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Forum Truth and the gun lobby’s marketing lies

April 6, 2019

About one year after students across America walked out of school to protest gun violence, the Connecticut Supreme Court dealt a stunning blow to the gun industry by ruling that families of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School could proceed with a lawsuit against Remington, the company that made the gun used to kill their loved ones.

The families argue that Remington violated Connecticut’s unfair trade practices act with an unlawful marketing campaign to sell civilians assault weapons the company promoted for offensive, military-style missions, lauding their “military-proven performance” and touting them as “the ultimate combat weapons system.”

It remains to be seen whether a jury will ultimately agree that such ads helped prompt the Sandy Hook shooter to use the weapon for the purpose it was designed for — killing large numbers of people in a short amount of time. But, crucially, the decision means the families can have their day in court and a chance to persuade a jury. That’s how our civil justice system works when it comes to unscrupulous marketing — whether it’s guns or tobacco and drug companies lying about whether cigarettes or opioids are addictive.

Given the toll of gun violence in America — nearly 40,000 deaths and more than 100,000 non-fatal shootings per year — scrutiny of gun industry advertising and the role it plays in fueling that violence is welcome. And it’s not without precedent.

During the 1990s, as the industry promoted irresponsible and dangerous conduct that put kids at risk, academics and advocates petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to intervene. One egregious ad from Beretta that caught their ire depicted an unlocked pistol on a bedside table, next to a photo of a mom and two kids, and urged gun buyers to “Tip the odds in your favor.” Other similar ads also depicted unlocked guns in the nightstand, despite the clear danger to children when loaded guns are left unattended. The complaints to the FTC got the industry’s attention and curbed the most egregious ads promoting irresponsible gun storage.

But questionable advertising tactics continue today, and before the Connecticut Supreme Court’s decision, the industry showed all signs of believing it could operate with impunity. Besides selling the “tacti-cool” vision of civilians aping military combat techniques, the industry touts guns as the simple — and only — solution for safety in a dangerous world. These ads suggest that if someone just buys the right gun and ammo, she can protect herself and her family, at home or on the go, just as well as an army ranger or experienced police officer.

Notably absent from gun industry ads is any information about the challenges of using a gun for self-defense under the stressful conditions of armed confrontation — challenges that can lead even trained law enforcement in gunfights to miss their mark more than 80 percent of the time. And nowhere to be found in gun industry ads are acknowledgments of well-established social science showing that the presence of a gun in the home is associated with significantly increased risks of suicide, intimate partner homicide and unintentional shooting.

Omitting this data from advertisements promotes the industry’s bottom line, which depends on convincing more people to buy and carry guns, and to believe that firearms in the home make it more safe, not less. That social science disproves the industry’s big lie is evidently not enough. A generation ago more than half of all Americans believed having a gun in the home made it less safe, but today more than 60 percent of Americans believe guns make a home safer — twice as many as think they increase risk.

Parallel to the misinformation campaign it wages with misleading ads are the gun industry’s efforts to block research that shows the truth about gun violence. After a landmark 1993 study found that having a handgun in the home tripled the risk that someone would be killed there, the gun lobby scrambled to scuttle further research and convinced Congress to enact restrictions on gun research that have blocked federal research for more than two decades.

Fortunately, an unprecedented coalition of doctors and public health experts has teamed up this year in a concerted push to provide meaningful federal support for gun violence research. And the state Supreme Court decision opened the door to using our civil justice system to police the worst abuses in firearm marketing and the most deceptive gun advertisements.

The gun lobby’s survival rides on promoting the illusion that our safety depends on carrying guns wherever we go, and keeping unlocked, loaded guns at the ready in our homes. Now, regulators and victims of gun violence have a tool to hold gun companies accountable when they promote those myths through unethical, illegal advertising. It’s time to hold the gun industry accountable for its lies.

Adam Skaggs is chief counsel at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which urged the Connecticut Supreme Court to allow the families’ false advertising claims to proceed.

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