My son is a bit obsessed with the game of Skylanders at the present moment. My husband and I were very late on the bandwagon of purchasing a Wii and even when we decided to; our son had to trade in his Nintendo DS and its games to purchase the game console and the starter package (we made up the difference). Since then, it has been a tug of war to maintain the number of hours he (and his sister) can play the Wii, while at the same time monitor what he is playing. When he first told me about Skylanders, one of the first things he said to me was, “Don’t worry Mommy, there are no guns and no blood,” and he was right, although I still think the game introduces him to mild violence. But then I remembered how many Saturday mornings I spent glued to the T.V. watching Bugs Bunny, while I ate a bowl of cereal. So I relaxed a bit. Yet, I was surprised that just as he mentioned Skylanders to me, he instantly reassured me that the violence included no guns and blood. At this point, you can guess that my husband and I are not gun enthusiasts by any stretch of the imagination and although my son has asked several times for a Nerf gun or something like that, we as good, but evil liberals, of course replied, “Hell no! Nerf guns will just lead you to the dark side of NRA worship,” or something like that. So by now, he knows that the question, “Mommy, Daddy, can I have a gun?” should never cross his lips. But I know very well that in many households that question would be met with a resounding, “Thank God our Johnny (or Jill) has seen the light!”
But in all seriousness, as Americans have seen a spike in discourse regarding our increasingly dysfunctional gun culture and raising questions about how we can change it, I am continually intrigued in how parents shape their children’s views regarding guns. There has been outrage this week regarding yet another gun “accident,” where a 5-year-old boy killed his 2-year-old sister with a Crickett firearm he received for his birthday. Crickett, sold by Keystone Sporting Arms, is just one gun manufacturer that creates and markets guns for children, which as the New York Times reported on this past January, has become a lucrative business. On its website, Keystone has images of children (customers) in various poses showing off their new “toy.”
These pictures are not new. Photographs of children with their guns have a long history. Parents, especially by the early 20th century, always had pride in showing off their children’s love for their “toys,” including guns. I equate guns with toys for a specific reason because as I look at these past and present images, the main reason to own a gun is rarely shown. Guns kill. Period. They kill animals and people. And I wonder if children, in the past and now, really understood that a gun can kill. I wonder if that five-year-old knew that he could kill his sister? I ask this because if you look at these images, that reality is hidden or highly edited. It makes sense of course because if you are going to market to children, it’s smart to downplay death and claim that guns are fun and promote family bonding.
Targeting children as consumers is also not new. The child as a consumer emerged in the early-twentieth century. Retailers began to expand their children’s departments so that they could entice both the mother and child (fathers, retailers assumed, did not shop for their children). Department stores catered to the female shopper, especially the mother who chose items for herself and her family. However, retailers soon recognized the influence children had on the purchases their mothers made and they began to structure their advertising and department store space to ignite children’s desires and cultivate their consumer acumen. Both children’s and toy departments expanded in size and number. To reach children meant capturing lifelong consumers.
This was not lost on gun manufactures’ advertisers. They clearly understood this connection and created advertising especially for children, and especially for boys. Advertisements for both fake and real guns flourished starting in the 1950s as guns became synonymous with apple pie. American gun culture has a long history and one that has changed drastically since the late 1960s, which historian Jill Lepore traces in the New Yorker, but in marketing guns to children, gun manufacturers not only gained lifelong consumers, but also shaped the belief that guns engendered family bonds that lasted a lifetime, which helped suppress the notion that a gun is a deadly weapon that can kill in a blink of an eye, a fact that one 5 -year-old boy in Kentucky will never forget.
As I began to look at past advertisements, I was struck by the underlying gendered message. Like advertisements for matching mother and daughter outfits that somehow create some magical bond between the two, gun advertisements often deployed the same mystical world for father and sons.
During the 1920s, Remington ran an advertisement with the title, “Father Will Show You How to Handle Your Rifle” In the copy, the father explains how to handle the gun, while at the same time, advises his son in proper use the gun, “Here’s what I also want this rifle to teach you – respect the rights of others. Do not shoot indiscriminately.” Conveniently behind the two is a target on the tree (obviously the tree had no rights) to be used after the lesson. It was a solemn message for an obviously touching moment between father and son. Although not explicit, the father conveyed the very danger of the object in his hands. Fast forward a couple of decades and there is the same feeling. Here, in an ad for bullets, a father and son enjoy a picnic lunch and a beautiful day for hunting. Yet gone is the cautious message found in the previous advertisement. Now, as Super-X assures the male consumer, the experience of hunting with this particular bullet and the rifles you chose will lead to a long lasting bond and loving memories.
Even in actual “toy” rifle ads (could the Daisy air rifle be considered a toy?), the object encourages and strengthens family bonds and reinforces gender roles.
Gun culture has always been gendered male. Gun advertisements mainly focused how guns demonstrate masculinity. For young males, gun usage was rite of passage from boyhood to manhood.
Yet, what about women? Well women are no strangers to guns either, and gun manufactures always saw them as possible consumers, but the messages in these advertisements have wrestled with traditional gender ideology. Does a woman owning a gun denote strength or highlight her weakness? By the 1980s, gun manufacturers and the NRA encouraged women to become gun owners, creating literature, i.e. Women and Guns, as well as feminized weaponry.
By the mid 1990s, approximately 12-20 million women owned guns. So why wouldn’t a daughter ask, “If mommy owns a gun, why can’t I?” In addition to matching outfits, the mother daughter can be further highlighted with matching Hello Kitty rifles.
Pink and frilly guns has spawned other goods for children, including T-shirts, bibs, and who knows what else. Yet, when gun manufacturers market guns to children, announcing that guns in children’s hands are safe and fun, it obscures the real intent of guns. Guns do not belong in children’s hands. Guns are not fun. Guns do not promote family bonding. Just ask the 5-year-old if he thinks guns are fun now. Guns kill. End of story.
 For more on the history of consumerism and childhood see Dan Thomas Cook, The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); Ellen Seiter, Sold Separately: Mothers and Children in Consumer Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); and David Nasaw, “Children and Commercial Culture: Moving Pictures in the Early Twentieth Century,” in Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, 1850-1950, eds. Elliot West and Paula Petrik (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1992), 14-25.
 See Laura Browder, Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).