use; Remington and Colt have made M4 rifles for the Army, and following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Smith & Wesson sent pistols to the U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq so they could be given to the Iraqi military and security forces.
Swearer argues that the gun industry markets weapons used by military and police to indicate their quality, citing the Smith & Wesson’s M&P (military and police) line of firearms. “You have gun control advocates, who will [say] they are intentionally marketing military and police products to civilians in this sort of nefarious way to get products that are military and police to people who aren’t military and police.” Rather, she says, the goal is that consumers will think “if the police are using it, if the government thinks this is good, if the military wants to use these products, it probably tells me that it’s a pretty high standard…It’s not this emphasis on [the] assaultive, attacking nature of it; it’s the same tactic that they’ve been using.”
But Busse believes that the focus on military-grade weapons has already led to violence in the U.S. He cites research that the Buffalo shooting suspect did into tactical gear and the racist politics that he outlined in his manifesto before he allegedly killed 10 mostly Black people at a supermarket.
Busse predicts more such shootings in the social media era. As he puts it, “I think that we have a lot more of these on the way, and I think they have a direct line to much of the industry marketing that we see out there now. I think these shooters are being created.”