As the Market for Guns Changes, Companies Aim at Women, Youths

Gun-control groups, alarmed by new ad campaigns, point to statistics showing the large number of deaths caused by firearms in the US

GUN manufacturers and gun groups are targeting youths and women in their efforts to expand sales of handguns and semi-automatic rifles in the United States.

At a gun trade show in Dallas in January, gun manufacturer Taurus USA displayed a poster that said: ``A terrific Tauris Afternoon!'' It showed a father helping his young son aim a pistol. Mom is kneeling beside them with the dog. ``Time ... to relax, breathe in the fresh air, and enjoy an all-too-rare moment ... together,'' the text said.

The magazine Gun World has carried an ad by Feather Industries showing a father teaching his son how to handle a .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle. The copy said this ``sporting firearm'' is ``becoming the choice of the next generation.''

Intratec Fireams offers a calendar covered with semi-nude women in Rambo-style poses holding pistols, semi-automatic pistols, and semi-automatic rifles. More seriously, gunmakers are pushing the self-defense ``merits'' of handguns for women. Smith & Wesson is very active in this area.

``All gun manufacturers now support marketing'' to youths and women, says Robert Delflay, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. He says his organization, supported by the gun industry, is promoting a ``sport that has existed for at least a century'' and has a part in the Olympics. The Boy Scouts, he notes, has rifle and shotgun merit badges.

His organization stresses safety in gun handling and also puts out a pamphlet called, ``When your youngster wants a gun...,'' which includes this statement: ``How old is old enough? Age is not the major yardstick. Some youngsters are ready to start at 10, others at 14.'' Presumably the family would buy the gun, if convinced by the arguments, because all state and federal laws prohibit buying a rifle before the age of 18 and a handgun before 21.

``The handgun manufacturers and the gun sporting groups are targeting women and youths in an effort to ensure their market and also to influence public opinion toward continued gun ownership,'' says Josh Sugarman, head of the gun-control group Violence Policy Center, in Washington.

The arguments on the rights and merits vs. the dangers of gun ownership are endless. Gun-control and violence-prevention groups, however, point to statistics showing the large number of deaths caused by firearms in the US every year. Around 2 million handguns are made and sold in the US every year, according to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and another 4 million rifles. Many of the handguns sell for well under $100, and there are no federal safety regulations governing their manufacture. The Justice Department estimates that 24 percent of US families own a handgun, up by nearly 50 percent since 1959.

Although Congress seems well on the way to passing a ban on ``assault weapons'' (no uniform description of these weapons exists, experts agree), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) figures show handguns are the firearms causing by far the most shooting deaths in the US.

Out of 23,760 known homocides in the US in 1992 (the most recent statistics available), 15,377 were known to be firearms-related, 12,489 from handguns. An FBI statistics expert says the latter two figures are probably higher, but not documented. Suicides by firearms numbered 18,526 in 1991, (the latest figures available, provided by the US Centers for Disease Control), higher than firearms-related homocides.

Ads similar to those cited above stress new technology in guns. Mr. Sugarman says that ``kids in the inner cities already have given their cachet to .22- and .25-caliber guns and now also want the new 9mm pistols. Manufacturers have learned that guns have the appeal of basketball sneakers and they are focusing on firepower and new technology.''

``The killing of youths in the inner-city by handguns has gone up dramatically,'' says Andrew McGuire, director of the Pacific Center for Violence Prevention in San Francisco. ``The trauma center at our hospital [San Francisco General] in the 60's saw maybe 12 youths a year shot. Now it sees between 100 and 200 a year.'' This trend is seen nationwide.

Exactly how the guns get into the hands of violent-prone youths is a complex question. State and federal laws govern the path weapons take from manufacturers to customers. But there is a major black market, and many are obtained by theft.

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