Since 2020, firearms have been the leading cause of death for children and teens in America, killing thousands each year. Shootings and threats of gun violence in the nation’s schools have also escalated sharply. These trends are accompanied by another stark and evolving phenomenon: insidious marketing to kids by the gun industry.
The promotional tactics that gun manufacturers and sellers use with social media, video games, and other entertainment are the focus of a new report from Sandy Hook Promise, the gun-violence prevention group led by parents of children killed in the elementary school massacre 11 years ago in Newtown, Connecticut. The report, “Untargeting Kids,” highlights how the gun industry shifted away from a longstanding culture of safety and responsibility to cultivate a market of young consumers—a demographic inundated with social media and uniquely vulnerable, according to researchers, to provocative and seductive messaging.
“Our nation has experienced a tremendous spike in firearm deaths just as gun marketing made a transition from selling firearms for hunting and sporting to marketing highly lethal, military-style weapons to civilians, including children,” the report says. “That marketing is supposedly aimed at adults, but the platforms those influencers appear on, including TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, are largely populated by kids.”
Social media companies have banned the direct sales of guns on their platforms, but that doesn’t stop the firearms industry from promoting or amplifying gun content from high-profile figures. One example cited in the report is a January 2020 Instagram post from gun manufacturer Daniel Defense that features a photo of music star Post Malone showing off one of its AR-15-style rifles, the MK18, while standing in front of a bar stocked with liquor.
“MK18 got me feeling like a rock star,” says the Daniel Defense comment, appended with music and fire emojis and a handful of hashtags, including “#gunporn.” The post has drawn nearly 30,000 likes from Instagram users.
The 18-year-old mass shooter who attacked Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022 used a Daniel Defense AR-15-style rifle. The company now faces a lawsuit from the family of one of the fourth graders killed in the massacre, which alleges that Daniel Defense targets “young male consumers” through its marketing on various social media platforms. The company, which did not respond to a request for comment, has called the lawsuit “frivolous” and “legally unfounded.”
Online videos accessible to youth are another source of concern. According to one study highlighted in the Sandy Hook Promise report, YouTube serves up algorithmic content glorifying assault weapons and offering instructions on everything from how to assemble rapid-fire mechanisms and “ghost guns” to shooting through bulletproof glass and acquiring firearms illegally.
The gun industry has favored aggressive marketing for more than a decade, as companies realized that vast profits could be made from the increasingly popular AR-15-style rifles. One early Daniel Defense ad suggested civilian buyers could be just like US special forces, overlaying a battlefield scene with the slogan, “Use What They Use.” As I wrote recently in a review of American Gun, a deeply reported new book tracing the history of the AR-15, documents revealed in a lawsuit by Sandy Hook families showed how gunmakers intentionally used brash themes of masculinity and militarism to help sell these weapons. Among such efforts was also the infamous “Man Card” campaign that Remington had used to promote the Bushmaster rifle later wielded by the Sandy Hook mass shooter. Last year, nearly a decade after that massacre, Remington agreed to a landmark $73 million civil settlement with victims’ families.
The AR-15 is a weapon of war, originally built for highly efficient killing on the battlefield. (The US military produced it as the M16 during Vietnam.) Its design innovations included firing a relatively small bullet at exceptionally high velocity. As American Gun also details, the inventor of the AR-15 discovered that the .223-caliber projectile became unstable upon impact and “tore through the body like a tornado, spiraling and tipping as it obliterated organs, blood vessels, and bones.”
Violent video games have been blamed for causing mass shootings ever since Columbine in 1999. While there’s no evidence supporting that theory, various young perpetrators over the years have fixated on graphically violent games or movies when spiraling into isolation, anger, and despair, a correlation that has raised questions and concerns among threat assessment experts. Nonetheless, gun companies have long been eager to have their AR-15s depicted in first-person shooters as a form of advertising, a tactic one sales executive called “seed planting” for a new generation of consumers. The Washington Post reported in a recent series on the AR-15 that representatives of two gun manufacturers met at a Nevada shooting range in 2010 with technicians working on “Call of Duty” to record the firing of AR-15s for the blockbuster gaming series. “No detail, even the click of inserting a magazine, was too small to capture, participants said,” according to the Post.
The report from Sandy Hook Promise also highlights how ingrained this current gun culture has become with hyper-realistic video games, in which tricked-out guns are “prized commodities” and “players need to rack up sufficient ‘kills’ to ‘unlock’ particular weapons or add attachments to enhance or customize their firearms.”
In recent years, according to our research at Mother Jones, the AR-15 has become the top weapon of choice for mass shooters—a disturbing trend that has further accelerated in the past 18 months. But apart from efforts by gun lobbying groups to clean up the image of AR-15s by branding them as “modern sporting rifles,” the growing carnage from mass shootings does not appear to have affected the messaging practices of the industry.
“That this type of marketing has contributed to creating today’s radical violent extremists is inescapable,” former gun company executive Ryan Busse argued in The Atlantic, referring to the 18-year-old avowed white supremacist who used a Bushmaster rifle in May 2022 to murder 10 Black people and injure three others at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York. (Far-right extremism has been a rising factor in mass shootings, according to my research going back to 2018.) Busse also detailed how a Florida firearms retailer used social media to glorify vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse, who was tried and acquitted after he used an AR-15 to kill two people and wound another during street protests following the 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “BE A MAN AMONG MEN” blared the meme, which featured an image of the 17-year-old Rittenhouse armed with the rifle he used in the killings.
Busse, who blew the whistle on industry practices in his 2021 book Gun Fight, also described what happened when gun sellers tried to go against orthodoxy: “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 [National Shooting Sports Foundation] moved swiftly to expel Dick’s from its membership. By contrast, in 2021 the foundation honored [Daniel Defense CEO] Marty Daniel with a seat on its industry board of governors.”
“This is not a partisan issue,” the report from Sandy Hook Promise concludes. “Gun owners and non-gun owners alike can agree that kids should not be the targets of firearm marketing, especially content designed for adults that should only be viewed by adults…. Parents should be able to control the information their children receive about firearms.”
The report is among the group’s wider ongoing efforts to boost gun-violence prevention in America. Its “Know the Signs” programs help train school leaders and communities to focus on crisis intervention and the behavioral warning signs of planned violence. The group’s recently launched PSA about school shootings, “Just Joking,” which features jarring performances from star comedians, underscored in its own right the serious cultural challenges that remain for reducing the nation’s gun violence.