SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Mark Robinson, 14, wants to be a police officer with a canine corps one day. Teen-age brothers Vince and Michael Alfano enjoyed shooting guns at a county fair and decided to learn more. Postal worker Charles Steele signed up his 13-year-old son Christopher so that "the boy can defend himself or the house, if necessary."
All four youngsters are enrolled in Little Shots, the popular children's shooting program at the new National Firearms Training Center here.
What makes Little Shots noteworthy is not only the youth of the marksmen but also the identity of their instructors: employees of Smith & Wesson, America's leading handgun manufacturer.
"We want kids who use guns or live in homes with guns to know how to be safe, and to find a comfort level with the weapon," says Wendell Prior, training coordinator of the Smith & Wesson center. "So this is not like most gun ranges. It's a clean, well-lit place to have your first shooting experience, if that's something you want to experience at all."
This training center puts Smith & Wesson at the forefront of an aggressive -- and potentially risky -- new marketing strategy by gun manufacturers. Using a combination of advertising and gun education classes to argue that shooting should be safe and commonplace, gunmakers are bypassing dealers and directly recruiting new customers, particularly children.
These tactics, coinciding with school shootings in Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas, have prompted gun-control advocates to organize a series of "silent marches" against manufacturers, including a protest outside a Smith & Wesson plant in Springfield today.
But industry officials haven't cut back on their efforts.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation literature plainly declares "a new focus on women and youngsters." A magazine for firearms dealers prominently promotes the young Olympic medalist, Kim Rhode, as "shooting's Tiger Woods." The National Rifle Association president, Marion Hammer, appears with her grandson in ads that describe "how shooting teaches you the good lessons of life."
Gun manufacturer Browning boasts of having recently signed up rock star Ted Nugent as a spokesman; the company is also using pictures of toddlers in its catalogs -- in one case, holding expended shotgun shells.
A Colt ad shows company employee Tom Moran and his teen-age daughter shooting and says: "What gives the new Colt .22 caliber pistol such proud bloodlines? Colt's designers have engineered a shooter's gun for all ages and sizes in this rugged stainless steel, single action pistol."
Smith & Wesson catalogs, which advertise a $16.95 youth shooter's protection combo, include a similar picture, with a young boy shooting a handgun under his father's instruction.
"Seems like only yesterday that your father brought you here for the first time," the caption reads. "Those sure were the good times -- just you, dad and his Smith & Wesson."
To officials of the 146-year-old gun company, such ads are a reasonable effort to expand a stagnant customer base.
And classes such as Little Shots, in their view, are not only good public relations but also a needed service in a city with many hunting families and a gun tradition dating back to 1794, when George Washington established the first federal armory here.
In the wake of the slayings of five people in Jonesboro, Ark., in which two youths were charged, legal experts say that gunmakers' marketing efforts -- even youth safety classes -- may prove a tempting target for legislatures and potential plaintiffs. The parents of one victim in Arkansas, Natalie Brooks, have already said they intend to sue the manufacturer of the gun her killer used.
In the past, the families of shooting victims have based such lawsuits on "product liability" claims that guns were manufactured poorly or did not include proper safety devices. But no court has upheld such a claim. So plaintiffs are now targeting gunmakers' marketing strategies.
Already, the new tactic is showing promise. Last month, a federal lawsuit in New York became the first legal claim against a manufacturer over the use of its weapon in a crime to reach a trial. However, the defendant prevailed before a jury.
And in Philadelphia, Mayor Ed Rendell has hired attorneys to study the feasibility of suing the nation's gunmakers to recover all costs related to shootings; legal drafts obtained by The Sun show that if the suit goes forward, Philadelphia intends to use the gun industry's efforts to market to children as one way to prove negligence.
"This area of law is where tobacco was 10 years ago: it's ripe," Temple Law School Professor David Kairys, who is active in the )) Philadelphia effort, said earlier this year. "Their marketing is their weakness; there are some promotions out there that bring Joe Camel to mind."
Since 1979, the National Rifle Association has had the officially stated goal of "introducing as many of the nation's youth as possible" to firearms. But it wasn't until the late 1980s, when research showed that the white male market had been saturated, that the industry trained its sights on families and children.
For the most part, the NRA has led the way. According to a speech by NRA executive Craig Sandler last month, the NRA's marketing to children includes a youth magazine, a Shooting Sports Camp (similar to children's summer baseball camps), Youth Education Summer (a five-day classroom program for high school students interested in guns), and Youth Hunter Education Challenge, which teaches archery, rifle shooting, muzzle loading and wildlife identification.
The NRA's chief marketer is Eddie Eagle, the feathery mascot of its education videos for kindergarten through sixth grade.
At least nine state legislatures have endorsed the Eddie Eagle training program, and North Carolina has mandated that it be taught in school.
"We're in an old-fashioned wrestling match for the hearts and minds of our children," NRA president Hammer said in 1996, explaining Eddie's appeal, "and we'd better engage our adversaries with no holds barred."
Several groups have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that gunmakers use ads endorsing handgun ownership by people with small children. The FTC has yet to rule on the petition.
"The problem with the gun industry's outreach is that they could save more lives by telling adults how to safely store guns, or by designing guns to be safer," says Jon Vernick, associate director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research. "Instead, the gunmakers just say, 'Kids, always be careful around guns.' "
In the midst of this dispute, Smith & Wesson quietly opened its training center in March 1997. The company had run a well-known academy for law enforcement and military officers since 1969, but the expanded complex has three classrooms, three indoor ranges, and a small museum with a rotating collection of 19th-century Smith & Wesson handguns.
In the first year, the center has signed up more than 1,200 members, says Prior. The popular women's league went Christmas caroling. And 355 people enrolled in the center's 20 or so classes -- including "Dynamics of Personal Protection," which includes lessons on how to find cover, avoid bullets ricocheting from the floor, and shoot an attacker so he'll lose blood quickly.
"There's always an instructor around the range, and you always feel safe," says Ita Rodriguez, a Springfield paralegal who has used a gun since an assault landed her in the hospital nine years ago. "The place is so clean -- I feel like I'm in a department store."
The center's spacious store, in fact, might be confused with a Gap outlet if it didn't sell 175 different models of handguns. For sale are leather bomber jackets, slacks, preppie wool sweaters, 15 kinds of baseball caps, and 12 styles of shirts, along with toy trucks, golf balls, mouse pads and pepper spray. All have the Smith & Wesson logo.
A number of visiting parents have taken the free tour and signed up their youngsters for Little Shots. Once the youngsters, ages 8 to 17, pass a course on safety, range policy and shooting fundamentals, they can enroll in the Little Shots Pellet Shooting Program.
Mark Robinson, the ninth-grader who wants to be an officer and work with police dogs, says he has heard people say that children shouldn't be taught to use guns, but disagrees. "I like guns, I like my dog Smokey, and I like helping volunteer for the town," he says. "I'm big enough to handle a gun, and I'm going to use one anyway when I'm an officer. So why wait?"
Pub Date: 5/02/98