Gun Sellers' Message to Americans: Man Up

·15 min read
A man raffles off a golden AK-47 at the National Rifle Association convention in Houston, May 29, 2022. (Mark Abramson/The New York Times)
A man raffles off a golden AK-47 at the National Rifle Association convention in Houston, May 29, 2022. (Mark Abramson/The New York Times)

In 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 past two decades scrutinizing their market and refocusing their message away from hunting toward selling handguns for personal safety, as well as military-style weapons attractive to mostly young men. The sales pitch — rooted in self-defense, machismo and an overarching sense of fear — has been remarkably successful.

Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times

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 swath 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, New York, 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. Dozens of 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.

At the same time, guns rights groups have pushed an aggressive legislative and court agenda. For instance, it soon will be legal to carry a hidden firearm without a permit in half the United States.

In states where pro-gun forces do not have the backing of elected officials, they have taken up the fight in other ways. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on a New York case challenging a century-old law that allows local officials great discretion over who can carry a handgun, which is widely expected to turn into another gun rights victory.

Gun makers and their supporters argue they are only responding to a public need. A rush to buy firearms often coincides with concerns about personal safety or events that could spur legal limits on gun ownership, said Mark Oliva, a spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade group.

“I don’t think that’s a marketing trick,” he said. “I think, more than anything, it’s consumer demand that’s driving the appetite for these firearms.”

Whatever the source of Americans’ sense of unease, the result is a country flooded with firearms and no end in sight.

“Fear,” said Darrell Miller, co-director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law, “is an incredibly powerful motivator.”

Anxiety Sells

Marketing firearms for personal protection is nothing new. For the better part of the past century, certain gunmakers emphasized self-defense: One of the industry’s most influential campaigns was a 1996 ad in Ladies’ Home Journal that showed a Beretta handgun on a kitchen table, with the words “Homeowner’s Insurance.”

Still, hunting accounted for a majority of advertisements in Guns magazine from the 1960s to the late 1990s, according to a survey by Palgrave Communications, an online academic journal. The study found that “the core emphasis” shifted in the 2000s to “armed self-defense,” and that the percentage of hunting-related ads had dropped to about 10% by 2019.

This transition was accompanied by a surge in popularity of the Glock semi-automatic handgun and AR-15-type rifle, first widely used by law enforcement and the military. That provided a built-in market among veterans and former police officers, but also kicked off an effort to woo millions of men who liked to buy gear that made them feel like soldiers and police.

In 2009, a marketing firm hired by Remington to push its Bushmaster AR-15s settled on an ad campaign targeting civilians who “aspired” to be part of law enforcement. The first draft of the new pitch, later obtained by lawyers representing parents of children killed at Sandy Hook, exhorted buyers to use their new rifles to “Clear the Crack House,” “Ice the Perp” and “Save the Hostage.”

The company toned down the language but embraced the idea of trafficking in fears of urban crime and mass shootings, the documents showed.

Josh Sugarmann, founder of the Violence Policy Center, a gun control group that tracks firearms advertising and marketing, said the firearms industry became adept at exploiting disquieting developments to spur sales.

“If you look back, it hasn’t just revolved around mass shootings. They tailored their marketing to Katrina, Y2K, 9/11, pretty much everything,” he said. “Their goal is basically to induce a Pavlovian response: ‘If there’s a crisis, you must go get a gun.’”

Industry data shows that in 1990, an estimated 74,000 military-style rifles were manufactured for domestic sale in the U.S. That figure began to climb after expiration of the federal assault weapons ban in 2004 and reached 2.3 million in 2013, the year after Sandy Hook, when AR-style guns accounted for about one-quarter of all sales revenue, according to the Firearms Retailer Survey, an annual report by the industry trade association.

Along with the rise in gun sales has been an intensifying effort by the industry to understand — and influence — the American consumer. In 2016, the trade association commissioned its first “consumer segmentation” study that developed profiles of potential gun buyers with labels like “Unarmed Aaron” and “Weaponless Wendy,” who presumably could succumb to the right sales pitch.

