Threatened by long-term declining participation in shooting sports, the firearms industry has poured millions of dollars into a broad campaign to ensure its future by getting guns into the hands of more, and younger, children.
The industry's strategies include giving firearms, ammunition and cash to youth groups; weakening state restrictions on hunting by young children; marketing an affordable military-style rifle for "junior shooters" and sponsoring semi-automatic handgun competitions for youths; and developing a target-shooting video game that promotes brand-name weapons, with links to the websites of their makers.
The pages of Junior Shooters, an industry-supported magazine that seeks to get children involved in the recreational use of firearms, once featured a smiling 15-year-old girl clutching a semi-automatic rifle. At the end of an accompanying article that extolled target shooting with a Bushmaster AR-15 an advertisement elsewhere in the magazine directed readers to a coupon for buying one the author encouraged youngsters to share the article with a parent.
"Who knows?" it said. "Maybe you'll find a Bushmaster AR-15 under your tree some frosty Christmas morning!"
The industry's youth-marketing effort is backed by extensive social research and is carried out by an array of nonprofit groups financed by the gun industry, an examination by the New York Times found. The campaign picked up steam about five years ago with the completion of a major study that urged a stronger emphasis on the "recruitment and retention" of new hunters and target shooters.
The overall objective was summed up in another study, commissioned last year by the shooting sports industry, that suggested encouraging children experienced in firearms to recruit other young people. The report, which focused on children ages 8 to 17, said these "peer ambassadors" should help introduce wary youngsters to guns slowly, perhaps through paintball, archery or some other less intimidating activity.
"The point should be to get newcomers started shooting something, with the natural next step being a move toward actual firearms," said the report, which was prepared for the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Hunting Heritage Trust.
Firearms manufacturers and their two primary surrogates, the National Rifle Association of America and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, have long been associated with high-profile battles to fend off efforts at gun control and to widen access to firearms. The public debate over the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and elsewhere has focused largely on the availability of guns, along with mental illness and the influence of violent video games.
Little attention has been paid, though, to the industry's youth-marketing initiatives. They stir passionate views, with proponents arguing that introducing children to guns can provide a safe and healthy pastime, and critics countering that it fosters a corrosive gun culture and is potentially dangerous.
The NRA has for decades given grants for youth shooting programs, mostly to Boy Scout councils and 4-H groups, which traditionally involved single-shot rifles, BB guns and archery. Its $21 million in total grants in 2010 was nearly double what it gave out five years earlier.
Newer initiatives by other organizations go further, seeking to introduce children to high-powered rifles and handguns while invoking the same rationale of those older, more traditional programs: that firearms can teach "life skills" like responsibility, ethics and citizenship. And the gun industry points to injury statistics that it says show a greater likelihood of getting hurt cheerleading or playing softball than using firearms for fun and sport.
Still, some experts in child psychiatry say that encouraging youthful exposure to guns, even in a structured setting with an emphasis on safety, is asking for trouble. Dr. Jess Shatkin, the director of undergraduate studies in child and adolescent mental health at New York University, said young people are naturally impulsive and that their brains "are engineered to take risks," making them ill-suited for handling guns.
"There are lots of ways to teach responsibility to a kid," Shatkin said. "You don't need a gun to do it."
Steve Sanetti, the president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said it was better to instruct children in the safe use of a firearm through hunting and target shooting and engage them in positive ways with the heritage of guns in America.
His industry is well positioned for the task, he said, but faces an unusual challenge: introducing minors to activities that involve products they cannot legally buy and that require a high level of maturity.
Ultimately, Sanetti said, it should be left to parents, not the government, to decide if and when to introduce their children to shooting and what sort of firearms to use.
"It's a very significant decision," he said, "and it involves the personal responsibility of the parent and personal responsibility of the child."
Trying to reverse a trend
The shooting sports foundation, the tax-exempt trade association for the gun industry, is a driving force behind many of the newest youth initiatives. Its national headquarters is in Newtown, just a few miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Adam Lanza, 20, used his mother's Bushmaster AR-15 to kill 20 children and six adults last month.
