I have written about this issue twice before (in May 2016 and again in March 2019), but yesterday’s announcement of a $73 million dollar settlement between Sandy Hook families and Remington Outdoor Company in the case of Soto v. Bushmaster forces me to revisit it.
I find advertising in general extraordinarily interesting. I was a devoted follower of the TV show Mad Men and I teach about advertising in my classes. Advertising is a major part of our culture, and of course, it is a major part of gun culture as well. When I consume gun-related media, I am as drawn to the ads as to the content.
I am also one of the only gun scholars to have systematically analyzed gun advertising. I have published two studies documenting the rise of Gun Culture 2.0 using changes in advertising over time in The American Rifleman (1918-2017) and Guns Magazine (1955-2019), and a third study of the portrayal of women (and men) in ads placed in The American Rifleman (1920-2019).
Without question, advertisements do not simply sell products. They sell certain ideas and ideals which they try to get consumers – often subconsciously – to attach to their products. The male protector is one such ideal I have seen, and ideas about masculinity (and femininity) are frequently sold. (Though see my book chapter on “A Woman’s Place in Gun Advertising” for a more complicated gender story.)
Many have looked to Bushmaster’s “Man Card” ad as selling a particular understanding of masculinity in connection with the AR-15 platform rifle. This was especially so in the wake of the mass murders in Newtown, CT, since the murderer happened to use a Bushmaster XM15-E2S (see, for example, the Huffington Post story the day after the event).
But does advertising like Bushmaster’s lead to gun violence? The question of the connection between gun advertising selling masculine ideals and violence committed by people with guns was raised by the plaintiffs in Soto v. Bushmaster and their allies.
As journalist Lois Beckett reported back in 2016:
In the wake of the shooting, some family members of victims questioned whether the gun companies’ aggressively macho advertising of military-style rifles was irresponsible, and whether gun companies were intentionally targeting their product to troubled, violent young men like Lanza.
Unfortunately, with the settlement of this case, we will likely never know if what the plaintiffs suggest is true.
Like many others, I personally thought Bushmaster’s “man card” advertising campaign was dumb. But anyone who consumes ad-based media knows that a lot of advertising campaigns are dumb.
If it was supposed to intentionally target troubled, violent young men and therefore play a causal role in mass homicide, however, then Remington needed to fire its ad agency. Available data suggest that the campaign strategy was a terrible failure.
In 2012, including the Sandy Hook massacre of 26 people, the total number of Americans who were murdered with all rifles (including but not limited to AR-15 style rifles) was 298 – 2.3% of the 12,888 murders that year.
Both the number (332) and proportion (2.6%) of murders with rifles were higher in 2011 than in 2012, and the number (367) and proportion (2.8%) were higher in 2010 than in 2011, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. (For an unrelated recent post, I provided FBI UCR data showing rifles were used in 2.6% of homicides in 2019.)
Of course, we can never know what would have happened if Bushmaster hadn’t run its Man Card ad. At best, Bushmaster’s alleged “aggressively macho advertising of military-style rifles” and “intentionally targeting their products to troubled, violent young men” kept the rifle homicide rate from going down even faster than it did from 2010 to 2012.
But, to me, it seems much more likely that Bushmaster’s marketing was not targeted to “troubled, violent young men” and therefore had no effect on the rifle homicide rate, directly or indirectly.
I sympathize with the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre. I don’t know how I would react to the loss of one of my children or loved ones. I am sure I would lash out with anger and experience major depression, and then want to do something about it. I doubt the monetary settlement will help, but perhaps getting the insurers of the former Remington Outdoor Company to settle will.
I agree that the Ad is stupid. However, this settlement is exceedingly dangerous legal precedent. I doubt Lanza stopped to read the ad after murdering his mother and stealing her rifle. Or did he perhaps read it before hand? Did he ever see the add at all? But, what do facts have to do with it? Nothing.
The legal precedent is beyond my pay grade, but I know that concern is hanging out there, and that others hoping to sue the gun industry into submission will be inspired by this settlement.
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I thought the ad was stupid and made Remington look bad but I doubt the ad had anything to do with the Sandy Hook Massacre. Adam Lanza didn’t buy the gun. His mom did and I doubt she wanted her “Man Card” reissued. Still, some of the ads I have seen in gun magazines worry me in the sense that they expose the gun industry to these charges of selling guns for all the wrong reasons.
My brother locks his guns up and no one has the combination. Well, my guess is maybe his wife does. Nancy Lanza knew her kid was a few cards short of a full deck. If he had shot her but was unable to open a gun safe, Sandy Hook would not have happened. I put the onus on poor parenting, with all due respect to the deceased.
Interestingly, in New Mexico we currently lead the nation in pedestrian deaths on our roads and are constantly in competition for the podium in traffic deaths per 100k population (IIHS data). But I have yet to see anyone go after car and pickup truck companies for their “closed course, professional driver, don’t try this at home” advertisements that make my reckless teen adventures on motorcycles look tame by comparison.
I still shudder when I recall jumping the railroad tracks near my parent’s home with the bike ten or so feet in the air at 70 mph. The runup to the tracks was the perfect curvature to go airborne. When one is 18, one doesn’t consider mortality. Even when one was neck and neck for valedictorian. My friend Greg edged me out, so I gave the salutatory address. But I was a little nuts on that Honda 450.
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Since this was a civil rather than criminal case and it was settled, not to be appealed, it will never make case law so there’s not ‘legal precedent’ set. Now, will it encourage other forms of lawfare against the gun industry? Absolutely. But the anti-gun crowd has never been bashful about attacking guns from any angle, reasonable or not.One only has to look at the cheer leading for the lawsuit from Mexico blaming their violence problems on US gun manufacturers; it’s why the PLCAA was created.
This is the right answer. “Man Card” ad, as foolish as it is, or not, it was his mother (a woman), not the violent young man, who bought the rifle, and I doubt anyone can offer proof or testimony that Adam Lanza saw the ad prior to his act and that it might have “caused” his actions. The terrible precedent and distraction of such a suit and settlement simply places the blame in the wrong place. If the rifle were properly secured by his mother, who certainly knew of her son’s problems, both she and those victim might be alive – or he would have found another way to achieve infamy and someone else might be getting sued for somehow “causing” his deviant behavior.
[…] welcome the opportunity to correct misunderstandings about the content and effect of gun ads (e.g., Bushmaster’s “Man Card” campaign), I welcome even more a recent “call for papers” I received from a marketing professor, […]