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“Start Them Young — How the Firearms Industry and Gun Lobby Are Targeting Your Children,” a report published February 18 by the Violence Policy Center (VPC) in Washington, DC, and companion video by Newtown resident Sue Roman, narrated by the Reverend Kathleen Adams-Shepherd of Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, dissects what author Josh Sugarmann says is an aggressive approach by the gun industry to bring young children into the world of guns.
It is a campaign that most people would find shocking, said Mr Sugarmann, in its brazen pursuit of children as young as 6 years old through marketing that includes child-friendly characters like Davey Crickett (Crickett rifles marketed to youth) and Little Jake (the star of cartoon storybooks), child-sized rifles in bright colors and patterns, and the promotion of “youth ambassadors” for child-to-child recruiting into shooting activities.
The report is one of numerous annual studies put out by the VPC that show the impact of violence in this country.
Although never directly affected by gun violence himself, Mr Sugarmann is passionate about what he considers to be “one of the most important issues that our country faces.” Gun violence, he said, cuts across every section of the country with socioeconomic impact reaching far beyond the immediate devastation.
Since founding the Violence Policy Center in 1988, Mr Sugarmann, a Newtown native, has focused on the role of the gun industry and its role in gun violence in America. Through his experiences post-college, particularly a position with Amnesty International in New York, Mr Sugarmann realized that information could be used to educate the public, and has focused VPC on researching and sharing information on how violence impacts the entire country. The studies also put out information to engage those most affected by gun violence, he said, and supply support for policies to reduce gun violence. The goal is to help people see this matter as a broad-based public health issue, not just a crime issue, he said.
“[VPC] is one of few organizations that puts out new research. We don’t do research for the sake of research, but look for what creates impact,” Mr Sugarmann said. The useful policy components of VPC reports, he said, gain attention in the media to reach people.
“Start Them Young,” said Mr Sugarmann, is the result of constant monitoring of the gun industry. “We noticed a more aggressive approach to marketing to children,” he said, a pattern that is dangerous on many levels.
Guns marketed today are very different from those of a generation ago. Along with more traditional bolt-action rifles still touted to youth, the industry today also markets high capacity, assault-style weapons sized for youngsters. “Today’s industry is crossover military,” Mr Sugarmann said.
Besides the lethal and harmful consequences related to mishandling of gun by immature users, another health hazard lurks for young shooters. Only touched on in the report is the lead threat, especially from weapons using lead bullets in indoor ranges and handling of lead in making bullets, he said. The gun industry, he pointed out, is the only trade industry in the US not regulated for health and safety, outside of ATF gun laws.
The brief video created by Ms Roman, who has filmed for Newtown Action Alliance, Team26, and the Connecticut Against Gun Violence organization, and a longtime friend of Mr Sugarmann’s, brings home the hazards of putting guns in the hands of young children. News clips of child-to-child gun violence scrolls past as voiceover by Rev Adams-Shepherd, who has pastored numerous families affected by gun violence since 12/14, points out how frequently these tragedies occur. The video also includes footage taken by Ms Roman at the 2014 Great American Outdoors Show in Harrisburg, Penn.
“The thing about the gun show was that these guns almost didn’t seem real. The seemed like toys — but they were not. The kids there were pretty infatuated with them,” said Ms Roman. Another impression she had of the gun show was how similar the marketing was to what the cigarette industry does to get new smokers.
Different people take up information in different ways. By using a multimedia approach to the report, Ms Roman feels it is a smart way to get information out to more people.
“It’s easier to get someone to commit to a one-minute video than a 30-minute one, to get new information out there, and this video delivers a lot of information in one minute,” Ms Roman said. It had generated 10,000 views at youtube.com/watch?v=rjKXGN7hYcg between February 18 and 26.
The work of VPC is important, she said, and it is a group that is well-respected for its thoughtful and rigorous standards in research. “They’ve been at it a long time. How ironic,” she added, “that it comes back to Josh’s hometown.”
Family Fun Or Fiscal Necessity?
The push to engage youngsters in gun activities is not just the family-friendly, confidence-building sport the industry promotes. There are underlying reasons for placing guns in the hands of a younger generation, studies by the VPC found.
“Hunting is fading as a pastime in America,” Mr Sugarmann said, and aging gun owners are less inclined today to pass on guns and gun values to the next generation, due to constraints on time and a lessening interest. The gun industry, Mr Sugarmann said, is aware of that loss of the gun-buying population.
