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.