The foundation's $26 million budget is financed mostly by gun companies, associated businesses and the foundation's SHOT Show, the industry's annual trade show, according to its latest tax return.
Although shooting sports and gun sales have enjoyed a rebound recently, the long-term demographics are not favorable, as urbanization, the growth of indoor pursuits like video games and changing cultural mores erode consumer interest. Licensed hunters fell from 7 percent of the population in 1975 to less than 5 percent in 2005, according to federal data. Galvanized by the declining numbers, the industry redoubled its efforts to reverse the trend about five years ago.
The focus on young people has been accompanied by foundation-sponsored research examining popular attitudes toward hunting and shooting. Some of the studies used focus groups and telephone surveys of teenagers to explore their feelings about guns and people who use them.
The Times reviewed more than a thousand pages of these studies, obtained from gun industry websites and online archives, some of them produced as recently as last year. Most were prepared by consultants retained by the foundation, and at least one was financed with a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In an interview, Sanetti said the youth-centered research was driven by the inevitable tension the industry faces, given that no one under 18 can buy a rifle or a shotgun from a licensed dealer or even possess a handgun under most circumstances.
That means looking for creative and appropriate ways to introduce children to shooting sports.
"There's nothing alarmist or sinister about it," Sanetti said. "It's realistic."
Aware that introducing firearms to young children could meet with resistance, several studies suggested methods for smoothing the way for target-shooting programs in schools. One cautioned, "When approaching school systems, it is important to frame the shooting sports only as a mechanism to teach other life skills, rather than an end to itself."
The effort has succeeded in a number of states, including Wisconsin, which in 2009 lowered the minimum hunting age to 10 from 12, and Michigan, where in 2011 the age minimum for hunting small game was eliminated for children accompanied by an adult mentor.
Gun companies have spent millions of dollars to put their recruitment strategies into action, either directly or through the shooting sports foundation and other organizations. The support takes many forms.
The Scholastic Steel Challenge, started in 2009, introduces children as young as 12 to competitive handgun shooting using steel targets. Its "platinum" sponsors include the shooting sports foundation, Smith & Wesson and Glock, which donated 60 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistols, according to the group's website.
The site features a quote from a gun company executive praising the youth initiative and saying that "anyone in the firearms industry that overlooks its potential is missing the boat."
Larry Potterfield, the founder of MidwayUSA, one of the nation's largest sellers of shooting supplies and a major sponsor of the Scholastic Steel Challenge, said he did not fire a handgun until he was 21, adding that they "are the most difficult guns to learn to shoot well." But, he said, he sees nothing wrong with children using them.
Another organization, the nonprofit Youth Shooting Sports Alliance, which was created in 2007, has received close to $1 million in cash, guns and equipment from the shooting sports foundation and firearms-related companies, including ATK, Winchester, and Sturm, Ruger & Co., its tax returns show. In 2011, the alliance awarded 58 grants. A typical grant: 23 rifles, four shotguns, 16 cases of ammunition and other materials, which went to a Michigan youth camp.
The foundation and gun companies also support Junior Shooters magazine, which is based in Idaho and was started in 2007. The publication is filled with catchy advertisements and articles about things like zombie targets, pink guns and, under the heading "Kids Gear," tactical rifle components with military-style features like pistol grips and collapsible stocks.
Junior Shooters' editor, Andy Fink, acknowledged in an editorial that some of his magazine's content stirred controversy.
"I have heard people say, even shooters that participate in some of the shotgun shooting sports, such things as, 'Why do you need a semi-automatic gun for hunting?' " he wrote. But if the industry is to survive, he said, gun enthusiasts must embrace all youth shooting activities, including ones "using semi-automatic firearms with magazines holding 30-100 rounds."
In an interview, Fink elaborated. Semi-automatic firearms are actually not weapons, he said, unless someone chooses to hurt another person with them, and their image has been unfairly tainted by the news media. There is no legitimate reason children should not learn to safely use an AR-15 for recreation, he said.
"They're a tool, not any different than a car or a baseball bat," Fink said. "It's no different than a junior shooting a .22 or a shotgun. The difference is in the perception of the viewer."