Fear marketing in the shooting industry: Will crying wolf backfire?

With the 2012 Presidential election within striking distance and the “Obama Panic” of 2008 still a fresh memory in many shooters’ minds, I’ve once again been hearing the phrase, “fear sells firearms” from both members of the press and people I know in the gun industry.  And for good reason: a lot of firearm manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers had a couple very good years, courtesy of the fear that the new Democratic president Barack Obama would lead a major push for gun control. But is this thinking good for shooters, gun rights and the industry as a whole?

So far, the “imminent gun control” red alert has turned out to be incorrect. In fact, at the federal level, all the movement has been in the pro-gun direction: a measure that allows carry in national parks, one that allows checked guns on Amtrak trains and the ongoing deal to buy M1 Garands from South Korea. Obama himself has not lifted a finger for the gun control movement, much to the Brady Campaign’s displeasure.

For example, in the wake of the massacre in Tucson, Arizona in January 2011, which made Rep. Gabby Giffords a household name, the president did nothing to help congressional Democrats who introduced magazine-capacity restrictions. Without Obama’s backing, that legislation was D.O.A.

But this doesn’t seem to be the case to Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s influential executive vice president.  He wants to persuade America’s gun owners that Obama’s passivity on gun control has been a diabolical ruse, “a conspiracy of public deception,” as he put it in a recent issue of American Rifleman. Obama has lulled gun owners into complacency so that they will be unprepared for a second-term onslaught on their Second Amendment rights, LaPierre argues.

LaPierre does not reveal how he knows this information. Regardless of whether the panic mongering is accurate it may help retailers sell pistols or AR-15s. It may also help the NRA raise money. But, as an outsider to the industry, I wonder whether there is a point at which fear marketing begins to discredit its purveyors.

Let’s allow Mr. LaPierre to speak for himself. In his American Rifleman column, he asserts, “This year’s election will literally be a struggle for the survival of freedom in America.” Literally? We are on the verge of enslavement? The NRA’s top man wants you to believe that Obama plans to “dismantle our Second Amendment freedom–and all of our freedoms as Americans”.

All of our freedoms? “Make no mistake,” LaPierre declares, “a second term for Barack Obama would spell disaster not just for firearm freedom, but for all the freedoms we enjoy as Americans.”

What is to be done? LaPierre urges his audience “to renew or upgrade your NRA membership or make a contribution toward defending freedom now.” Ah, so that’s it: he wants your money.

I’m not here to argue against NRA membership (I’m an NRA member). I’m not here to tell anyone how to vote. Don’t like Barack Obama? Put him out of office!

I merely wonder whether there will come a point when this hysterical style of propagandizing and haranguing will backfire, the way false alarms eventually led to trouble for Aesop’s boy who cried wolf.

As a matter of practical political analysis, the argument that Obama’s inaction on gun control proves that he intends to lead a second-term drive to confiscate law-abiding citizens’ firearms seems implausible. It’s much more likely that Obama’s steering clear of guns reflects recognition on the part of most Democrats in Washington that the gun issue is a loser at the polls for them.

With violent crime down sharply, the simplistic argument that more guns means more crime has become unappealing even to many liberal politicians. It’s just not worth tangling with gun-rights activists (the NRA chief among them) when most voters know that their communities are much safer today than they were 20 years ago.

Regardless of how you feel about his policies, Barack Obama is a smart man. He saw Bill Clinton pay dearly for the 1994 assault weapons ban. Al Gore’s association with that now-defunct statute helped Democrats lose in 2000.  They do not want to repeat that experience.

Why does this matter to you? Why not continue to sell guns based on the fear you soon won’t be able to buy them? One reason is that your customers may grow weary of the endless scare tactics.

While promoting a new book on the history of the Glock pistol, I’ve talked to hundreds of gun owners in the past several months. More than a few of these individuals have commented that they’re tired of being hit up by the NRA based on patronizing warnings about imagined gun bans.

One man compared the technique to the way some international charities demand money “so that some little Third World kid won’t die of starvation tomorrow.” This gun owner said he’s glad to help starving children, but he doesn’t like to be manipulated.

There may be a point of diminishing returns: where the gun industry’s interests diverge from those of the gun-rights fundraisers in Washington. Put differently, does there come a time when your customers get fed up with the exaggeration and decide to keep their money in their pockets?

Paul Barrett is the author of the newly released Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun. Barrett has covered the gun industry for more than 15 years.

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