Gun sellers’ message to American men: Man up
Last November, hours after a jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse of two shooting deaths during anti-racism protests in 2020, a Florida gun dealer created an image of him brandishing an assault rifle, with the slogan: “BE A MAN AMONG MEN.”
Rittenhouse was not yet a man when he killed two people and wounded another in Kenosha, Wisconsin — he was 17 — but he aspired to be like one. And the firearms industry, backed by years of research and focus groups, knows that other Americans do, too.
Gun companies have spent the last two decades scrutinising their market and refocusing their message away from hunting towards selling handguns for personal safety, as well as military-style weapons attractive to mostly young men. The sales pitch — rooted in self-defence, machismo and an overarching sense of fear — has been remarkably successful.
Firearm sales have skyrocketed, with background checks rising from 8.5 million in 2000 to 38.9 million last year. The number of guns is outpacing the population. Women, spurred by appeals that play on fears of crime and being caught unprepared, are the fastest-growing segment of buyers.
An examination by The New York Times of firearms marketing research, along with legal and lobbying efforts by gun rights groups, finds that behind the shift in gun culture is an array of interests that share a commercial and political imperative: more guns and freer access to them.
Working together, gun makers, advocates and elected officials have convinced a large swathe of Americans that they should have a firearm, and eased the legal path for them to do so.
Some of the research is publicly known, but by searching court filings and online archives, The Times gained new insight into how gun companies exploit the anxiety and desires of Americans. Using Madison Avenue methods, the firearms industry has sliced and diced consumer attributes to find pressure points — self-esteem, lack of trust in others, fear of losing control — useful in selling more guns.
In a paradigm-setting 2012 ad in Maxim magazine, Bushmaster — which manufactured the rifle used in the racist massacre in Buffalo in May — declared, “Consider your man card reissued.”
At the National Rifle Association convention in Houston last month, a Missouri-based gun maker, Black Rain Ordnance, featured a line of “BRO” semi-automatics punning on the company’s acronym: AR-15-style guns with names like BRO-Tyrant and BRO-Predator. Other vendors had similar messages.
The recurrence of mass shootings has provided reliable opportunities for the industry and its allies. Since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School a decade ago, gun sales have almost always risen sharply in the aftermath of major shootings, as buyers snap up firearms they worry will disappear from stores.
“Drawing attention to the concern that firearm sales could be further restricted will have a great impact on anxious buyers,” a firearms industry study from 2017 advised.
New York Times News Service