When it comes to selling AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles, gun makers have discovered that there’s no better endorsement than the American soldier.
“Never a victim. Always the victor,” reads the ad that runs in April’s “Guns & Ammo” magazine from the Springfield Armory, with an image of a couple helmeted GIs blasting their way in. “Patriot,” reads another showing what appears to be a special forces commando wielding the “professional grade weaponry” of Bravo Company Manufacturing.
But it’s military imagery in advertising – a surefire selling point when it comes to high-power weaponry – that has cropped up as a new trouble spot for the weapons industry.
The Connecticut Supreme Court cracked open the door earlier this month in a ruling that allows victims of the 2012 mass shooting at a Newton, Connecticut, elementary school to sue the maker of the rifle used in its attack over its advertising.
Among the suit’s claims is that Bushmaster and other gun maker defendants “promote their AR-15s by advertising that the most elite branches of the military – including Special Forces, SEALs, Green Berets and Army Rangers – have used them.”
While opponents say plaintiffs face steep odds in trying to press such cases, it’s the kind of situation that could put a chilling effect on gun advertisers.
For now, gun industry officials don’t sound worried. The state court split 4-3 in making its decision, which is likely to be appealed, and they believe the plaintiffs have a high bar of proof in pursuing a narrower path to victory.
Still, the decision represents another setback for gun enthusiasts who this week were trying to stop the Trump administration from enforcing a ban against bump stocks – which can rig semi-automatics to spew bullets like a fully automatic. The U.S. Supreme Court has so far declined a bid to block the ban, which went into effect Tuesday.
A weapon of choice
Gun-control advocates have singled out semi-automatics such as the AR-15 because it has become the weapon of choice in mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 20 children and six adults were gunned down. The case involves a suit by victims against Remington Arms and related companies, which made the Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle that gunman Adam Lanza used in the attack.
The problem, the plaintiff’s lawyers say, is that young men can be obsessed with the military or succumb to image of masculinity that the ads promise if they buy the semi-auto rifles.
“Consider Your Man Card Reissued,” read one of Bushmaster ads for its AR-15-style gun, the one used in the Sandy Hook shooting. The ad speaks to a “macho hypermasculinity,” said one of the attorneys, Katie Mesner-Hage.
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Another Bushmaster ad reads “Force of Opposition, Bow Down: You are Single- Handedly Outnumbered.”
“The advertising isn’t misleading. It’s actually extremely accurate,” she said. “It’s a military weapon. It’s inciteful, reckless advertising.” The AR-15 is meant to serve “one purpose, which is to inflict as many casualties in combat” as possible, Mesner-Hage said.
But gun industry defenders point out that nowhere do ads for guns such as AR-15-style rifles, versions of which are made by several makers besides Bushmaster, ever imply they can be used for purposes other than target practice, hunting or shooting small game like feral pigs.
The bow-down ad, for instance, states the Bushmaster is “the only rifle you need to master the infinite number of extreme scenarios you’ll face in the worlds of law enforcement and personal defense.”
Some retailers pulling back
About half of the customers of AR-15 style weapons are current or former police officers and members of the military, and ads that show soldiers in action to denote the guns are of the highest quality, said Larry Keane, general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group.
Blaming the semi-automatic rifle for mass shootings is like suing automakers when terrorists use cars to mow down innocent people, Keane said. In the case of Lanza, who took his own life, there is no evidence that he was influenced by gun advertising. The rifle had been given to him by his mother.
As for the masculine nature of the ads, men are predominantly the buyers of the AR-15. Advertising directly to them is no different than ads for power tools, which usually show men, Keane said.
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He also said gun makers are limited as to where they can advertise their high-powered weapons. Many mainstream publications and online channels, like Facebook, won’t take them.
Some retailers have pulled back as well. Dick’s Sporting Goods, one of the few national sporting good chains left after an industry shakeout, announced last year that it will stop selling assault-style weapons, high-capacity magazines or any guns to anyone under the age of 21 after a school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
This month, Dick’s said it will go farther, removing all guns, including those for hunting, from 125 stores in response to slow sales.
John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and author of several books including “More Guns, Less Crime,” said buyers of guns like AR-15s aren’t intent on killing. More often than not, they want their guns for personal protection.
Even then, they are unlikely to ever shoot if attacked, knowing mere sight of the weapon itself is enough to deter an assailant. The industry’s ads, too, don’t depict illegal acts, Lott said.
Even in the bow-down ad, he said, “They talk about law enforcement and (using it) for personal defense. They are not going out and killing people in that ad.”
Contributing: The Associated Press