Ryan Busse the author of Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry That Radicalized America, writes in The Atlantic:
Americans are rightly anguished by gun violence and the question of what’s motivating the young men who have committed a succession of horrific mass murders. We seem to be fumbling around for answers: Is it racism and radicalization, or untreated mental illness, or toxic video games, or too-easy access to guns? All of these may be parts of the problem, but equally none of them makes complete sense outside of the larger context: The gun industry’s modern marketing effort did not just arm these shooters; in a very real sense, it created them.
This is something I know a bit about, as someone who spent a quarter century in the business. Over my years as a rising executive with a successful gun manufacturer, I became more and more disturbed by the sort of firearms the industry was selling, how it was selling them, and to whom. Next week, I am testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform at a hearing that, in the words of its chair, Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, “will examine the role of gun manufacturers in flooding our communities with weapons of war and fueling America’s gun violence crisis.”
When I got my first job in the gun industry, in 1995, the marketing centered on hunting, target shooting, and responsible self-defense. Many advertisements evoked a love of craftsmanship and the outdoors, and some, like this 1995 Ruger ad, even directly addressed its customers as “responsible citizens”—a tagline the company dropped from its advertising in 2007.
Companies such as the European American Armory, an importer of cheap, mostly Eastern European guns, that used cheesy ads—like this one from 2008—to sell imported guns were a rarity. Little did I realize that those tacky exceptions were the gun industry’s future.
Those ads, designed to appeal to young men who knew no better, were the starting point for marketing that would create a new customer base and change our country forever.
This transformation received its first boost in the mid-aughts when President George W. Bush allowed the assault-weapons ban to sunset and then signed a bill that gave broad protection from liability to gunmakers. Combined, those moves reduced the social stigma and potential legal penalties for edgy marketing of military-style rifles. Over time, larger, more mainstream gunmakers began to experiment with marketing messages previously relegated to the disfavored fringe of the business.
Young men were the target. They had disposable income, a long customer life, and a readily exploited fascination with guns. The push to access these new customers took off in 2010 when the AR-15 maker Bushmaster launched its “Man Card” advertising campaign.
The ads, which ran in several gun-industry publications, on websites, and in Maxim magazine, were controversial and gained national attention. More important, they showed the rest of the industry the power of an appeal based on masculinity to the 18–35 male demographic, at a time when images from America’s foreign wars were airing constantly on the evening news.
“The Bushmaster Man Card declares and confirms that you are a Man’s Man, the last of a dying breed, with all the rights and privileges duly afforded,” the ad copy read. If you’re hearing there, in “dying breed,” an anticipatory echo of the “Great Replacement” theory that inspired the alleged killer in May’s mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, you’re not mistaken: The conclusion that this type of marketing has contributed to creating today’s radical violent extremists is inescapable.
Another echo: One of the guns used by the Buffalo shooter was a Bushmaster XM-15. Of course, the great majority of people who own this rifle have never done anything illegal with it, but one other exception is notorious. On December 14, 2012, a troubled young man from Newtown, Connecticut, used an XM-15 rifle to kill 20 children and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary. Bushmaster ended its “Man Card” campaign soon after the Sandy Hook massacre, but other gun manufacturers had taken notice of the company’s sales success.
Smith & Wesson was a more mainstream, traditional brand that chose to take a chance on marketing weapons nearly identical to those carried by soldiers and cops, which could legally be sold to the general public with minor modifications. Hence the name of its M&P15, essentially the same rifle it supplied to its military and police customers. With behind-the-scenes urging by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the main industry trade association, Smith & Wesson added Sport to its branding of the rifle—relying on the social acceptability of hunting and target practice to launder the lethality of the gun.
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