Four years ago this week, in one of the deadliest mass shootings in memory, 17 people were shot and killed by a 19-year-old gunman at a high school in Parkland, Florida. The tragedy spurred a revitalized gun reform movement led by a new generation, with youth coalitions like March For Our Lives calling for common-sense gun legislation. Still, school shootings continue to rise: Between August and December 2021, there were 136 instances of gunfire on school grounds, the highest rate in a 5-month period since the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety began tracking it in 2013. And 70% of school shooters, many of whom have easy home access to weapons, are under the age of 18.
Given this backdrop of ever-increasing gun violence, and especially by young perpetrators, the release of a new rifle directly marketed to kids has astonished even gun-reform experts who have followed the industry’s aggressive targeting of children for years. They say this new firearm, overtly advertised as a kids’ version of the AR-15—the style of rifle used in 11 of the 12 most high-profile mass shootings, including Sandy Hook and Las Vegas—is the most brazen example of such targeted firearms marketing they’ve ever seen. The move is part of a trend by an unstable gun industry in a volatile market to target new potential consumers, but it’s also motivated by a rise of political extremism.
Last month, the JR-15, or Junior 15, debuted at the SHOT Show, billed as the nation’s largest annual trade show for the sport shooting, hunting, and outdoor industry. The event is organized by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), a firearms industry trade association. The rifle is manufactured by WEE1 Tactical, an offshoot of Schmid Tool and Engineering, which has sold AR-15 components for 30 years. A November press release from WEE1 specifically notes the JR-15’s appeal to children: “Our vision is to develop a line of shooting platforms that will safely help adults introduce children to the shooting sports,” it reads. To do that, it’s built a gun whose “ergonomics are geared towards children”: it’s lighter than an adult version, at 2.2 pounds, 20% smaller, and with a patented safety mechanism, not standard on AR-15s, which needs to be pulled out “with some force” and rotated before it can fire. Slight tweaks aside, the company boasts that it “operates just like Mom and Dad’s gun.”
Baby’s first AR-15
“There’s been youth shooting guns for 80 years, but there’s never been a youth AR-15,” says Ryan Busse, a former firearms executive, now senior advisor at Giffords, one of the leading gun violence-prevention groups, cofounded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. “I’ve never seen one that’s just an egregiously tactical, offensive weapon of war,” adds Busse, author of Gunfight, a book that discusses the extremist radicalization of the industry.
The JR-15 is a .22 caliber rifle, meaning it takes bullets of a .22-inch diameter; .22 caliber rifles are common as starter rifles because their shots are slightly slower than the cartridges used in an AR-15, with lower recoil—less painful for little shoulders. But, says Busse, to tout a .22 as safe is a myth. (The NRA brushes it off as never “a hard-hitter.”) It’s still a semi-automatic rifle that most would consider an assault weapon. “Believe me, you do not want to get shot with a .22,” he says. “To say that they’re nonlethal—that’s a joke.”
Specifications aside, the appeal to children is clear: WEE1’s colorful logo comprises two skulls, depicted as a little boy and girl, sucking on pacifiers, and with a gun sight over one eye. The branding “keeps the wow factor with the kids”; the logos come on glow-in-the-dark children’s baseball caps, too.
Gun manufacturers have sold semiautomatic rifles targeted to kids in the past. Josh Sugarmann, founder and executive director of Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group, published a study in 2016 called “Start Them Young.” It lays out a whole list of past examples, including a Smith & Wesson M&P .22 rifle (M&P stands for Military and Police) made in vibrant colors, like pink platinum and harvest-moon orange. Another company, Marlin, made a model that NRA Family praised, writing in 2014: “These rifles are not just sized for kids—they’re completely designed for kids.”
But Sugarmann says WEE1 is more aggressively targeting kids with a product that’s explicitly a starter AR-15. “That’s something we’ve never seen before,” he says. “I think what makes the WEE1 JR-15 really just so horrific is the fact that it’s saying the quiet part out loud. There’s no shame.” (WEE1 did not respond to a request for an interview.)
A new generation of consumers—and patriots
Though less visible to the public than the NRA, the NSSF is also a critical influence in the gun industry; it outpaced the NRA in lobbying dollars by more than double in 2020. (The NSSF also did not reply to an interview request.) Both groups want to increase revenue for an industry whose long-term health is rocky. Though sales are rising, the purchase peaks and valleys are consistently dependent on demographic and political shifts, and the rate of gun ownership has been decreasing over decades. Clearly, the industry feels a pressure to appeal to new potential consumers.
It’s an increasingly difficult task in a modern America, even with rising gun violence. More families used to teach children to hunt; nowadays, “getting up early and sitting in duck blind” is not the norm for kids, Sugarmann says. In 1997, 33% of households had hunters, down to 17% in 2018. That also means a decline in gun ownership, of 32% in that period. So the industry has carved out other routes to drive up sales: focusing more on self-defense, protection of freedoms, and targeting youths—in an effort to secure the next generation of political pro-gun advocates.
Busse believes this shift is motivated as much by politics as for a desire to reach a new demographic. “It’s a MAGA hat,” he says. “It’s a thing to show that your kids are going to be patriotic, too.” He says it’s similar to parents taking kids to a Trump rally. He views the attachment to that weapon as a sign of extremism: Before the early 2000s, he says trade shows would never have had AR-15s on display, let alone junior versions. One big factor for that: The 1994 assault weapons ban covered many kinds of semiautomatic rifles including the AR-15; the law expired in 2004.
The toll of giving kids more access to firearms is grave. Mass shootings aside, there’s been an increase in accidental shootings at home during the pandemic: From March through December 2020, there were 31% more accidental gun deaths than in the same period in 2019. Yet, gun manufacturers and lobbyists seem intent to market guns like skateboards or energy drinks—as a perfectly reasonable decision, as if guns are “some sort of talismanic object to guide them on the road to maturity,” Sugarmann says. Gun groups say training and safety programs, like the NRA’s “Eddie Eagle,” help reduce accidental deaths; various studies on these programs conclude quite the opposite. Still, WEE1 expresses that very sentiment: “We believe that this introduction early on will produce a deep respect for firearms that continue and last for a lifetime of safety!” the website reads.
In addition to common-sense gun legislation, safe storage education, and other efforts, Sugarmann says that it’s paramount people open their eyes to what the gun industry is really trying to do. “Think about it for a moment,” he says. “Here’s a company that’s marketing child assault rifles, openly and clearly, without a hint of any second thought.”