“As noted by Shooting Sports Retailer,” reported Mr Sugarmann, “the impetus for marketing to children is both ‘fiscal and political.’ In addition to the hoped-for financial benefits of marketing guns to youth, a corollary goal is to ensure that such an effort will help maintain a pro-gun base for political action.”
The gun industry contends that federal background checks for gun purchases have increased in recent years, as have the number of carry permits. This would seem to support the idea that new gun ownership is on the rise. But numbers from the General Social Survey (GSS) show the trend in gun ownership is sinking. According to data from the GSS, from 1977 to 2014, the number of households reporting any guns in the home dropped by 40 percent. In reality, said Mr Sugarmann, what is happening is that current gun owners are buying more guns. A 2004 report co-authored by Dr David Hemenway, professor of health policy and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, reported that “20 percent of gun owners who owned the most guns possessed about 65 percent of the nation’s guns.”
“The gun industry acts as if we are a pro-gun society. The fact is, long-term trends are against the industry and its products. People are becoming more aware of how gun violence impacts all of us. Every time there is a violation of previously considered ‘safe’ space — schools, theaters, churches, malls — it adds to people’s fears,” Mr Sugarmann said. And the answer, he said, is not what the gun trade would have one believe: more weapons. The answer is informed awareness of the lethality of guns, and particularly, keeping guns out of the hands of children.
Games And Guns
What Mr Sugarmann finds chilling is the influence of video games, and real-life first shooter-type activities for young people, such as three-gun competition, in which a shotgun, an assault rifle, and a pistol are used for designated targets (clay pigeons, cardboard silhouettes, steel targets). The winner is the one who completes the course with the most speed and accuracy.
“For this study, I read way too many issues of Junior Shooters,” Mr Sugarmann said. “Three-gun competition is a sport that’s mimicking the most horrific gun use in America. The skills it alleges to teach are the same as you see in mass shootings — taking out targets as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
The gun industry argues that giving children guns teaches responsibility, self-confidence, discipline, teamwork, and sportsmanship, as well as other life skills. So far as easy access to guns being a reason for youth violence, according to information Mr Sugarmann found at the National 4-H Shooting Sports website, storing firearms securely at home prevents unauthorized users from access to guns.
“Left unstated,” Mr Sugarmann writes, “is the fact that with the creation of the youth gun culture envisioned by the firearms industry and the gun lobby, the children themselves in the home are all too often the authorized users.”
Even young people who are not regularly exposed to the gun culture can easily stumble upon child-friendly gun promotion sites online and advertising by gun manufacturers, or be directed there by friends.
The promotion of gunplay is not really about family time, but rather about stopping efforts to prevent gun violence across the country, Mr Sugarmann said.
“Own guns, don’t own guns — I think most parents don’t realize there is an active campaign to bypass parents, directed at young people, to get them involved with the gun culture.
“You could have an impact on violence if you could address the industry itself and how it is marketed,” said Mr Sugarmann.
Safe Homes For Children
The America Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) makes no bones about the best way to protect children from injury or death from guns, Mr Sugarman points out. It is to never have a gun in the home. The AAP also supports consumer regulations regarding child access, safety, and design of guns.
In conclusion, among the VPC recommendations is that firearms should be treated like alcohol and tobacco, and that acquisition, possession, and use of firearms by children should be prohibited. Laws should be revised so that possession standards strictly match sales standards: 18 years old for long guns and 21 years old for handguns.
The Federal Trade Commission should investigate whether the firearms industry is inappropriately marketing firearms to children.
Websites for gun manufacturers and vendor of related products should have the same age restrictions and criteria as for tobacco and alcohol vendors.
Congress should repeal the section of the Toxic Substances Control Act prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating lead in ammunition.
States should review laws regarding firearm possession by children.
An effective public education campaign should be developed and implemented to warn parents and youth about the dangers associated with the presence and use of firearms.
“Most tragically,” concludes Mr Sugarmann’s report, “the effects of this campaign [pursuing youth as new gun owners] are all too often measured in unnecessary death and crippling injury.”
This story was update March 4, 2016, to reflect the correct spelling of the report author’s name, Josh Sugarmann, not Josh Sugarman. The gun industry is the only trade industry in the US not regulated for health and safety, outside of ATF gun laws, not outside of FDA gun laws.