A movement of young people, led by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, captured the nation’s attention with gun control activism following a Valentine’s Day shooting at the school. But, even as the students appear in national media and flood the streets, state legislatures, and Capitol Hill, the gun industry is enjoying its own growing following of young people.
For years, gun manufacturers and industry-supported associations have focused their energy on transforming young Americans into the next generation of shooters. Using the appeal of a real-word version of the video game-style experience, the industry is pursuing young people to bolster revenue amid slumping sales. While the industry soars under Democratic governance — for fear that imminent regulations will make purchases more difficult — gun sales have been down since President Donald Trump’s election.
Amid this slump, older Americans present lesser opportunities for the industry to grow its revenue. Not only are elderly gun enthusiasts dying off, but they tend to buy hunting guns. Younger generations reared on first-person shooter video games, on the other hand, provide the gun industry with a lucrative market for sophisticated guns geared toward shooting range entertainment.
With the aid of advertising that draws on a video game aesthetic, gun companies and their allies, including the National Rifle Association, have increasingly shifted their efforts to target young, first-time gun buyers.
“It has become a recreational shooting market, partly driven by the Xbox generation coming of age.”
One manufacturer, American Outdoor Brands, told investors in recent months that it is working to build out its market among young consumers. Formerly known as Smith & Wesson, American Outdoor is the parent company of the gunmaker that manufactured the assault rifle, an AR-15, used in the Parkland school shooting.
Speaking to a shareholder meeting in September, James Debney, the CEO of of American Outdoor, expressed excitement about the “change in the demographic” of those buying the company’s guns. “Many more younger people from urban areas versus older people from rural areas, let’s say, are showing a strong interest in the shooting sports,” Debney said.
Debney credits “savvy marketing” for American Outdoor’s success in luring first-time buyers, noting that young consumers have a strong interest in self-defense and going to firing ranges that are increasingly opening in urban areas. “Younger people,” Debney said, describing the demographics of new customers, “millennials coming through strongly. And then, also, many more women showing an interest in the shooting sports.”
Debney is only one of many gun executives who have been touting young gun buyers — and the market opportunities they present — to investors.
The chief executive of the gun manufacturer Sturm Ruger, Christopher Killoy, told investors in May that, although sales were down, the industry is better positioned in relation to previous downturns because of the influx of “new shooters, fresher faces, younger faces, more diverse faces.”
At the Bank of America Leveraged Finance Conference in November, the CFO of one of the largest companies involved in gun accessories and ammunition was explicit about the video-game appeal to young gun enthusiasts. “It has become a recreational shooting market, partly driven by the Xbox generation coming of age,” said Stephen Nolan of Vista Outdoor. “And two trends which bode very well to the market long-term: significant influx of younger shooters and significant influx of female shooters into the market.” Younger shooters, he explained, look to buy paper targets of zombies or vampires, and are more interested in buying high volumes of ammunition.
The NRA, which is funded by gun manufacturers, has long maintained youth outreach programs. The group sponsors high school gun clubs around the country, including one with the JROTC program attended by Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter. The group sponsors a number of programs for high school-level shooters, including the NRA’s Youth Education Summit, which has events all around the country for young gun enthusiasts.
The NRA sponsors high school gun clubs around the country, including one with the JROTC program attended by Nikolas Cruz.
The outreach reflects a larger marketing effort by gun companies. Junior Shooter magazine, for instance, sells a range of products geared toward bringing children and teenager shooters into the market. Companies hawk zombie-themed gun apparel and other youth-oriented gun accessories on social media. Vista Outdoors sponsors shooting events for Boy Scout troops. In 2012, EA Games partnered with a gun companies such as Magpul, McMillan, and others to sell guns and other items featured in the the game “Medal of Honor: Warfighter” to consumers.
There are indications that the gun industry is making inroads. In a recent Marist poll, a majority of all age groups supported stricter gun rules. But people between 18 and 39 years old, the youngest grouping surveyed, favored stricter gun rules by a smaller percentage — 64 percent versus a national average of 71 percent — than the other age groups.
The young voters were also less likely than others to make electoral decisions based on politicians’ positions on guns. Asked by Marist whether they were likely to vote for or against a politician who supported banning semiautomatic assault guns, a majority of voters said they were more likely to support the politician. The younger segment of those polled, at 53 percent, were the only age grouping in which a majority said they were unlikely to support the politician.