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Child's Play -- the Business of Guns in America

There are gaping holes when it comes to regulating the misuse of guns by children. Much more can be done to keep the young away from guns -- at both ends of the barrel.
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Co-authored with Jurgen Brauer

Children are at the front line of America's gun debate. More young citizens are killed and maimed each year by gunfire than all United States soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Homicide is one of the leading causes of death for the country's youth and costs the health system and economy tens of billions of dollars each year. In 2010, more than 15,500 children and teens were injured by firearms. Each year, around 1,500 children die from gun homicide, suicide, and unintentional shootings, only a small proportion of which occur in schools.

The vast majority of firearms contributing to violent death in the United States were procured and made in America. The .22 rifle used by a 5-year-old to kill his 2-year-old sister in Kentucky last month was marketed as "My First Rifle" by its Pennsylvania-based manufacturer, Keystone Sporting Arms. Retailing for $100 a pop, around 55,000 of the so-called Crickett and Chipmunk series were produced in 2011 and close to 450,000 since 1995 according to industry records.

Keystone is not alone in the child-oriented gun business. A quick online search reveals at least 20 more companies marketing guns designed for use by kids. Hundreds of child-friendly models -- from handguns, single-shot rifles and short-stock shot-guns -- are available from America's 54,000 licensed dealers. There is also ample supply: more than 1,000 commercial manufacturers operate across the United States. According to the Bureau for Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, they are responsible for the release of 100 million firearms between 1986 and 2011, the last year for which data is available.

And there appears to be an almost insatiable demand for more weapons. By all accounts, the gun business is doing brisk business. Firearms background checks, adjusted to reflect retail demand, increased by roughly 1.8 million in the first four months of 2013 when compared to the same period in 2012. The National Sports Shooting Federation (NSSF) tracks such data.

So what is driving America's craving for guns?

Heated rhetoric from the National Rifle Association (NRA) is contributing to a rush on gun-shops in some states. The NRA´s 2013 Convention underway in Houston is running with the slogan "stand and fight," yet another rhetorical volley in the country's culture wars. Pro-gun activists are urging American citizens to arm themselves so that they might literally defend their freedom.

Backing the NRA is the firearms industry. Their primary motive is to sell weapons, so they are naturally interested in shaping the perceptions of prospective consumers. As industry experts well know, children are especially susceptible to flashy advertising. And parents are more inclined to invest in protection when they are afraid. In the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre, it is not just guns but also bullet resistant backpacks that are hot items. The "Bullet Blocker" child safety backpack retails for just $269.99.

Guns are also finding their way into children's hands not just because of clever marketing or abundant supply, but due to basic demand. The acquisition and misuse of firearms by kids is also a function of peer, family member, and parental influence, including recreational, military and law enforcement users. Just as children growing up in religious homes are predisposed to being religious, so too are kids raised in homes of gun enthusiasts likely to be future users (and consumers) of firearms.

There are gaping holes when it comes to regulating the misuse of guns by children. While those under 18 are restricted from buying firearms, there are no such constraints for those who handle or shoot them. Nor are there any rules requiring the supervision of young people using them. For its part, the NRA claims to educate children about gun safety. It uses a cartoon -- Eddie the Eagle -- to instruct kids to avoid them. Critics say that the animated bird has the opposite effect, familiarizing and even encouraging adolescents to use guns early.

Much more can be done to keep the young away from guns -- at both ends of the barrel. While motivated by self-interest, groups like the NSSF have taken modest steps to promote gun safety and law-abiding behavior. Likewise, Texan Representative Jackson Lee recently introduced the Child Gun Safety and Gun Access Prevention Act, which seeks to raise penalties on the selling of guns without adequate gun storage or safety locks. Although facing stiff resistance in Congress, the proposed legislation also prohibits the keeping of loaded firearms near children and includes provisions for more gun safety programs.

There are commonsense steps that law makers should take to prevent and reduce the epidemic of gun violence among children. They can begin by incentivizing the industry to adopt basic preventive measures. It is worth recalling that the automobile industry once fiercely resisted the introduction of seat-belts, though is now happy to market them as advantages. The firearms industry could win over many of its moderate critics by ensuring that no product leaving the assembly line is without a safety lock.

Moreover, consumer groups like the NRA must recognize that just as driver's licenses and driving lessons are required to prevent inflicting injuries, so too should licenses, background checks, and training be mandatory for shooters. Changes in marketing and the incentive structure for manufacturers could induce positive changes in America's gun culture. Surely this much industry friends and foes can agree on.

*Robert Muggah is Research Director of the Igarapé Institute and Jurgen Brauer is a Professor of Economics at Georgia Regents University.