Gunmakers in the U.S. are facing intense scrutiny over how they market weapons to young consumers followingand , in which two 18-year-old male suspects purchased semiautomatic weapons shortly before carrying out the attacks.
Weapons like theused in the mass shootings are often marketed on social media through posts tailored to appeal to young adults and teens, gun control advocates and experts say. The messaging in these campaigns often seeks to portray them as tough and ready to confront home intruders and other threats.
Take the Instagram account of Daniel Defense, which markets its semi-automatic weapons to almost 600,000 followers. The closely held gunmaker’s marketing approach is drawing additional scrutiny since one of its firearms — an AR-15 style weapon — was used to kill 19 elementary school students and two teachers in the Uvalde massacre. The accused gunman bought the weapon soon after his 18th birthday, the age at which he was able to legally purchase a semi-automatic weapon like an AR-15.
Daniel Defense’s Instagram account features photos of members of the military holding its weapons, as well as celebrities such as actor Josh Brolin in “Sicario 2” and Grammy-nominated singer Post Malone wielding its products. Among the gunmaker’s favorite hashtags are #gunporn and #pewpew, with the latter referring to the sound effect of guns in television shows and cartoons. Its posts also often depict young men holding the company’s firearms. Daniel Defense and other gun manufacturers have also introducedto help consumers purchase AR-style weapons in installments.
Gunmakers generally don’t advertise on television because companies such as Comcast have restrictions against airing their ads and those of ammunition makers. Instead, gun sellers have turned to social media to market firearms to consumers, typically pushing messages that connect their weapons to law enforcement, the military and a feeling of patriotism, according to a 2020 study from researchers at Drew University.
“What you are seeing is the industry, in marketing these to kids, is priming youth for the day they turn 18 and go out and buy their first assault rifle,” said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the gun-control group Violence Policy Center, which looked at the gun industry’s marketing to youth and children in a 2016 report called “Start Them Young.”
Makers of semi-automatic weapons tend to use three strategies to appeal to younger consumers, Sugarmann said. First, some ads depict the gun owner as a hero on a mission, while a second approach is to align their weapons with those used by the military or law enforcement. Lastly, gun owners may be portrayed as fighting against some unseen force, like government control.
“You have children who are exposed to this,” he said. “There is no one controlling the websites, unlike tobacco or alcohol where you have to say you are 21” to access the site.
Gunmakers’ marketing, especially for the type of semi-automatic weapons used in the two mass shootings, is now attracting attention from lawmakers, with the House Committee on Oversight and Reform asking gunmakers including Daniel Defense and Sig Sauer to provide information about the production, marketing and sales of firearms used in mass shootings.
“Despite decades of rising gun deaths and mass murders using assault rifles, your company has continued to market assault weapons to civilians, reaping a profit from the deaths of innocent Americans,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, said in a May 26 letter to Daniels Defense CEO Marty Daniels.
The committee is holding a hearing on gun violence on June 8, with parents of some of the Uvalde and Buffalo victims scheduled to testify. No gunmakers are scheduled to appear.
Lawyers for the family of Amerie Jo Garza, one of the children killed in Uvalde, have asked Daniel Defense to preserve evidence including marketing plans, social media campaigns and advertising, according to the Texas Tribune. One lawyer on the team, Josh Koskoff, won afor Sandy Hook victims’ families after pursuing a legal strategy that the marketing of the gun used in the tragedy violated Connecticut’s fair-trade laws.
Koskoff didn’t return a request for comment. Daniels Defense didn’t return a request for comment about the scrutiny from lawmakers or its marketing approach.
From hunting to self-defense
Gunmakers “can heavily influence gun culture through their advertising and marketing practices, just as in any industry,” said Michael Siegel, a visiting professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine who studies the intersection of firearms, marketing and public health.
The firearms industry’s marketing “influences a range of aspects of gun culture, including the perceived purpose or uses of guns; the images, symbols, values and identity that is associated with gun ownership; and of course the demographic makeup of the gun-owning population,” he added.
While gun culture in America has historical roots in hunting, that activity has dwindled since the late 1970s, according to the Violence Policy Center. In 1977, about 32% of households included an adult hunter, but that figure had fallen to 15% by 2014, it found. Today, about 4% of the U.S. population hunts, and one-third of hunters are baby boomers, according to research from North Carolina State University.
But gun purchases haven’t declined. Instead, salesin recent years, partly as gunmakers emphasized a new reason for gun ownership: self defense.
“They created this myth specifically because they needed a ploy to increase sales in the light of a declining market for hunting and recreational firearms,” Siegel said. “It was brilliant and it worked extremely effectively.”
He added, “Today, the majority of gun owners state that the primary purpose of their buying a gun was for self-defense.”
To be sure, many social media messages and marketing approaches from gunmakers aren’t specifically geared to young consumers. But gun experts contrast the lack of oversight in gun marketing to the heavily regulated ads for other products considered dangerous to public health, like tobacco products.
“Unlike many other consumer products, the marketing of firearms is essentially unregulated,” Siegel said. “You can’t legally market an electronic cigarette to a 17-year-old, but there’s nothing stopping companies from targeting 17-year-olds with ads for assault weapons or any other type of firearm.”
He added, “Clearly, we need to think about marketing and sales restrictions for guns in a similar way that we do for other potentially harmful products.”
Meanwhile, after the Uvalde shooting Daniel Defense locked down its Twitter account, blocking followers from commenting or sharing tweeted posts, with one of its posts spurring public criticism for its portrayal of a toddler holding an AR-style semi-automatic weapon in his lap (The company’s Instagram account remains open.)
The image included a quote that urged parents to “train up a child in the way he should go” so that he “will not depart from it,” which Siegel characterized as a marketing message aimed at portraying gun ownership as “pure and natural and a part of the essence of life.”
Gun control advocates say they hope that the industry’s marketing practices, especially in ads directed toward teens and other young consumers, will draw more scrutiny in wake of the recent shootings. The House oversight committee’s request for data on marketing by big gunmakers “is a very important step forward to start exploring what are the marketing plans of these companies and focusing on this issue,” Sugarmann said.
But Siegel said he doesn’t blame the gunmakers, given that they are operating in a relatively unregulated environment.
“Ironically, it is not the gun manufacturers who I ultimately view as being responsible,” he said. “It is the very Congress members who will be asking them the questions. After all, it wasn’t Daniel Defense who decided that an 18-year-old should be able to purchase an assault rifle.”