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Guns & Kids

[whitespace] teen shooter Jeff Miller
Target market: The 1989 edition of the Guns & Ammo Handguns Annual featured a photo of teen shooter Jeff Miller firing an AP9 assault pistol. "And it is one mean-looking dude, considered cool and Ramboish by the teenage crowd," the caption read. "To a man, they love the AP9 at first sight. Take a look at one. And let your teenage son tag along. Ask him what he thinks. And be sure to carry your checkbook."

How the NRA and gun manufacturers are targeting your child

By Greg Cahill

EVE DECLAN IS APPALLED. Two weeks after Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., before killing themselves, Declan received a phone solicitation for contributions to the Redwood Police Activities League, a local youth sports and citizenship program presented by peace officers in the county. That wasn't especially remarkable: Declan, a Petaluma housekeeper with two teenage daughters, is a longtime supporter of PAL, since it teaches kids sports skills while lending a sense of safety in the community. The thing that stunned Declan about the PAL brochure that arrived in the mail a week later was that, sandwiched between the information about baseball and soccer programs, she found an item describing the PAL Rifle Team, a joint NRA program that instructs boys and girls ages 10 to 18 in the use of air rifles, small-bore rifles, and (for the older teens) high-powered rifles.

"I struggled with trying to justify having a responsibly trained gun user teaching kids gun safety and shooting skills," she says. "Then my thoughts crumbled into angry bafflement that PAL could support putting guns into the hands of kids in light of all that had gone on in Littleton and other communities across the nation. And I had to think about how I would feel as a parent if one of my children were hurt by someone who had been trained by a [local] police officer.

"I mean, it's one thing for PAL to teach kids how to play baseball and to help them feel comfortable around the police, but this seemed really reckless."

Declan isn't the only one offended by the PAL Rifle Team. The main office of the California Police Activities League is hopping mad that local PAL affiliates have teamed up with the NRA to promote gun training for kids.

"There is no way that we would support this kind of program," says Dave Craig, a spokesman for the organization's Oakland-based state headquarters. "Instead, we enlist top athletes, like Barry Bonds, to promote our Stop the Violence program, which is geared toward teaching kids peaceful conflict resolution and to steer them away from guns.

"We think the rifle teams are a really bad idea."

THE PAL gun-training program is just one way that the NRA and gun manufacturers are targeting America's children. "The NRA and the gun industry are unabashed about youth as the next market and are systematic about making sure that they are able to build a new customer base," says Eric Gorovitz, policy director for the Bell Campaign, a victim advocacy group created after a deranged gunman massacred eight office workers at 101 California St. in San Francisco in 1993. "They fear that if anti-gun legislation takes away the guns from youths, the industry won't be able to bring them back to the market as adults."

This was supposed to be the year--or so gun-control supporters thought--that the federal government would adopt tough legislation to help protect kids, especially in the form of mandatory trigger locks. It certainly looked that way earlier this summer, with the smell of gunpowder and death still lingering in the haunted halls of Columbine High and with the NRA--defiant as usual, but forced to shorten its annual national convention in neighboring Denver amid protests just days after the Littleton massacre--on the run.

Two months later, the Clinton administration's proposed anti-gun bills lay dead on the House floor, the victim of intense gun-industry lobbying and bitter partisan political wrangling. Republicans didn't like the measures--which would have required firearm manufacturers to install trigger locks to help prevent accidental shootings, youth suicides, and other unauthorized firings--because the NRA lobbyists vehemently opposed the devices. And Democratic representatives realized they had found a hot-button political issue that could embarrass Republican presidential hopeful George Bush, the Texas governor who last year relaxed his state's controversial concealed-weapons law.

The real victims: America's youth.

With guns having no mandatory trigger locks, everyone from the NRA to the cop on the street once again put the onus of safety in handling one of the nation's most deadly consumer products on children, some not old enough to read or to tie their own shoes, much less differentiate between a realistic-looking air pistol and dad's shiny new Smith & Wesson.

gun-totting toddler Gun-toting tot: This 1990 ad for Fleming Firearms appeared in Machine Gun News

JUST HOW AGGRESSIVE the industry is in its recruitment of youths is the subject of a pair of recent studies from the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that conducts research on violence in America and works to develop violence-reduction policies and proposals.

One of the main focuses of the center is the role of firearms in society.

The center's studies are an eye-opening window into the nation's gun culture for anyone who sat dazed in front of their TV set while watching the carnage unfold at Columbine and then wondered why the boys next door could feel so comfortable about launching a full-scale military-style assault on their classmates. Sure, it took a lot of disturbed emotions, possible parental neglect, and repressed anger, but you don't have to search the blood-splattered graphics on your kids' Golden Eye video game for the answer.

Despite repeated objections from the NRA and the gun industry that they don't target children, Young Guns: How the Gun Lobby Nurtures America's Youth Gun Culture, released in March 1998, and this year's Start 'Em Young: Recruitment of Kids to the Gun Culture, cite numerous examples of gun manufacturers and trade publications aiming their products at the youth market, in some cases depicting children as young as 2.

