How Gun Inc. Made a New Sort of Shooter

How Gun Inc. Made a New Sort of Shooter

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.

A Ruger rifle ad
(Sturm, Ruger & Co.)

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.

A European American Armory ad featuring a female model
(European American Armory)

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.

[Ryan Busse: The rifle that ruined America]

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.

A Bushmaster ad with a picture of a rifle and the words,
(Bushmaster Firearms International)

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.

A picture of a Smith & Wesson M&P15 Sport II, including the gun's specifications and features
(Smith & Wesson Brands, Inc.)

For Smith & Wesson’s move into the AR-15 market to pay off, the industry as a whole would need to shift from an older, more conservative reliance on hunting and self-defense to an approach dominated by the new tactical culture.

[Graeme Wood: Think gun laws are hard to change? Try gun culture.]

Few of this new breed of firearms company are more illustrative of the dramatic transformation that has taken place in the U.S. gun market than Daniel Defense. Like scores of entrepreneurs who saw this opportunity in the early 2000s, Marty Daniel started a gun company that soon turned to AR-15 sales. And he set a new industry standard by leaning into a civilian market for guns touted as the military real deal. One of the company’s early ads, in 2012, lured young men with the promise of being on par with Special Forces soldiers.

By 2016, Daniel Defense marketing was working so well that it won a coveted spot on the cover of Popular Mechanics magazine. The company’s press release proclaimed that the placement of its rifle in the “Tough Guys” issue was a “major accomplishment” because it would help Daniel Defense reach a “more mainstream audience.”

A 2016 cover of Popular Mechanics magazine that features a Daniel Defense rifle
(Hearst Magazines)

Like many other firearms companies, Daniel Defense also sought placement of its products in movies and video games. This Facebook post from 2019 alerts followers to the appearance of one of its DDM4 V7 rifles in the new Call of Duty: Modern Warfare game. The DDM4 V7 was used by the 18-year-old gamer turned shooter in Uvalde, Texas.

The gun industry could have shunned this type of promotional activity. Instead, it chose to penalize those who did. When Ed Stack, the then-longtime CEO of the major retail chain Dick’s Sporting Goods, stopped selling AR-15s after the Parkland school murders, the NSSF moved swiftly to expel Dick’s from its membership. By contrast, in 2021 the foundation honored Marty Daniel with a seat on its industry board of governors.

By adopting such aggressive marketing, companies like Daniel Defense dragged older, more established companies into using similar strategies. With the norm-breaking of the boldest setting the trend and demonstrably creating new consumers, the rest had to follow.

By 2016, publicly traded gun-industry stalwarts such as Ruger and Smith & Wesson were deeply dependent on the emerging tactical market; by 2020, Smith & Wesson’s M&P15 had become America’s best-selling rifle. Not surprisingly, the company’s stock price soared—even as its customer base grew to include the young killers in the mass shootings at Parkland, Florida; Aurora, Colorado; and Highland Park, Illinois.

For an insider like me, the part that industry marketing was playing in creating these customers was unmistakable. The danger signs were evident in places like the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show, the industry’s marquee annual event. Usually held in Las Vegas, the SHOT Show is one of the world’s largest trade conventions. I attended more than 25 of them and witnessed their transformation—from an event that once prohibited the display of militaristic tactical gear to one where that became the default.

An ad from Spike's Tactical that shows armed men and reads,
(Spike’s Tactical)

At the show in 2018, I noticed a huge ad for Spike’s Tactical, an up-and-coming AR-15 maker from Florida. Although this event was more than two years away from the protests and violence that erupted in American cities in the summer of 2020, the ad encapsulated an explicit appeal to those drawn toward armed confrontation with left-wing agitators. Antifa had a limited national profile before 2017, when its members were among counterprotesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, but Spike’s quickly identified it as the enemy of loyal gun-owning Americans. The ad elicited some criticism, but the industry was silent.

[Kimberly Wehle: The best hope for fixing America’s gun crisis]

In June 2020, when towns across America saw Black Lives Matter rallies and armed counterprotests, my own 12-year-old son was assaulted by an armed man dressed like a character from the Spike’s ad. I had to jump in to protect my son, who was doing nothing more than chanting “I can’t breathe” with a group of his friends, when one of those gun-toting goons started screaming uncontrollably and jabbing at his chest. More than 100 armed men like him were at that rally.

In that instant, my fears for what the industry was doing became very personal. I did not myself sell AR-15s or participate in the incendiary marketing, but I could no longer ignore the fact that my business was profiting from promoting images of such men, with their backward-facing ball caps and loaded AR-15 rifles. This type of vigilante or self-styled militiaman was preparing to deploy across the country, in our hometown, or other hometowns like Kenosha, Wisconsin.

A photo of Kyle Rittenhouse carrying a Smith & Wesson M&P 15
(Adam Rogan / The Journal Times / AP)

Kyle Rittenhouse, a boy who also looked as though he had been plucked from that Spike’s ad, killed two people, and wounded a third, during unrest in Kenosha. Most Americans were horrified at this spectacle, but to the gun industry, he was a hero, someone who took “owning the libs” to a deadly and lucrative new level.  

Hours after Rittenhouse was acquitted on all charges, Big Daddy Unlimited, a major firearms retailer based in Gainesville, Florida, sent out a social-media post that appeared to endorse the view that Rittenhouse was not a cautionary tale but a masculine ideal of armed citizenry—as the Fox News host Tucker Carlson put it, “exactly the kind of person you’d want more of in your country.”

