Paper Available on “The Rise of Self-Defense in Gun Advertising: The American Rifleman, 1918-2017”

Later this week I will be attending a Gun Studies Symposium at the University of Arizona in Tucson, organized by Jennifer Carlson, Kristen Goss, and Harel Shapira. The symposium includes a Who’s Who of scholars who have studied guns for decades, including Philip Cook (Duke), David Kopel (Denver Law), Robert Spitzer (CUNY), Frank Zimring (Berkeley), and Gary Kleck (Florida State). And then there’s me, who has been examining gun culture for a mere 5 years.

During that time, I have been trying to describe and understand the new incarnation of America’s historic gun culture that seems so evident today. A culture centered on armed self-defense and concealed carry.

From time to time I get some push back, either saying that self-defense has always been a part of American gun culture or that there is no singular gun culture today but only plural gun cultures centered on the various things people do with their guns: self-defense, hunting, collecting, and many different kinds of sport or recreational shooting including plinking, target shooting with pistols, long range precision rifle, skeet, trap, sporting clays, muzzleloaders, Cowboy Action Shooting, 3 Gun, IDPA, USPSA, IPSC, and on and on.

This work addresses these issues by examining the themes present in advertisements in The American Rifleman over a period of 100 years, from 1918 to 2017. Although this is only one small measure of everything that gun culture is, using a consistent source of data over time allows us to see the historical trend more clearly.

Of course American gun culture has always been composed of various subcultures, just like American culture in general. Self-defense has long been a part of American gun culture, and hunting remains part of American gun culture. But in my presentation at the Gun Studies Symposium I will argue that the data show the core or center of gravity of American gun culture has shifted away from earlier emphases on hunting and sport or recreational shooting to self-defense and concealed carry.

This major conclusion is reflected in the figure that appears above. If you would like to read the entire argument, I have made a draft of the paper freely available on the SocArXiv website. As this is a work in progress, I welcome your feedback on it.



  1. This sounds like an interesting read since I was fascinated by the survivalist movement (?) in the 1980s and am curious how it may fit in with your researching the ads. Thanks for making it available. I

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the emphasis on self-defense in gun culture is definitely connected to the survivalist movement of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as today’s version of that, the prepper movement. Neil Strauss touches on this in his book about prepping called “Emergency” – he is one of the only non-gun journalists to visit and write about Gunsite Academy because he had to learn how to shoot as part of his preparation for the end of the world as we know it. The NatGeo show on prepping had guns as one of the criteria by which to judge preppers. Michael Bane used to have a show Best Defense: Survival to go along with The Best Defense. Bob Mayne of the Handgun World Podcast used to have a prepping podcast. Sean Sorrentino’s Gun Blog Varietycast has a section on blue collar prepping. Etc Etc Etc. I haven’t systematically explored the connection, but it is there.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting article. When I finished I remember the NRA has several magazines. One is Shooting Illustrated which I do not think has been around that long. Would that magazine siphon off some of ads from the Rifleman? Same with the hunting magazine. Would ads for hunting go there instead of the Rifleman and influence the results? I don’t know what the ad buyers buy when they advertise with the NRA. Again thanks for letting us see it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the thoughts. I don’t have the data on ad buying or ad placement strategies for either the publisher or the companies advertising. This is a simple measure in that sense, that doesn’t answer all the questions. That said, we are currently coding advertisements in GUNS magazine, in which I think the upward trend in self-defense/concealed carry themes will be even more prominent. Because The American Rifleman is the main journal of the NRA, I think it represents a pretty conservative test of this hypothesis since it has to try to reach the broadest gun owning audience possible.

      The types of magazines published and their circulations over time would also be a measure of different emphases in gun culture. I know when I go to my local Barnes and Noble I am shocked by the number of gun magazines there are, and how many of them are Gun Culture 2.0 in emphasis.

      Liked by 2 people

      • You partially answered one question, to wit, is American Rifleman a good sampling tool for gun owners in general. I would suspect it is, but doing a similar study for other long lived gun magazines to see if you get a good correlation between magazines would be interesting. Guns and Ammo comes to mind as it goes back to 1958, which is considerably older than GC 2.0 and has roughly half the circulation, as you point out, as AR as well as being a mag devoted to guns.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. At work and the boss is here so haven’t read the paper yet. You might superimpose the homicide and/or violent crime rate charts for the same period to see if there is a significant relationship and how much it trails. I assume ads respond to public perception which responds to reporting which responds to actual reported crime data.


    • Lots of potential correlations. CNN started in 1980 so media coverage of crime, particularly heinous and “random crime on normal people,” likely also intensified, exacerbating the divergence between the actual crime rate / risk of crime with public perceptions of crime. After all, crime is down but Gun Culture 2.0 keeps gathering steam. Advertising for prevention left actual risk behind in the 90s. So many interlocking feedback loops.

