Amid gun control debate, advertisers fly under the radar

Firearms advertising isn't heavily regulated, and won't be

After what feels like a constant stream of high-profile mass shootings, President Obama is enacting executive actions to increase background checks during firearms sales. Partisans and lobbyists on both sides on the gun control debate are mobilizing for a fight. But one group integral to the ubiquity of firearms in America isn’t feeling the heat, and won’t: gun advertisers.

Except for rare occasions, lawmakers and the public don’t call for restrictions of firearms advertising. That’s partially because those regulations wouldn’t stick. "Generally, if a product is actually illegal, advertising for it can be banned," said Rebecca Tushnet, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, "but a product that’s legal to own and use can be advertised pretty freely, with some contested exceptions for advertising that is particularly likely to be seen by children, when the product is illegal for children, like alcohol and cigarettes."

While the federal government prevents handgun ownership by people under the age of 18, there are no age restrictions on long gun ownership in 30 states. No, children can’t buy guns, but unlike tobacco and booze, in most of the country, an adult can buy a gun and legally give it to a child. And whenever people want to buy a product, advertisers find them.

And unlike nearly everything else involving guns, advertising doesn’t rely on the protections of the Second Amendment. "The protection of the First Amendment is now so strong that I’m not sure the Second Amendment is even needed to simplify matters," Tushnet said.

However, media outlets often take matters into their own hands. In 2014, the NFL refused to air an ad for a gun manufacturer, even though the commercial didn’t show any firearms. That same year, Facebook began deleting ads on the social network that advertised gun sales without a background check (though gun sales in general are still fine). Still, there are plenty of outlets that are happy to take those advertising dollars. While there’s little public data, a 2004 study found that gun manufacturers spent an average of just under $1.2 million each on annual firearms advertising.

And no one seems to mind, because those ads target the approximately 70 million Americans who personally own guns, not the non-gun-owning public. It’s likely most people who don’t own and don’t want to own guns have never even seen one.

But advertising for firearms is still going strong, and has been for decades, pitched in much the same ways as anything else: with appeals to technical mastery (specifications) and emotional impact (sex, fear and explosions). 

Here are a few you may have missed:

The "Duck Dynasty" crew hits all the high notes.

Smith & Wesson sponsors a "Field and Stream" series that can only be described as "gun geekery."

Yoga pants and a Glock? Namaste la vista, baby.

The competition is blown away by the T&A in a spot that rivals 72andSunny’s Carl’s Jr. work for sheer audacity.

Follow I-Hsien on Twitter @ihsiensherwood.

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