Journal Issue: Children, Youth, and Gun Violence Volume 12 Number 2 Summer/Fall 2002
The Gun Industry (2/2)
The Market for Guns in the United States
Although gun sales have declined in recent years, domestic gun manufacturers still enjoy a large market for their products. Americans owned approximately 192 million guns in 1994, of which 65 million were handguns.9 An average of 4.7 million new guns are added to that stock each year through domestic manufacture and importation. Approximately 35% to 40% of American households have guns, and as many as 25% have handguns.9–12 There has been a long-term decline in the overall prevalence of gun ownership since the early 1970s, when nearly one-half of American households kept firearms. The decline is limited to rifle and shotgun ownership, and may reflect increasing urbanization and a declining interest in hunting. Handgun ownership has increased slightly during that time.12
Gun ownership is strongly influenced by demographic and social factors. Men are much more likely than women to own guns (42% and 10%, respectively). Gun ownership is relatively uncommon in the Northeast (14%), and progressively more common in the Midwest (24%), West (26%), and South (32%). Married persons are much more likely to own guns (32%) than are those who are divorced (21%), widowed (16%), never married (15%), or separated (13%). Gun ownership generally increases with increasing socioeconomic status.12
Guns are consumer products, and different types have different uses. Therefore, most gun-owning households have more than one firearm; 48% owned three or more in 1994.9 But at least 60% of handguns are acquired primarily for protection,9,12 and their owners presumably want these guns to be easily accessible in emergencies. It is consonant with this that one-third of handguns in the United States—perhaps 20 million guns—are stored loaded and not locked away. These handguns are obviously ready and accessible for other than their intended purposes.
Gun ownership is common in homes with children; in one multistate study, 37% of parents reported keeping guns in the home, and 17% owned handguns.11 Although homes with children are less likely than other households to contain guns that are both loaded and not locked away, it appears that 9% to 14% of homes with children and guns (approximately 1.5 million households, with 2.6 million children) store at least one firearm loaded and unlocked.10,13
Some parents resist changing gun ownership and storage patterns that put children at risk. For example, in a long-term study of severely depressed adolescents at risk of suicide, just 27% of parents who had guns in the home agreed to remove their guns, despite vigorous and repeated urging to do so. Compounding the problem, parents who refused to remove their guns were more likely than others to store the guns loaded. Of families without guns at the time the study began, 17% acquired them over the next two years.14
Marketing Guns to Young People
The gun industry's traditional customer base is in long-term decline. As American society has become more urbanized, hunting has become steadily less popular; one government official predicted that "hunting could end in this country as early as the year 2020."15 Furthermore, adults who do not use guns themselves will not introduce their children to guns. "Grandpa or dad isn't taking the kid out into the field to teach him to shoot any more," lamented one industry executive.15
The industry is working to recruit future customers among America's children and youth, through advertising campaigns and even video games. It would be misleading to say that the industry directly promotes gun purchases by children, which would be illegal. Persons under age 18 cannot own rifles or shotguns; those under age 21 cannot own handguns. But the industry and related gun advocacy groups strongly encourage gun use by children and encourage parents and other adults to purchase guns for them. Advertisements from gun manufacturers frequently model children using guns. National Shooting Sports Foundation promotional materials argue that any child old enough to be left alone in the house for two or three hours or sent to the grocery store with a list and a $20 bill is old enough to own a gun.15
The NRA is investing $100 million in a campaign to bring together children and guns. Former NRA president Marion Hammer has declared that the organization is in "an old-fashioned wrestling match for the hearts and minds of our children, and we'd better engage our adversaries with no holds barred."16 In his monthly column in Guns & Ammo magazine, NRA president Charlton Heston has exhorted gun owners to "consider how you can help preserve freedom for future Americans by introducing a young person to the fun and satisfaction of shooting.... [Take] your daughter, nephew, neighbor or family friend out for an afternoon of plinking, hunting or clay target excitement."17
Major manufacturers, including Colt's, Browning, and Remington, have begun to use video games as marketing tools. Their strategy was expressed by Scott Farrell, editor of Guns Magazine: "What we need is a computer game which combines the use of the real handgun ... with state-of-the-art graphics and an exciting story ... a game like that would be an extremely effective vehicle to introduce safe recreational shooting to the video games generation."18 As of late 2001, however, the games were selling poorly—paradoxically, they were not violent enough—and some had been taken off the market.19 Criticism by gun control advocacy groups, notably the Violence Policy Center, has caused at least two manufacturers to request that their guns not be used in more violent games produced by other companies.