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Gun industry targets children for sales pitch

  • Article by: MIKE McINTIRE
  • New York Times
  • January 26, 2013 - 6:59 PM

 

Threatened by long-term declining participation in shooting sports, the firearms industry has poured millions of dollars into a campaign to ensure its future by getting guns into the hands of more, and younger, children.

The industry's strategies include giving firearms, ammunition and cash to youth groups; weakening state restrictions on hunting by young children; marketing an affordable military-style rifle for "junior shooters" and sponsoring semiautomatic-handgun competitions for youths; and developing a target-shooting video game that promotes brand-name weapons, with links to the websites of their makers.

The pages of Junior Shooters, an industry-supported magazine that seeks to get children involved in the recreational use of firearms, once featured a smiling 15-year-old girl clutching a semiautomatic rifle. At the end of an accompanying article that extolled target shooting with a Bushmaster AR-15 -- an advertisement elsewhere in the magazine directed readers to a coupon for buying one -- the author encouraged youngsters to share the article with a parent. "Who knows?" it said. "Maybe you'll find a Bushmaster AR-15 under your tree some frosty Christmas morning!"

The industry's youth-marketing effort is backed by extensive social research and is carried out by an array of nonprofit groups financed by the gun industry, an examination by the New York Times found. The campaign picked up steam about five years ago with the completion of a major study that urged a stronger emphasis on the "recruitment and retention" of new hunters and target shooters.

The overall objective was summed up in another study, commissioned last year, that suggested encouraging children experienced in firearms to recruit other young people. The report, which focused on children ages 8 to 17, said these "peer ambassadors" should help introduce wary youngsters to guns slowly, perhaps through paintball, archery or some other less intimidating activity. "The point should be to get newcomers started shooting something, with the natural next step being a move toward actual firearms," said the report, which was prepared for the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Hunting Heritage Trust.

Kids are wired 'to take risks'

Firearms manufacturers and their two primary surrogates, the National Rifle Association of America and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, have long been associated with high-profile battles to fend off efforts at gun control and to widen access to firearms. The public debate over the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and elsewhere has focused largely on the availability of guns, along with mental illness and the influence of violent video games.

Little attention has been paid, though, to the industry's youth-marketing initiatives. Proponents argue that introducing children to guns can provide a safe and healthy pastime, and critics counter that it is potentially dangerous.

The NRA has for decades given grants for youth shooting programs, mostly to Boy Scout councils and 4-H groups. Newer initiatives by other organizations go further, seeking to introduce children to high-powered rifles and handguns while invoking the same rationale of those older programs: that firearms can teach "life skills" like responsibility, ethics and citizenship.

Still, some experts in child psychiatry say that encouraging youthful exposure to guns is asking for trouble. Dr. Jess Shatkin, the director of undergraduate studies in child and adolescent mental health at New York University, said that young people's brains "are engineered to take risks," making them ill suited for handling guns. "There are lots of ways to teach responsibility to a kid," Shatkin said. "You don't need a gun to do it."

Steve Sanetti, the president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said it was better to instruct children in the safe use of a firearm through hunting and target shooting. The shooting sports foundation, the tax-exempt trade association for the gun industry, is a driving force behind many of the newest youth initiatives. Its national headquarters is in Newtown, just a few miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Adam Lanza, 20, used his mother's Bushmaster AR-15 to kill 20 children and six adults last month. Its $26 million budget is financed mostly by gun companies, associated businesses and the industry's annual trade show, said its latest tax return.

Although shooting sports and gun sales have enjoyed a rebound recently, the long-term demographics are not favorable. Licensed hunters fell from 7 percent of the population in 1975 to fewer than 5 percent in 2005, federal data said. Galvanized by the declining numbers, the industry redoubled its efforts to reverse the trend about five years ago.

The focus on young people has been accompanied by foundation-sponsored research. The Times reviewed more than a thousand pages of these studies, some of them produced as recently as last year.

Sanetti said the research was driven by the inevitable "tension" the industry faces, given that no one younger than 18 can buy a rifle or a shotgun from a licensed dealer or even possess a handgun under most circumstances. That means looking for creative and appropriate ways to introduce children to shooting sports. "There's nothing alarmist or sinister about it," he said. "It's realistic."

Pointing to the need to "start them young," one study concluded that "managers and manufacturers should target programs toward youth 12 years old and younger." The effort has succeeded in a number of states, including Wisconsin, which in 2009 lowered the minimum hunting age to 10 from 12.

Protecting a way of life

Junior Shooters' editor, Andy Fink, acknowledged in an editorial that some of his magazine's content stirred controversy. But if the industry is to survive, he said, gun enthusiasts must embrace all youth shooting activities, including ones "using semiautomatic firearms with magazines holding 30-100 rounds."

The confluence of high-powered weaponry and youth shooting programs does not sit well even with some proponents. Stephan Carlson, a University of Minnesota environmental science professor whose research on the positive effects of learning hunting and outdoor skills in 4-H classes has been cited by the gun industry, said he "wouldn't necessarily go along" with introducing children to more powerful firearms. He said, "I guess it goes back to the skill base we're trying to instill in the kids. What are we preparing them for?"

For Larry Potterfield, the founder of MidwayUSA, one of the nation's largest sellers of shooting supplies and a major sponsor of the Scholastic Steel Challenge, getting young people engaged with firearms strengthens an endangered tradition. He and his wife, Brenda, have donated more than $5 million for youth shooting programs in recent years. Potterfield, who said his children started shooting "boys' rifles" at age 4, said his campaign was motivated by philanthropy. "We grew up and live in rural America and have owned guns, hunted and fished all of our lives," he said. "This is our community, and we hope to preserve it for future generations."

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