      Liked by 1 person

    • As far as what is driving the ads, I would put my crosshairs (green dot, tritium sight, etc) on the 24/7 news cycle and the rise of inside-the-bubble journalism, rather than on crime rates. There was a spike in defense advertising (looking at David’s chart) circa 1990 which coincides, I think, with the drug violence spike during that period. But crime has been down ever since but you wouldn’t know that from the propaganda cycle, er, I mean news cycle.

      So I suspect that to some degree that this is a manufactured need similar to the rise of the SUV, i.e., with the SUV it was convincing folks that to be safe you needed that Urban Assault Vehicle with the Large Capacity Gas Tank and in our case here, with the decline of hunting and the move of folks to cities, one had to create a new demand for guns and that has led to GC 2.0 and the emphasis on self defense firearms rather than the trusty Model 70 Winchester.

      There are other considerations as well that we have talked about here and David is the scholar on this, e.g., that guns represent an identity for folks in parts of the country and parts of the body politic. Not just for hunting and shooting, which is how my old man, a Life NRA member sees himself, but as symbols of a self-reliant codger who is maintaining his self worth and ready to protect his or her lifestyle against more ambiguous but more dangerous threats such as income inequality and the flight of decent blue collar jobs. If you were a casualty of the Rust Belt or Appalachia, I suspect, as I mentioned a few days ago, that those trusty guns and bibles are potent symbols rather than objects d art.

      My old man, as it happens, escaped the collapse so far. He was a lifelong machinist in the Chevy gear and axle plant that used to exist in Buffalo, NY, (and which is now a hollow shell of a building looking for tenants) and is doing OK on Social Security and his GM/UAW pension. Having retired around 30 years ago, he strongly identifies with a gun culture but not really 2.0. At least from his collection, you would not assume that. He does carry but at 84 with bad knees from a motorcycle wreck and a shaky ticker from old age, he carries because he feels vulnerable. Who can blame him.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was thinking about this at the dentist this morning. We often see “need” as manufactured. Supply-side, so to speak, but I think you hit on another take. Once the need is perceived, the suppliers are responding to demand, not necessarily driving it. Sure, they might say “here’s the new whiz-bang you need to be really safe(r)”, but that’s not so much “creating” the need anew as trying to ride it. There’s more of a feedback loop than the overly-simplistic, anti-gun “eeeevil gun industry is creating fear to drive sales.” Like you, as in so many other areas, I’d say the press is responsible in a large way for sustaining both the positive (in my opinion), more people choosing to exercise the RKBA, and the negative: fear of crime and glorification of criminals like “gangsters” and mass killers. Thereto though, they are supplying the need of a public which has always had a taste for such things.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I’m far less worried about people exercising their RKBA than I am with some of the efforts to feed on an us v them mentality that tends to drive wedges between people and also raise the odds for mistakes being made.

        The anti-gunners see GC 2.0 as threatening and dangerous, i.e., gun toting people invisibly among us (concealed carry) and a proliferation, not really justified by numbers, of guns everywhere looking to be shot. As discussed previously here and elsewhere, a lot of firearms are sold to folks who already have a lot of them so we are not talking about universally arming the public so that perception is lame. Illicit firearms are a spinoff of the gun market. I spoke with an acquaintance a few days ago who had the family car worked on and somehow forgot where the gun usually kept in the car ended up. Ugh.

        My concern with a lot of the ads I see in G&A and elsewhere is they sell guns by painting people as bad guys. Who, exactly, is the enemy? Well, admittedly, there are bad guys out there but I think one can easily get into a begging-the-question attitude of assuming a lot of bad guys rather than looking at the numbers. I worry that promoting a civil society where armed citizens are on yellow-orange (WYOR) and expecting trouble, one may well find it whether it is there or not.

        Then there are the leftists and rightists showing up at rallies armed and harboring a grudge. What can possibly go wrong?

        My concern with GC 2.0 is it begs the question that there are people out there who might need to be shot. Why else carry? As I said, what can possibly go wrong? And I don’t say that as a Brady Bunch guy but someone who has had a CHL since 1976.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Fantastic read professor thank you. I see the MSM as freedom enemy #1 because of the 24 hour news cycle. Just look at the coverage of the tragedy in Las Vegas. That person’s name should never be mentioned and the body cremated and the ashes scattered over the nearest large body of water.

    Wish I had had an opportunity to meet you sir. We here expect a full report from the conference sir.

    Khal, fortunately I sat the coffee cup down before I read this line: ” But crime has been down ever since but you wouldn’t know that from the propaganda cycle, er, I mean news cycle.”

    Liked by 2 people

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