The newest study, produced last year, is closely held and not circulated outside the industry, but a copy was obtained by the Times. It found that typical gun owners were white men in their 40s earning about $75,000 a year with a preference for handguns. “Less than half consider themselves to be very knowledgeable about firearms,” the study found, although they felt the need to have one.

A common theme in consumer sentiment is anxiety. The 2021 study contained two new categories of buyers: “Prepared for the Worst” and “Urban Defender.” Urban Defenders worry about crime, “do not trust others around them” and are most susceptible to the argument that tighter laws could threaten their ability to purchase a gun.

Gun owners “Prepared for the Worst” tend to have the lowest incomes and are the least likely to have a full-time job. They cite “building confidence” and “empowering themselves” as reasons to learn shooting skills.

To reach these fearful consumers, the trade association offered suggestions in another of its reports. One example depicts an image of a woman in a desolate urban setting, calmly pulling a handgun from her shoulder bag as a hoodie-wearing man approaches from behind with a knife.

That marketing approach may work for Weaponless Wendy, the report advised, but such “cheesy images” should be avoided when targeting Unarmed Aaron.

“It is important for the individual protecting himself or his family to appear to be a confident person while not seeming eager, delighted or excited to be in such a scenario,” the report said.

Beth Alcazar, a former teacher from Alabama turned firearms instructor, has translated these sentiments into practice. More than one-third of her clients are women, she said, adding that fear of crime is a major motivator for first-time gun buyers.

“It comes from not wanting to be a victim and from knowing there’s evil in the world,” said Alcazar, who has published a book for women on using handguns for self-defense.

Comrades in Arms

The aggressive messaging around fear has also helped define a newer crop of gun rights groups that increasingly overshadow the more deep-pocketed, but troubled, NRA. These groups, supported by the industry, have adopted a raw, in-your-face advocacy of near limitless freedom to own and carry firearms. Gun Owners of America, which lists more than 30 gun-related companies as “partners,” proudly calls itself the “only no compromise gun lobby in Washington.”

Their tone has grown more extreme along with the public discourse around guns in general. The Firearms Policy Coalition, which has launched numerous court challenges to gun laws around the country, used to sell T-shirts and bumper stickers with anodyne pro-gun mottos such as “Shall Not Be Infringed.”

But today, its online store has gear emblazoned with over-the-top barbs like “F**k Gun Control,” “Abolish the ATF” and “Go and Print It,” a reference to using 3D printers at home to make untraceable ghost guns. On social media, the coalition whips up members with warnings of an “impending GUNPOCALYPSE” wrought by weak or corrupt Washington politicians.

The image of Rittenhouse was put on Facebook by Big Daddy Unlimited, a firearms retailer in Gainesville, Florida, whose owners have said they started selling guns after the Sandy Hook massacre raised fears of new restrictions. “Be a Man Among Men” was a recruiting slogan used by the colonialist army of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and has gained popularity among white nationalist groups in recent years, although it is also used outside of that context.

Tony McKnight, CEO of Big Daddy Unlimited, said in a statement to the Times that the meme was created by a former employee who did not understand the historical significance of the phrase. “The post in question was meant to recognize justice for Kyle Rittenhouse, whose life came in danger while defending the community,” McKnight said.

Along with using heightened rhetoric, major gun rights groups have been working to roll back state-level restrictions. Their financial partners include companies such as Daniel Defense, the Georgia-based maker of the military-style rifle used in the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting in May, as well as major retailers like Brownells of Iowa, which last summer ran a promotion donating a portion of its sales to the Firearms Policy Coalition.

“Your purchases help defend our gun rights,” Pete Brownell, the company chair, said as he announced the incentive.

A major target of gun rights expansion has been laws limiting the carrying of concealed weapons in public. More than 20 states over the past decade have moved to eliminate or loosen requirements to have a permit.

“Owning a gun that is locked up in your home is not going to help you when you are targeted in a crime,” said Michael Csencsits, an organizer with Gun Owners of America, which has pushed for the repeal of concealed-carry laws. “People buy guns because they want to carry them.”

