It’s hard to know where to begin with gun advertising. Firearms ads are so blatant in their appeals to fear and their manipulation of our baser instincts that they stand out even among the products marketed by Fear, Inc. Home security systems, pepper spray, stun guns — none are advertised with the frothing hysteria that typifies firearms marketing.
The firearms industry’s marketing frenzy might be explained, at least in part, by the fact that its customer base is shrinking. Since 1985, the proportion of Americans who owned a gun dropped from 30 to 22 percent, which means that, even with overall population growth, gun makers have lost over a million customers. Don’t worry; they’re still doing OK. Despite the drop in customers, gun sales have risen steadily, presumably because the remaining owners keep acquiring more guns.
These trends suggest that, eventually, there will be one person in America buying all the guns, and the demographic data suggest it will be either Chuck Norris or Donald Trump. Gun owners are overwhelmingly white (82%) and male (74%). While white men make up 32% of the general adult population, they are 61% of the gun-owning population. And gun buyers’ whiteness is a major obstacle to the industry’s efforts to win over other ethnicities. Would you like to increase minority participation at your shooting range? The National Shooting Sports Foundation suggests celebrating Black History Month: “Have a shoot and have a professor of Black History come and give a talk over coffee.” That could be a nice gesture — provided your range isn’t one of the many that offer pictures of black men as targets.
Encouraging more women to buy guns hasn’t worked very well for the firearms industry either. Women respond poorly, it turns out, to stupid and dangerous advice like, “Shove a handgun into your panties when you go out running.” We also know what kinds of images you find if you search the Internet for “girls with guns” (Hint: I won’t link to any of them). We’ve noticed that the industry positions us as helpless, vulnerable to rape, and utterly reliant on weapons, or men with weapons, for protection. Most of us aren’t buying it.
In a bid to bring younger shooters into the fold, the NRA has tried re-writing fairy tales to give the child protagonists guns, allowing them to solve all their wolf- and witch-related problems with firepower. Unfortunately, for those who don’t live in an enchanted forest, encouraging kids to take up arms is counter-productive to the goal of increasing gun sales. After all, children don’t have a lot of disposable income; they need their parents to purchase guns for them. That’s hard for Mommy to do if you’ve shot her in the back.
Unable to broaden its appeal, the gun industry’s only option is to deepen it: to convince the shrinking pool of buyers that they need more and bigger guns, which they should be allowed to carry around in more public places. And so the tenor of firearms promotion grows increasingly strident. The way guns — especially handguns and assault weapons — are marketed today in America is a direct repudiation of the promise the Apostle Paul makes in his second letter to Timothy, that we are endowed by our creator with the gifts of power, love, and a sound mind.
Consider the advertising efforts of Glock, a privately-held Austrian company that supplies 65% of guns used by American police departments and many of those used by criminals. In the Glock promotional video “Wrong Girl,” a young woman becomes visibly frightened when a stalker in a windowless van knocks on her door (as stalkers always do). After the first knock, she sits down on her sofa and hyperventilates. After the second knock, she retrieves her Glock from under her bed, places it on the sofa next to her, and sets her jaw determinedly. At the third knock, she takes up a position in front of the door with her gun, and waits patiently for her attacker to kick it in. When he does, he sees her Glock and passes out.
Behold the power of this gun: its mere presence soothes and empowers young women; the mere sight of it renders attackers unconscious. What a wondrous object! Who wouldn’t want one?
Guns may seem like the ultimate source of power — certainly gun makers like Glock portray them that way. But this is not the power Paul was thinking of, the one he saw as a spiritual birthright. Weapons are an externalization of power; guns in particular encourage us to place our faith in a piece of technology that is dangerous by design, and fallible to boot. Yet the Glock “Wrong Girl” ad does get one thing right: Guns are imbued with certain mysterious powers. Research shows that guns distort our ability to assess risk. When you hold a gun, you’re more likely to believe that people around you are also holding guns, and you’re subsequently more likely to react as if threatened — for example, by taking aim with your own gun. And psychologists have known for almost fifty years that the mere presence of a weapon makes people more aggressive. As I’ve said before, a weapon may make you more dangerous, but it doesn’t make you any smarter. Guns, in fact, make you stupider.
