Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

NRA Outrageously Pushes Assault Rifles on Young Teens and Grade Schoolers

There are scary consequences to thinking of kids as a ripe gun market.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

If you go to the “clubs” page on the JuniorShooters.net Web site, the first thing you’ll see is a striking young woman with sandy blonde hair, bright blue eyes, manicured nails and a fashionable jacket peering through the scope of a futuristic-looking Anschutz 8002 air rifle, costing $2,500. She easily could be the envy of other young teens.  

That is exactly the hope of America’s gun manufacturers, which have underwritten a litany of youth shooting initiatives across the country in recent years to entice a new generation of gun buyers by turning to the strongest forces in teenage lives—peer pressure and a desire to act like a grownup.

But the sleek descendants of old-fashioned, single-shot rifles are not the only weapons being put into young hands to cultivate America’s next generation of gun users and buyers. On Junior Shooters' “Cool Stuff” page are videos, starting with one of another pony-tailed girl hoisting and firing a military-style rifle from the back of a moving pickup truck in an early stage of a firearms obstacle-course contest.

“You got a lot of gun there for a little girl,” an unseen person next to the cameraman blurts out as the truck speeds away. “Ah—yup,” replies a voice.

The girl is seen breaking down doors, shooting at moving targets with handguns and rifles, pulling two guns from holsters on her legs, and jumping from a tower and firing away as she rides a cable and sling carrying her for 50 yards. As she finishes the gauntlet, a small crowd of middle-aged men clap and cheer.

These vistas are windows into a frontline in America’s gun culture that is not before Congress—even as it begins its debate on banning the military-style weapons used in the Sandy Hook school shooting that killed 20 first-graders and six adults. In Congress, one hears the gun lobby’s same talking points that have killed or watered down bills for decades. But inside America’s gun culture, where manufacturers know that young people’s interest in guns is waning (as confirmed by their polling), new and eyebrow-raising efforts are being made to market guns to young teens and children.

“In a saturated market of durable goods, how do you get more buyers?” asked Joan Burbick, author of Gun Show Nation: Gun Culture and American Democracy, stating the industry’s quandry. “This new emphasis, which really started around 2007, to go rather aggressively after young people, pre-18-year-olds, is something new. They have all these problems with their demographics going down, the popularity of sport shooting going down, so where is the next generation going to come from?”

The answer, of course, is to try to make shooting more attractive to young people. But what’s different today is the range of sophisticated weaponry being put in young hands. While the rhetoric of teaching "responsibility, citizenship, marksmanship" is akin to what pro-gun groups like the Boy Scouts espoused for decades, what’s gone mostly unnoticed outside of gun circles is that kids today are not being taught with their dad’s old .22 rifle. Indeed, the Newtown shooter used a mix of handguns and modern rifles, not very different from guns in the videos on JuniorShooters.net’s Cool Stuff page. 

“They are using children to introduce them to a range of weapons as a potential future customer,” said Burbick. “They really have operated as if they have no restraints in the domestic market.”

Beyond the Reach of Law

If you only listened to the National Rifle Association, you would think the gun world was among the most heavily regulated industries. But the opposite is true. Gun makers have not been regulated by any federal agency, consumer or law enforcement, for decades.

“There is no federal regulatory agency that has firearms under its jurisdiction,” said Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which was created in 1973 but was barred from overseeing gun makers three years later. As the Wall Street Journal wryly noted in 1993, when Congress debated the last assault weapons ban, the federal government can “order the recall of toy guns, just not the real thing.”

In 2007, Congress went even further and gave gun manufacturers immunity from lawsuits arising from gun injuries and deaths. The gun makers had been sued by pro-gun control groups, and lawmakers sympathetic to the NRA responded by granting immunity. It was soon after this time, said Burbick, who spent years in NRA circles researching her book on gun culture, that assault weapons became part of the youth trainings run by NRA-certified instructors.