In pressing the two-pronged campaign to sell more guns and weaken restrictions, the industry and activists have been informed by marketing research that shows an increasingly diverse pool of customers. Timothy Schmidt, president of the United States Concealed Carry Association, said the new generation of gun buyers encompasses city dwellers, suburbanites and those in rural areas.

“It’s not just the angry white male anymore,” he said. “You’re seeing rising gun ownership among Blacks, among women. It’s really a different thing.”

JoAnna Anderson would seem to fit that demographic. A Black real estate agent in North Carolina, Anderson appears in a promotional video for SilencerCo, an online seller of devices that muffle the sound of a gunshot; its slogan is “Suppress the Fear.”

In an interview with the Times, she said she carried a gun while on the job because she feared running into disgruntled residents of homes being vacated. Her first purchase was a 9 mm Ruger pistol, although she now has a collection of seven guns, including a military-style rifle.

“We cannot expect the government to protect us,” Anderson said, “because they haven’t.”

Nick Suplina, a senior vice president at Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, said gun rights advocates tended to ignore data showing that firearms in homes often wound up hurting their owners instead of someone threatening them.

“While selling you this notion that a gun may provide security for yourself and your family, which is very appealing, they don’t tell you that owning a gun makes it two times more likely that somebody in the house will die of gun homicide or three times the likelihood they die by gun suicide,” he said.

Ascendant Gun Rights

After the mass shootings at Sandy Hook in 2012 and in Parkland, Florida, six years later, more than 30 states tightened gun laws, a successful effort pushed by well-funded groups such as Everytown, backed by Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City.

But the score card overall remains tilted toward gun rights, as states repeal concealed carry restrictions. Those victories have come amid the Republican Party’s embrace of Second Amendment absolutism and guns as central to its identity, a fervor that gun control proponents have not been able to match, Miller said.

“Gun rights advocates are reaping the benefits of a history of asymmetric intensity and political mobilization,” he said.

Energizing gun owners with a sense of alarm over the potential loss of rights has long been a reliable strategy of the firearms industry and its allies. Political candidates from both parties seeking the NRA’s blessing traditionally would try to be seen hunting ducks or plinking at targets to reassure supporters that their gun rights would be safe.

But in the 2010s, with the rise of the Tea Party and increasingly strident opposition to former President Barack Obama, Republican political messaging around guns took on a harder edge.

Christina Jeffrey, running for Congress in South Carolina, ran an ad in which she brandished an AK-47 assault rifle while asserting that gun rights were necessary “to ensure that our limited government stays limited.” In a Missouri governor’s race, Eric Greitens blasted away with a mounted machine gun while pledging to “fight Obama’s Democrat machine and their corrupt attacks.”

Such imagery has since become stock-in-trade. When Brian Kemp ran for governor of Georgia in 2018, one tongue-in-cheek ad showed him in a room full of firearms, leveling a shotgun near a young man interested in dating his daughter. It generated criticism, including from Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, who tweeted, “This recurring and uniquely American ‘joke’ is tiresome.”

Kemp responded dismissively with his own tweet: “I’m conservative, folks. Get over it!”

Groups like the Firearms Policy Coalition have filed dozens of court challenges to gun limits, and conservative judges, some appointed by former President Donald Trump, have delivered legal victories, including overturning a California law last month that placed an age minimum of 21 on purchases of semi-automatic rifles.

Suplina disputed the idea that this was an era of gun rights expansion, citing a recent modest gun compromise in Washington and some state-level victories, including laws banning or limiting ghost guns in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New York and Rhode Island. At least four states — Delaware, New York, Rhode Island and Washington — have put new limits on high-capacity magazines that can hold a large amount of ammunition.

“The fight is really intense,” Suplina said. “But for the first time in any recent period, the gun safety movement is showing up, meeting them on the battlefield, as it were, and that includes state houses and also Congress.”

Still, gun supporters are feeling generally optimistic.

“We are just at the start of expanding gun rights,” Csencsits said.

But lest its members become too complacent, Gun Owners of America has on its website a very different message about the state of things: Be afraid.

“A handgun ban coming to America?” blared a recent headline on the site. The post goes on to ask for a donation to stop “what could be the single biggest attack on our God-given rights.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company