Ambitious gun control advocates have long sought a “whole of government approach” to stamping out the right to keep and bear arms. This involves weaponizing not just the ATF and FBI against gun owners and the industries that support them but a roster of less obvious agencies as well. Recently, firearm prohibitionists have refocused their attention on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as the latest conscript in their war on firearm-related freedoms. How they plan to do so provides an enlightening case study on the politicization of government for partisan and ideological ends.
As is typical of the agencies whose function it is to enforce the statutes passed by the political branches of government, the FTC describes its mission in vague and benign terms. Its website claims its dedicated to “[p]rotecting the public from deceptive or unfair business practices and from unfair methods of competition through law enforcement, advocacy, research, and education.” This includes, among other things, policing what the agency considers “unfair or deceptive advertising in any medium.”
Stated simply, this means “advertising must tell the truth and not mislead consumers.” And most would likely agree that a company which intentionally misleads the public about its products should be answerable for any harms that result. But to a gun control activist, the FTC’s authority to control what sort of advertising reaches the public suggests it could be a powerful tool in censorship and propaganda.
Controlling the public narrative on firearms is one of the gun control movement’s top priorities. Eric Holder, a firearm prohibitionist who was appointed U.S. attorney general by Barack Obama, spoke on the matter with unabashed boldness in a speech he gave while acting as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia in 1995. He had been appointed to that position by another anti-gun stalwart, Bill Clinton.
Part of the “gun initiative,” Holder stated, would be “an information campaign.” “[W]hat we need to do,” he stated, “is change the way in which people think about guns, especially young people, and make it something that’s not cool, that’s not acceptable, that’s not hip … .” This would involve, he said, a cooperative effort between the government, advertising agencies, newspapers, television stations, entertainers, athletes, community leaders, and schools. Every school day, Holder insisted, should include “some kind of … anti-gun message: every day, every school, at every level.” He continued: “We need to do this every day of the week and just really brainwash people into thinking about guns in a vastly different way.”
Holder illustrated the type of “brainwashing” he envisioned by invoking the public shift in attitude toward cigarette smoking. “Over time, we changed the way people thought about smoking,” he said. “And so now we have people who cower outside of buildings and kind of smoke in private and don’t want to admit it.”
Indeed, gun control proponents have long sought to use the tactics activists successfully employed to marginalize and suppress smoking in the U.S. to marginalize and suppress gun ownership. This involves rebranding firearm ownership and use as a “public health crisis,” the “cure” to which involves coordinated action between the government, private activists, and litigators.
Not coincidentally, the FTC was a major player in the smoking effort, eventually claiming (at the behest of activists in and outside of the government) the authority to ban advertisements for cigarettes that they considered to be aimed at kids (even though, as with guns, cigarettes could not be legally sold to kids). The FTC’s claims were never tested in court, however, because the tobacco company at issue eventually phased out the supposedly illegal ads, as the industry buckled under an avalanche of litigation. Eventually, the FTC dismissed the complaint it had filed against a tobacco company for this allegedly “illegal” marketing.
Firearms and cigarettes, of course, are not the same thing, and the social utility of firearms was resolved in 1791 with the ratification of the Second Amendment. But that is the historical precedent upon which gun control activists now hope to convince the FTC to re-engage in the culture war Holder described so vividly.
Last September, a partisan group of anti-gun senators wrote a letter to urge the chairwoman of the FTC to “undertake an investigation and consider regulation of the unfair and deceptive advertising practices used by the firearms industry.” As activists formerly had with tobacco companies, these senators accused gun companies of “specifically target[ing] and tailor[ing] its advertisements to children and teenagers.” Indeed, the letter cited actions against the “tobacco and e-cigarette industries” as “perhaps the paradigmatic example” of the agency’s authority to suppress supposedly harmful advertising aimed at children. The supposedly “false and misleading” advertising claims the senators demanded the FTC take action against included military and law enforcement themes meant to appeal to young men and “marketing firearms to consumers as a safe and proven product to protect themselves and their homes.”
As the letter indicates, similar efforts to draft the FTC into the gun control cause date back to at least 1996. And, as the senators admit, “The FTC, however, has never taken public action in response to the petitions.” That is likely because the petitions, reduced to their essence, all ask the FTC to enshrine as “truth” the highly debatable and emotionally overwrought assertions of gun control activists and as “falsehoods and deceptions” any positive image gunmakers present of their own products. In other words, gun control activists want the FTC to conclusively resolve every existing debate about firearms in their favor and to censor any message to the contrary in firearm-related advertising.