As I discovered, Big Daddy Unlimited’s post contained another, yet more sinister meaning. I would have missed it if I had not recalled seeing someone wearing a Make Zimbabwe Rhodesia Again ball cap at the 2018 SHOT Show. A friend then reminded me of the Facebook profile image of the mass murderer of nine Black parishioners in a South Carolina church, in which he is seen wearing a jacket decorated with a Rhodesian flag—iconography much celebrated by U.S. white supremacists. Variations of this image from a famous Rhodesian-army recruiting poster crop up across all the main social-media platforms.

A Rhodesian-army recruiting poster that reads:

The similarity between the Rhodesian-army poster and the Florida retailer’s Rittenhouse social post is too obvious to miss. (Big Daddy Unlimited’s CEO told The New York Times that the meme had been created by a former employee who was unaware of its historical significance and that it was meant only “to recognize justice for Kyle Rittenhouse.”) The retailer aims to be “the premier online destination” for more than 300,000 firearm products and advertises itself to subscribers as a Second Amendment defender: “Join our Revolution today!”

The lionization of Kyle Rittenhouse tapped into something powerful already under way: Fear of rioters and the power to kill them was proving a winning formula for creating new customers. Wilson Combat, an Arkansas gunmaker, was one company poised to take advantage of public anxiety about civil strife, advertising on its website an AR-15 model marketed as the Urban Super Sniper. “There are times when extreme accuracy and rapid follow-up shots are the most important criteria when selecting a rifle,” the site proclaims.

A promotional photo of Wilson Combat's

Even the mainstream publication Firearms News had taken up the theme in last year’s edition of its magazine Be Ready!

A cover of Be Ready! magazine that depicts a father wielding a rifle as two men are about to attack his family

The old responsible industry prohibitions were gone. Everywhere I looked, I saw advertisements that played on the new fear-based tactical culture. In the final months of my gun-industry career, I snapped photos to document the change, such as is evident in this banner from the tactical-gear maker Viktos, above a main entrance to the 2020 SHOT Show. Its combination of fire from a modern AR-15 and a Revolutionary War soldier is a historical mash-up we saw repeated with spooky exactitude at the January 6 Capitol riot a year later, when insurrectionists acted on a “1776 Returns” plan and waved Come and Take It AR-15 flags.

An ad by Viktos displayed at the 2020 SHOT Show, which depicts a Revolutionary War soldier firing a modern-day rifle
(Courtesy of the author)

Gun sales have soared to historic highs over the past three years. Those sales have only confirmed the industry’s strategy for achieving growth, and so the marketing effort has become only more addicted to conspiracy-theory-fueled political partisanship. One new company, Live Q or Die, began trading on the QAnon cult by selling Q-branded AR-15s (the letter is stamped on the lower receiver of this model advertised on the company’s website).

An illustration of a

Another company, Palmetto State Armory, has used imagery clearly designed to appeal to the Boogaloo Bois, which the FBI has identified as a far-right, domestic terrorist threat, with products such as this AK-47-style pistol decorated in a “Big Igloo Aloha” pattern that closely resembles the group’s signature aloha shirts.

An image of a floral-themed AK-47-style pistol sold by Palmetto State Armory
(Palmetto State Armory)

Palmetto State Armory—which is both a major retailer, enjoying the support of big brands like Smith & Wesson, and a manufacturer in its own right, producing tens of thousands of firearms each year—also sells AR-15 parts that carry the anti-Biden slogan “Let’s go, Brandon.”

Palmetto State Armory is far from alone in pitching to violent extremists. Much of that now happens through social-media posts like this one from a leading tactical-gear company that shows a masked gunman wearing a Boogaloo-like shirt and smoking a cigar, which has become a motif of the Proud Boys—including inside the Capitol on January 6.

By 2021, I had quit the gun industry. I now work on the outside to alert the American public to the dangers I see in this marketing. To me, it undeniably created a culture of extremism that encouraged a new type of “tactical” mass shooter. America is seeing the deadly results of the violence incubated by these dark advertising fantasies.

As for the once-anomalous practice in the industry of using sex to sell products to young men, this is now ubiquitous among the hundreds of companies that sell tactical gear such as helmets, bulletproof vests, and “Contractor AF” (as fuck) pants.

One could be forgiven for wondering how the gun industry could possibly make things worse, now that so many troubled adolescent males have had their “Man Cards” issued, but I’ve learned that it can. After Kyle Rittenhouse, a new industry mascot is coming into view: the tactical toddler set to become the new gun-marketing trend.

A few months ago, the 2022 SHOT Show in Vegas welcomed a pioneer in the field: Wee1 Tactical is a company that uses cartoons to market JR-15s (Junior AR-15s) to kids. Customers flocked to its booth, and the company was named on some “best of” show lists.

An information sheet for Wee1 Tactical's
(Wee1 Tactical)

On May 16, Daniel Defense posted a photo of a toddler cradling one of its AR-15s, captioned with a Bible verse beginning “Train up a child in the way he should go.” Just over a week later, schoolchildren in Uvalde were mutilated and murdered by shots fired from a Daniel Defense rifle. Since the shooting at Robb Elementary, this image has been vociferously criticized, but not by the firearms industry or the NSSF, which still counts Marty Daniel among its trusted leaders. To the rest of the industry, including those small companies hungry to make their mark, this complicit silence confers approval for this next step in firearms marketing.

A Twitter post by Daniel Defense featuring a Bible verse and an image of a toddler holding a rifle
(Twitter @DanielDefense)

Through bitter experience, we know what today’s typical mass shooter looks like and where he’s taking his cultural cues from. Now the industry is giving us a glimpse of its next customer: the American child soldier.

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