Gunmakers aim at youth market Directing sales pitch to children invites challenge in courts

May 02, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Mark Robinson, 14, wants to be a police officer with a canine corps one day. Teen-age brothers Vince and Michael Alfano enjoyed shooting guns at a county fair and decided to learn more. Postal worker Charles Steele signed up his 13-year-old son Christopher so that "the boy can defend himself or the house, if necessary."

All four youngsters are enrolled in Little Shots, the popular children's shooting program at the new National Firearms Training Center here.

What makes Little Shots noteworthy is not only the youth of the marksmen but also the identity of their instructors: employees of Smith & Wesson, America's leading handgun manufacturer.

"We want kids who use guns or live in homes with guns to know how to be safe, and to find a comfort level with the weapon," says Wendell Prior, training coordinator of the Smith & Wesson center. "So this is not like most gun ranges. It's a clean, well-lit place to have your first shooting experience, if that's something you want to experience at all."

This training center puts Smith & Wesson at the forefront of an aggressive -- and potentially risky -- new marketing strategy by gun manufacturers. Using a combination of advertising and gun education classes to argue that shooting should be safe and commonplace, gunmakers are bypassing dealers and directly recruiting new customers, particularly children.

These tactics, coinciding with school shootings in Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas, have prompted gun-control advocates to organize a series of "silent marches" against manufacturers, including a protest outside a Smith & Wesson plant in Springfield today.

But industry officials haven't cut back on their efforts.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation literature plainly declares "a new focus on women and youngsters." A magazine for firearms dealers prominently promotes the young Olympic medalist, Kim Rhode, as "shooting's Tiger Woods." The National Rifle Association president, Marion Hammer, appears with her grandson in ads that describe "how shooting teaches you the good lessons of life."

Gun manufacturer Browning boasts of having recently signed up rock star Ted Nugent as a spokesman; the company is also using pictures of toddlers in its catalogs -- in one case, holding expended shotgun shells.

A Colt ad shows company employee Tom Moran and his teen-age daughter shooting and says: "What gives the new Colt .22 caliber pistol such proud bloodlines? Colt's designers have engineered a shooter's gun for all ages and sizes in this rugged stainless steel, single action pistol."

Smith & Wesson catalogs, which advertise a $16.95 youth shooter's protection combo, include a similar picture, with a young boy shooting a handgun under his father's instruction.

"Seems like only yesterday that your father brought you here for the first time," the caption reads. "Those sure were the good times -- just you, dad and his Smith & Wesson."

To officials of the 146-year-old gun company, such ads are a reasonable effort to expand a stagnant customer base.

And classes such as Little Shots, in their view, are not only good public relations but also a needed service in a city with many hunting families and a gun tradition dating back to 1794, when George Washington established the first federal armory here.

In the wake of the slayings of five people in Jonesboro, Ark., in which two youths were charged, legal experts say that gunmakers' marketing efforts -- even youth safety classes -- may prove a tempting target for legislatures and potential plaintiffs. The parents of one victim in Arkansas, Natalie Brooks, have already said they intend to sue the manufacturer of the gun her killer used.

In the past, the families of shooting victims have based such lawsuits on "product liability" claims that guns were manufactured poorly or did not include proper safety devices. But no court has upheld such a claim. So plaintiffs are now targeting gunmakers' marketing strategies.

Already, the new tactic is showing promise. Last month, a federal lawsuit in New York became the first legal claim against a manufacturer over the use of its weapon in a crime to reach a trial. However, the defendant prevailed before a jury.

And in Philadelphia, Mayor Ed Rendell has hired attorneys to study the feasibility of suing the nation's gunmakers to recover all costs related to shootings; legal drafts obtained by The Sun show that if the suit goes forward, Philadelphia intends to use the gun industry's efforts to market to children as one way to prove negligence.

"This area of law is where tobacco was 10 years ago: it's ripe," Temple Law School Professor David Kairys, who is active in the )) Philadelphia effort, said earlier this year. "Their marketing is their weakness; there are some promotions out there that bring Joe Camel to mind."

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