Here are just a few samples:

* An article titled "Hunting Lore: The Next Generation," from the December 1997 issue of Gun World, shows a father and his pre-kindergarten son clad in matching camouflage and partially hidden in the tall brush. A shotgun lies across the boy's lap. "And a little child shall come to lead them," urges the biblical quote in the headline. "Make no mistake," the article informs us, "these aren't just father and son--they're hunting buddies."

* The 1989 Guns & Ammo Handguns Annual depicts a teenage boy perched on a gently rolling hillside and lining up his sight on the barrel of an AP9 assault pistol. "The AP9 gave no problems with 115-grain full-jacketed bullets of round nose configuration and Federal Nyclad hollow points," the publication enthuses. "The gun was also easy to control, even when fired as a pistol, and young shooters . . . had no difficulty in shooting and handling the AP9."

* The October 1996 edition of Machine Gun News shows a young teenage boy hunkered down behind a fully automatic 1919 military-style Browning machine gun "for the first time." An accompanying photo portrays another young teenage boy firing an MP5 machine pistol.

* The 1992 Smith & Wesson catalog offers a feel-good ad that portrays a father and preteen son resting against a boulder in a piney wood and enjoying a little quality time while junior takes aim with a .45-caliber pistol. The emphasis is on the rite of passage and nostalgia. "Seems like only yesterday that your father brought you here for the first time," the caption notes. "Those sure were the good times--just you, dad, and his Smith & Wesson."

* The 1997 Browning catalog shows a toddler on a gun range, the young boy decked out in a Browning gun T-shirt and oversized earmuffs and goggles. A second photo shows a 4- or 5-year-old boy playfully placing expended shotgun cartridges on his fingertips.

* The back cover of the 1990 Machine Gun News, an advertisement for Fleming Firearms, offers "Short Butts from Fleming Firearms," and shows a tow-headed 2-year-old girl beaming broadly while cradling an automatic machine pistol.

* "You already belong to the NRA. But what about your children?" an advertisement in the August 1997 American Guardian queries. "Did you know the NRA offers a membership especially for them." An April 1998 NRA ad in the same magazine shows then-NRA president Marion Hammer and her grandson. The ad read: "The future of the shooting sports will rest on the shoulders of our grandchildren--and theirs. That's why, as NRA president, my major priorities are to reach out to America's youth and to assure NRA's mission continues beyond the next 125 years."

ALL THIS SOPHISTICATED marketing flies in the face of a federal law that prohibits juveniles under the age of 21 from purchasing a handgun and prohibits those under the age of 18 from purchasing rifles or shotguns from a federally licensed firearms dealer.

Federal law also prohibits handgun possession by anyone under age 18.

But the NRA has made it clear that the nation's children hold the key to its survival. In a full-page advertisement on March 8 in Time magazine this year, actor and NRA member Tom Selleck, trusty Colt revolver slung over his shoulder, insists, "Shooting teaches young people good things. Because all good rules for shooting are good rules for life."

How young should a child be to own his or her own gun? One trade publication offers this yardstick for parental guidance: If you'd trust your child to go to the grocery store and bring back the change from a $20 bill, that child is ready to own and shoot a gun.

Indeed, last year's annual NRA meeting in Philadelphia upped the ante on that suggestion. It offered such official items for sale as NRA bibs and infant sleepwear, as well as a full line of products featuring the organization's Eddie Eagle gun-safety mascot, from children's backpacks to plush toys--all available on the NRA's website.

Gun-control backers liken the character--recently selected by the Oregon Legislature as the official mascot of the state's own gun-safety program--to Joe Camel, the Philip Morris marketing icon that public health advocates charged was intended to lure kids to cigarettes. "Eddie Eagle is Joe Camel with feathers," says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. "He is, in fact, a gun industry salesman in the front lines of efforts to create a youth gun culture. Demographics show that developments are working against the NRA and the gun industry because the traditional gun market--namely, older white males--is dying off, and the means by which people traditionally were introduced to guns, particularly through hunting and the military draft, are fading. In the NRA's own words, they've lost a generation.

"The gun industry now needs replacement shooters in the same way that tobacco industry needs replacement smokers. Yet, while most people would be appalled by an advertisement that shows a teen with a cigarette in their mouth or a drink in their hand, the gun industry somehow thinks that parents should feel comfortable about the sight of a youth with a gun in their hand.

"We think that most Americans find that image disturbing, not heartwarming."

Indeed, despite denials, the NRA has never been shy about this tug of war for the affections of society's youngest--and most gullible--citizens. At the organization's annual meeting in Dallas in 1996, then-NRA president Hammer laid it on the line:

"It will be an old-fashioned wrestling match for the hearts and minds of our children," she told convention delegates, "and we'd better engage our adversaries with no holds barred." *

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From the July 29-August 4, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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