On Feb. 15, 2022, Remington Arms reached a $73 million-dollar settlement with the families of the victims of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six staff members.
The now-bankrupt Remington Arms did not formally accept liability. But this historic settlement indicates that gun manufacturers can face financial consequences for the use of their products under some circumstances and be held accountable for their marketing. “This victory should serve as a wake-up call not only to the gun industry but also the insurance and banking companies that prop it up,” said Josh Koskoff, a lawyer for the victims’ families. “For the gun industry,” he said, “it’s time to stop recklessly marketing all guns to all people for all uses and instead ask how marketing can lower risk rather than court it.”
This settlement marks a sharp departure from precedent. Dating back to the 19th century, firearms manufacturers have avoided responsibility for the violent acts committed with their rifles and pistols, even as they have aggressively marketed their lethal products to White men and boys.
In the 18th and early-19th centuries, highly-trained gunsmiths carefully crafted customized weapons at the behest of individual civilian buyers. The time-consuming process meant guns were expensive and few households purchased more than one. Ordinary Americans, of course, owned and used guns, but a large civilian market for mass-produced weapons did not exist before the 1840s.
But the Industrial Revolution ushered in a new era of manufacturing. Expansive factories made it possible to rapidly make and assemble rifles and revolvers by relying upon unskilled labor, industrial machinery and interchangeable parts.
Mass production, however, created a problem for prospective gun tycoons. Producing lots of guns cheaply and efficiently would only be profitable if they sold those weapons in large quantities.
The solution: advertising. Instead of the public seeing guns as largely for military use or as household tools, Americans had to desire them. Manufacturers — including but not limited to the Colt Manufacturing Co., Remington and Winchester Repeating Arms Co. — initiated aggressive advertising campaigns that promoted their products to White civilian men.
The mid-19th-century economy was highly unregulated, and the federal government placed few restrictions on selling weapons and ammunition. As historian Pamela Haag has explained, “No pangs of conscience were attached” to firearms sales or marketing, and there were “no more special regulations, prohibitions, values, or mystique” relating to the manufacture, marketing or sales of guns than of shovels. As typical 19th-century capitalists, arms manufacturers held little to no personal affinity for guns; they held only a fascination with production, standardization, efficiency and moneymaking.
Samuel Colt exemplified the art of selling guns on unregulated markets. According to one historian, “Colt’s greatest invention was … the system he built to manufacture [repeating revolvers] and the apparatus of sales, image management, and marketing that made his guns … the most popular, prolific, and storied handgun in American history.” Remington and other competitors built upon this profitable system.
From the start, Colt implicitly connected his revolvers to ideas of White manhood and power. In Colt lore, two origin stories exist about the repeating revolver. Today the dominant narrative claims that 16-year-old Colt became inspired by a ship’s wheel while sailing to Kolkata, and he whittled pieces for the gun.
The lesser-known origin story is more sinister. It connects Colt’s revolver to Nat Turner’s revolt, an 1831 uprising among enslaved workers in Virginia. According to an 1838 endorsement in an American journal, Colt was startled to think about the “fearful odds” with which White planters contended due to being “surrounded by a swarming population of slaves.” A multi-shot revolver would enable “the planter to repose in peace.”
This inspiration exposed how Colt was happy to sell firearms to paying customers for nefarious purposes. (Colt Manufacturing did not respond to a request for comment.) That became even clearer in the late 1850s, when he began urging his factory managers to “run the armory at a double set of hands … make hay while the sun shines” as the sectional fracture in the United States grew. Surplus was welcome. In 1860, Colt used his resources to build up supply for when the demand for weapons inevitably came. Seeing the warlike mood in the South, Colt told his factory superintendent Elisha K. Root that he was “sure there is a market for all arms we can make, whether there is a fight or not.”
On the eve of the Civil War, however, Northerners had a momentary crisis of conscience. As the New York Times warned, Southerners had “bargained with Northern people for weapons for destroying the people of the North.” Nor had all arms manufacturers stopped responding to Southern orders when “the deeply malignant purposes of the South” became known “beyond all question.” Instead, a prominent gun factory was “at this moment working under the utmost pressure to furnish Southern traitors with the implements of treasonable warfare.”
While not explicitly named in the Jan. 16, 1861, New York Times editorial, the Hartford-based Colt had deliberately drummed up business below the Mason-Dixon Line in the years before the Civil War and supplied guns to the future rebels. Astoundingly, the company’s last Southern order appears to have shipped from New England to Texas on April 16, 1861 — almost four months after South Carolina seceded and a week after the bombardment of Fort Sumter.
In a letter to the editor of the Boston Transcript, Colt dismissed this criticism. Rebutting the claim that he favored Southern sales or offered discounts, he sought credit for “refusing the most tempting offers from speculators and those who desire to monopolize firearms at this important crisis.”
Distracted by the war, the American public soon forgot the incident and the company avoided blowback.
After the Civil War, arms manufacturers shifted gears, but their basic strategy of aggressively chasing customers and tying their products to White masculinity remained steady.
The Winchester Repeating Arms Co. launched the “boy plan,” aimed at American youths and their parents. Corporate executives developed a marketing strategy to reach more than 1 million boys between ages 10 and 16. “When the boys and girls of your town arrive at the age of twelve years old, they become your prospects,” noted the company’s internal sales letter. In the late 1910s, the company’s slogan — “Every real boy wants a Winchester rifle” — became prominent. This marketing campaign informed boys that, to be real men, they needed a Winchester.
These advertisements — eerily similar to more contemporary ads used by arms manufacturers in the 21st century — clearly targeted the young male demographic. (Winchester did not respond to a request for comment.) Today young men are responsible for 98 percent of mass shootings in the United States. Yet even as the death toll has mounted over the past quarter-century, gun manufacturers continued to produce technologically advanced weapons with high-capacity magazines, and to use marketing campaigns to urge men to purchase additional guns for home defense and self-defense.
Gun manufacturers, however, are rarely held accountable for their marketing tactics or for the irreversible damage caused by their lethal products. A rise in gun violence and mass shootings in the 1990s trigged lawsuits from various cities across the nation, but courts often dismissed such cases. Then, in 2005, Congress made legal protections for firearms manufacturers explicit.
As part of the settlement, Remington will finally open its books and show exactly how it marketed modern firearms. This is unprecedented, and it promises to reveal to the public whether gun manufacturers have crossed lines in marketing their products.