My fellow North Carolinian and gun guy/gadfly Sean Sorrentino asked me my thoughts on a recent article by Elizabeth MacBride on Forbes.com, “The Second Amendment Is A Marketing Slogan, And Other Lessons From The Gun Business Beat.”

My immediate reaction is that it’s hard to imagine MacBride spent more than a year writing about the business of guns and learned so little.

SHOT Show floor. Courtesy of National Shooting Sports Foundation.

I don’t want to waste time with a systematic and comprehensive response, so let me just comment on a few of her points.

(1) “Of course, there are some guns that are still marketed as tools, used for hunting, or purely as collectibles, as items of beauty. Guns are an accessory to a day out at the gun range. But the larger share — it’s hard to estimate how large it is, because there aren’t good numbers on exactly how many guns are sold in the United States — are bought as tokens of political belonging and as luxury brand items. A gun connotes a wild kind of fun, like a sports car, even if you never drive it. It’s a toy for a grown-up boys, and increasingly, grown-up girls.”

A couple basic problems here. First, notice how she slips from the way guns are “marketed” in the first sentence to the reasons guns “are bought” in the third sentence. Does she have evidence that the way guns are marketed determine the reasons for which they are bought? Although anecdote is not the same as data, I can report that I think Bushmaster’s “Man Card” ad was stupid and I bought a Bushmaster AR. Not because of the advertising, but despite it.

I don’t doubt there is some relationship between marketing and demand, but I suspect it is more complex than MacBride suggests, including that marketing at times follows demand rather than leading it.

Second, she asserts that “the larger share” of guns are bought as “tokens of political belonging and as luxury brand items” without a shred of evidence for this assertion. The fact that we don’t know “exactly how many guns are sold in the United States” has nothing to do with it. We know from surveys that people increasingly say they own guns for self-defense, though many still own them for recreation (hunting, target/sport shooting, collecting).

Do some people buy guns to express their political beliefs and belonging? Certainly. Do most or even many do this? Certainly not. To be sure, “gun owner” is becoming a more salient political identity, but that is not the same as saying that people are buying guns as tokens of political belonging. Rather, more fundamental in-group/out-group dynamics are at play here, with the stigmatized out-group being gun owners who become politically activated in defense of themselves.

Unique ARs AR displayed at 2019 NSSF SHOT Show. Photo by David Yamane

MacBride returns again to the idea of guns as luxury items later in the essay, problematically.

(2) “Some people say guns are tools — but nobody buys 10 chain saws in varying colors and speeds. (I once saw a set of pink tools given at a while elephant Christmas party: But they were mostly a joke.) If buying a gun makes you feel like a protector, buying 10 different ones shows everybody else that you’re not only a protector, but a wealthy one.”

Although it is true that most people do not buy 10 chain saws, I have more than 10 tools I use for yard work on my home, Two Oaks Estates. I have a (1) lawn mower, (2) trimmer, (3) blower, (4) shears, (5) lopper, (6) hoe, (7) stiff rake, (8) leaf rake, (9) shovel, and (10) spade, and more. Ditto for woodworking tools. Ditto for tennis rackets.

I own more than 10 fountain pens, each of which do somewhat different things for me. The same is true of guns. A long time ago I wrote about how a person could easily develop an “arsenal” of guns for defense, collecting, sport and fun. Looking just at guns for protection, it is not unreasonable for someone to have a home defense shotgun, an AR platform rifle, a full size pistol, a smaller carry pistol, and a subcompact pocket pistol. 5 guns, to start, which of course cost money, but none of which are meant to exemplify a person’s wealth.

Of course, we do well to remember that the average gun owner does not own anywhere near 10 guns. According to the 2015 National Firearms Survey, the mean number of guns owned is 4.8 and the median is around 2.

To be sure, conspicuous consumption happens, in many areas of life, including in gun culture. Early in my journey I learned the term “BBQ Gun.” This is a gun – often engraved and polished with custom (perhaps ivory) grips – worn in a fancy tooled leather holster typically at BBQs, church gatherings, weddings, and other special events.

But in general, to the extent that people like to “show off” their guns, it is not usually as a display of wealth but as a recognition of their technological capacities or historical significance. I think of it as being less like Monterey Car Week and more like people parking their cars in the grocery store lot and popping the hood so other car aficionados can appreciate them.

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