So far, the FTC has declined the invitation to become the ultimate arbiter about what is true and false in the gun debate. But efforts to pressure the agency into becoming the 800-pound gorilla of federal gun control censorship continue.
Last month, for example, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) again called for the FTC to “investigate” a company for marketing a firearm designed around the needs of minors who are learning to responsibly handle guns. “The law says you shouldn’t be marketing guns to kids,” Schumer insisted. “But there is a company in Chicago that is doing exactly that,” he continued.
As Schumer likely knows, his statement was false. There is nothing in the FTC’s enabling statute or voluminous regulations that prohibit a gun company from advertising the fact that it makes a firearm geared toward the needs of young users. Rather, Schumer was signaling to what he knows or hopes are activist bureaucrats within the FTC to invent legal authority for that proposition.
Schumer’s grandstanding was an effort to revive a call by a number of his partisan Senate colleagues last May for the FTC to investigate Wee1 Tactical for its JR-15, a magazine-fed, blow-back semi-automatic rifle chambered in .22 LR. Operationally and ballistically, the JR-15 is not much different from the sorts of rifles – e.g., the Ruger 10/22 – that have introduced generations of young people to the safe and responsible use of firearms, including through programs like Boy Scouts, 4-H, and scholastic rifle teams.
What makes the JR-15 different is that its appearance and manual of arms is designed to mimic the AR-15, and it is scaled down in size and weight to be easily and safely managed by younger users. But the .22 rimfire cartridge the JR-15 uses is significantly less powerful than the intermediate 5.56 mm round common to the AR-15, which itself is significantly less powerful than other common full-sized rifle cartridges.
Needless to say, parents have been lawfully teaching their kids the fundamentals of marksmanship and gun handling since the earliest days of the Republic and well before then. It therefore makes sense, from a practical and economic perspective, that firearm companies would produce guns specifically designed for this purpose.
And it should hardly be surprising that some of those guns share similarities to the most popular “adult” rifle in the United States, the AR-15. However much the esthetics and design features of the AR-15 might offend the sensibilities of Schumer and his Democrat colleagues in the Senate, the platform has been overwhelmingly embraced by ordinary Americans for its practicality and user-friendliness.
Guns like the JR-15 can actually make teaching a minor the basics of marksmanship safer, by providing dimensions more appropriate to their own size, thus promoting greater control and confidence. This is similar to scaled-down versions of other types of sporting equipment used by kids, including dirt bikes, skis, and golf clubs. Only a gun control proponent would consider ease of handling a negative when it comes to firearms safety. The JR-15 additionally features a secondary, patented, tamper-resistant safety, which when engaged helps prevent the use of the firearm without an adult’s assistance.
Of course, the way in which Wee1 Tactical or any other gun maker designs and markets its products does not change the fact that federal law prohibits gun dealers from selling firearms directly to those under 18. Only adults can buy firearms at retail, and then only after satisfying the federal requirement of a background check, among other bureaucratic hurdles.
Furthermore, in a tacit admission that current law DOES NOT “say you shouldn’t be marketing guns to kids,” one of the anti-gun senators who had been calling for the FTC to investigate Wee1 Tactical introduced a bill that would require the agency to promulgate rules to prohibit members of the gun industry “from marketing or advertising a firearm or any firearm-related product to a minor in a manner that is designed, intended, or reasonably appears to be attractive to a minor.” Among the factors the agency could consider in determining whether company violated this rule is whether it “[o]ffers any firearm or firearm-related product with features, sizes, or designs that are specifically designed to be used by, or appeal to, minors.”
But what likely offends Schumer, et al., about the JR-15 isn’t that it’s a smaller-sized “weapon of war” (it’s not) or that it’s especially dangerous (quite the opposite). What likely offends them is the idea of another generation of Americans growing up with firearms as a normal and positive part of their upbringing, thereby becoming more likely to own firearms as adults and to pass on that tradition to their own kids. As Eric Holder so starkly illustrated in 1995, these activists believe the hearts and minds of America’s youth should belong to them and them alone.
Fortunately, firearm owners and gun makers are not normally the type to “cower” before propaganda campaigns or government overreach. Brands that cater to families raising their kids to responsibly embrace America’s traditions and constitutional liberties are doing a public service. And the families that engage in these traditions will produce the next generation of American patriots who will carry on this legacy of freedom. This won’t change, just because Schumer and his cronies insist on blowing smoke.