Putting your trust in a weapon also impedes your awareness of other, more effective and less risky actions that are within your power. It never seems to occur to the young woman in the Glock ad to call 911, although she can see a suspicious vehicle parked outside, and knows someone is lurking around her front door, where he could easily be spotted from the street by a cop. She doesn’t call anyone else, either; perhaps she doesn’t have any friends, or a phone. She doesn’t even have a deadbolt on her front door, for heaven’s sake. All she has is the gun. That, apparently, is a perfectly good substitute for rational thinking, according to Glock. Who needs a sound mind and a range of options when you have 16 bullets?
And who needs love, either? Or empathy, or tolerance? Those are all things that will get you killed, because according to the gun lobby there are a lot of bad guys out there. The bad guy is a staple of firearms marketing — indeed, the entire ad campaign of any non-hunting or -sporting gun evaporates unless you assume his existence and proximity.
Compared to the stalker in the Glock ad, this promotional video from Smith & Wesson (manufacturer of the semiautomatic rifle used in the Aurora, Colorado theatre shooting, gives us very little information about the people who are presumably about to be shot down. We see camouflage-clad men pointing rifles in a swamp. We see police officers pointing their guns across the hood of their car. We see a husband pull a gun from a nightstand while his wife cowers in the bed. We don’t know who is about to die, but the assumption is that they deserve it. If you don’t accept that premise, most gun ads are simply footage of people preparing to commit murder.
By encouraging the belief that there are many circumstances under which it’s acceptable for the average person to point a loaded weapon at a living human being, gun makers and seller are preaching the opposite of love: they’re teaching unreasoning hatred. The premise of ads like Glock’s and Smith & Wesson’s is that guns are necessary tools because there are people out there who aren’t merely bad, but who deserve summary execution. Lots of them, and we are all at risk of encountering them in our daily lives.
It takes a special breed of salesman to traffic in that kind of ethical brainwashing — people like NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre, who makes $985,000 per year to say things like “Riots. Terrorists. Gangs. Lone criminals. These are perils we are sure to face — not just maybe,” and “there is no greater freedom than the right to survive and protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns, and handguns we want.” LaPierre personifies the American firearms trade: white, male, insulated from risk by his status and wealth, he is also increasingly angry, paranoid, and irrational — in public, in the course of doing his job, as an official mouthpiece of the industry. Sometimes I wonder what happened to LaPierre, what trauma he suffered to make him so angry that he feels justified using the deaths of twenty kindergartners to advocate for more gun sales. Then I recall the research showing that the mere presence of guns make us more aggressive, more paranoid. And I think LaPierre may simply be a victim of his own salesmanship.
He is no exception; LaPierre’s mindset is the norm among gun promoters. Of all the businesses that make up Fear, Inc. — all the companies touting goods and services to quell our fears — the firearms industry is the only one that seems to believe its own bullshit. It has created a myth of ceaseless, directionless terror, and swallowed it whole. The gun lobby is afraid of facts, laws, moms, and fast-food outlets. It has, quite publicly and deliberately, as a matter of policy, rejected compassion and reason.
This sociopathic approach to marketing earns gun and ammunition manufacturers $16 billion a year. What has it gotten the rest of us? American taxpayers pony up $12.8 million every day to cover damage done by gun violence — medical and legal costs, prison funding, mental health care, and more. Guns kill about 30,000 of us each year and send another 80,000 or so to the emergency room. Since 1968, firearms have killed more Americans than all the wars in our nation’s history.
We’re not buying their guns or their arguments, yet somehow, we’re still paying.