Why Gun Makers Want Children to Play With Rifles

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As the vast bulk of American hunters close in on old age, firearms makers need a shot of youth to keep their profits flowing.

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(Reuters)

In a story sure to turn the stomachs of urban parents coast to coast, The New York Times reported this weekend that firearms makers have been engaging in a years-long, multimillion- dollar push to hook children and teenagers on the charms of gun culture. Among other efforts, the industry has started cooking up teen-focused magazine ads, offered "junior shooters" discounts on military-style semi-automatic rifles, sponsored youth handgun competitions, and lobbied to lower state age limits for hunting. 

One study commissioned by the industry investigated ways companies could appeal to potential customers as young as eight. 

So why are these companies suddenly so interested in elementary schoolers? According to the Times, the youth outreach efforts began about five years ago as an attempt to deal with the long-term declining popularity of gun sports, especially hunting, which have slowly fallen out of favor thanks to everything from urbanization to video games. Unfortunately, the article doesn't quite capture the gravity of the problem gun makers are facing. Much like every other part of the American economy supported mostly by Baby Boomers, weapons manufacturers might soon be facing a market crisis unless they can get kids excited about shooting. 

Although they've been overshadowed a bit by handgun buyers in recent years, public data suggest that hunters are the backbone of U.S. firearms sales. According IBISWorld, American civilians purchase roughly $7 billion worth of guns and ammunition annually. And although their analysis doesn't separate money spent by sportsmen from purchases by doomsday preppers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that hunters alone alone spent around $4.3 billion on guns and ammo in 2011.  

In short, when we talk about hunting, we're talking about a pastime responsible for more than half of retail gun sales. And over the past 20 years, hunting has not fared well. Although their numbers have risen since hitting a trough in 2006, there are around 300,000 fewer Americans stalking deer, cramming themselves into duck blinds, and gunning down turkeys than in 1991, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. As a result, hunters have fallen from more than 7 percent of the population to a bit under 6 percent.

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But sheer numbers aren't the only problem. Simply put, America's hunters are getting old. In 1991, 71 percent were under the age of 45; today less than half are. It's a stagnant population that's been graying for years, and soon, old age and shrinking, post-retirement incomes will force many to give up their hobby. As a result, gun makers are staring down a demographic and financial disaster. 

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Unless, that is, young people start shooting game again. And here, there's actually some happy news for the industry. Right now there are modest signs of a youth revival in hunting. According the Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of 6-to-15-year-olds who hunted increased by about 14 percent from 2005 to 2010, a bit faster than the rate of growth in the adult hunting population. Are assault rifles for 'tweens and junior-shooter programs to thank? Who can say. But at the very least, their efforts don't seem to be hurting business -- no matter how horrifying some parents might find them. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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