The gun industry isn’t the first to try to push deadly products into the hands of children.
That distinction belongs to the tobacco industry, whose efforts have continued despite federal regulation, medical evidence and decades of efforts to raise social awareness about the horrors of addiction.
When government cracked down on gimmicks like “Joe Camel,” loopholes were found, and then enlarged until you could drive a truck full of cigarettes right through them. Never underestimate the motivation of an industry battling to stay alive.
Which brings us to the new frontier for gun manufacturers: children. The industry is targeting kids and young adults to try to swell the ranks of gun enthusiasts.
Forget the baby-boomers who make up the bulk of customers for firearm sales. They’re getting old and many of them can’t get out in the woods anymore to hunt. They can’t help the industry expand the way it has for the past 30 or so years.
Hunters spent about $4.3 billion on guns and ammo last year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That’s a lot of scratch — more than half of what the industry pulls in annually — and gun manufacturers don’t want the hunting market to die off.
But the facts don’t lie. The hunting population is stagnant. Fewer people are growing up in rural areas, and fewer are growing up in hunting households. There are about 300,000 fewer hunters today than a decade ago and the number of hunters in the overall population has fallen from 7 percent to 6 percent. In 1991, 71 percent of hunters in the United States were under age 45. Today that number is fewer than half.
So, bring in the kids.
The National Rifle Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which effectively are arms of the firearms manufacturing industry, have been carefully cultivating the youth market.
The New York Times reported Saturday on its examination of the gun industry’s youth-marketing initiative. An industry study last year suggested that children who have firearms experience be encouraged to recruit other young people. The effort is aimed at kids ages 8 to 17.
This is not a parent or a grandparent carefully introducing shooting sports to young people, making a reasonable decision about when a young person is ready for the responsibility of firearms use. This is kid to kid. What could possibly go wrong?
Proponents of juvenile gun use say it introduces children to the safe and healthy use of firearms. They argue that it is a hobby that can captivate a person as a youth and that they can do for their whole lives.
That’s true enough when a responsible adult is involved. But marketing guns to children is potentially dangerous and reinforces a gun culture that doesn’t need reinforcement.
Youth shooting programs have been around for generations and existed mostly in Boy Scout groups and the 4-H. Those programs traditionally involved shooting single-shot rimfire rifles and BB guns, perhaps even archery, under adult supervision.
In the new youth effort, there are organizations that are trying to introduce kids to high-powered rifles and handguns under the rationale that firearms can teach skills such as responsibility, ethics and citizenship.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a non-profit that is financed primarily by the gun industry, is a leader in the attempt to get kids hooked on guns. The Times outlined some of the strategies the groups affiliated with firearms manufacturers are using to lure kids.
Among them: trying to weaken state restrictions on hunting by young children; giving youth groups firearms, ammunition and cash; marketing an affordable military-style rifle for young shooters; sponsoring semiautomatic-handgun competitions for youths and developing a target-shooting video game that promotes brand-name weapons and links to the Web sites of the manufacturers.
As if there weren’t enough shoot ‘em-up video games.
The industry’s youth-initiative effort already has a hold in Missouri, where Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, has introduced a bill to require gun safety training for kids in kindergarten through third grade. Part of the training includes a video and an NRA program featuring a cartoon character named Eddie Eagle.
An ad in Junior Shooters, an industry-supported magazine, encourages kids to share an article about shooting a semiautomatic weapon with their parents. The ad copy reads: “Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a Bushmaster AR-15 under your tree some frosty Christmas morning!”
Just like the one used in Newtown, Conn.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.