If you parse the research on the industry-supported National Shooting Sports Foundation Web site, you will find surveys of “modern sporting rifle (MSR) owners” stating that most adults did not learn about guns using military-style assault rifles. “Ninety-nine percent of all MSR owners owned some type of firearm prior to their first MSR purchase,” a press release said. “Nine out of 10 owned a handgun prior to acquiring their first MSR, and 34 percent of those under age 35 owned a paintball gun before owning their MSR.”

But across America today, semiautomatic AR-15 rifles are routinely being put into 10-year-olds' hands in introductory courses, such as this “junior safety” class south of San Francisco. The online pitch allows even younger “exceptions to the 10-year-old cutoff depend[ing] on the level of maturity of the individual child.” With this new status quo, it’s not surprising that a gun-friendly state senator in Missouri this week introduced a bill requiring that all first-graders take an NRA-certified gun safety class.

The leadership in the gun world knows that they have to find a new generation of gun users and buyers. Their problem and answer is candidly discussed in NSSF’s research. A 2012 “Peer Influence on Youth” report describes polls and focus groups with youths ages 8 to 17, finding most kids are wary of guns. Sixty-five percent said that “they did not like killing animals (or the idea),” and 44 percent had “a negative opinion” of target shooting. NSSF’s solution was what any parent can tell you—find kids who like guns to bring their friends. “Youth hunters and shooters are the key,” their executive summary concluded.        

As has often been the case with much gun-related marketing or lobbying, preying on fear has been a key theme in the industry’s sales pitch.

“Parents: would you rather your child find a gun, and try to figure out how to use it with their friend, or have a professional teach them the proper respect for firearms, and safety procedures?” reads the Junior Safety page for BayAreaFirearms.com. “The focus of this effort is to promote a healthy respect for firearms and develop superior safety and marksmanship skills in the youth of our area.”

What seems to be lost in this latest gun marketing strategy is whether young adults—and increasingly older children—have any capacity to understand the consequences of using the guns that are being put in their hands.

Jess P. Shatkin, New York University’s director of undergraduate studies in child and adolescent mental health, recently told the New York Times that “young people are naturally impulsive” and “their brains are engineered to take risks.” He said that there were many way to teach responsibilty that did not involve introducing kids to guns.

But the gun industry knows exactly what it is doing. It’s based on some of the same psychological insights that cigarette makers have used for decades, said Stanton Glantz, the University of San Francisco’s renowned tobacco marketing expert.

“The main marketing message that the tobacco companies use for kids is that smoking is a way to look grownup,” he said, saying the tobacco industry’s insistent advertising that cigarettes are only intended for adults is exactly what makes smoking attractive to young people. The gun industry corollary is that learning to use a gun will teach responsibility, citizenship and other adult life skills including self-defense.

All of those claims are generalities that are arguable at best. NYU’s Shatkin says there are many other less volatile ways to teach responsibility. Today’s NRA embraces a political philosophy that is anti-government, suspect of law enforcement, and portrays lone-but-armed Americans as a last line of defense—hardly hallmarks of citizenship. Moreover, suggestions that a gun always presents the best defense are also dubious.     

The BayAreaFirearms site notes that introducing people to guns is a far cry from using one effectively—particularly in self-defense. “Have you been psychologically trained, and prepared to deal with pulling a trigger and dealing with the aftermath of shooting another human being? If not are you making society, and your community safer?” it inquires on a page seeking to sell advanced training for adults. “No,” it continues.

Burbick said gun marketing typically overlooks the realities of using guns, which, she said was a dangerous message to give anyone, especially youths.

“These workshops are really teaching you to put a lot of faith in weapons, to give you the right mentality,” she said. “The allure of the gun, the power, the immediate rush of firing one—it is romanticized. It is presented as liberating and giving comfort. You think you’re in control. You think you can mete out justice and protection… That is so removed from real high-risk situations.”

Burbick said putting military-style weapons into the hands of young adults and children seems likely to backfire when it becomes known outside of gun circles.   

“It’s one thing to push this onto adults and women,” she said. “You can always talk about the specter of walking down the urban street and being raped. That is constantly what I’d get—do you want to take away the gun from that woman who is going to get raped? But this is different. They are talking about initiating children to be gun owners.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).