Going Great Guns with Fear Marketing

Lethal Logic:
Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy
By Dennis A. Henigan
Potomac Books; 256 pp.; $29.95

Don't let the title fool you. Lethal Logic sounds like an anti-gun polemic, the latest shot in America's endless battle over the right to pack heat. It is, in part, but the book offers much more. Read from a business perspective, it dissects the marketing genius of an industry that moves merchandise despite a saturated market and broad support for tougher curbs on the sale of its products. Anyone interested in manufacturing, retailing, or the interaction of culture, psychology, and commerce can learn valuable lessons here.

While most companies struggle through the recession, firearm makers and dealers are on a roll. Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy explains why: The gun industry figured out decades ago how to capitalize on seeming adversity.

Take a look at current conditions. The country has elected a liberal Democrat to the White House and put his party in charge of Congress. Heightened gun control would seem a likely result of this shift from eight years of Republican power. A series of shootings this spring—including killings of an abortion doctor in Wichita and a guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington—has reinvigorated perennial and widespread support for firearm restrictions. Large majorities of poll respondents, for example, say they favor greater oversight of gun shows, where bad guys and nutjobs can often arm themselves without undergoing a criminal background check.

But rather than dampen gun commerce, this climate has triggered a shopping spree. Manufacturers such as Smith & Wesson (SWHC) and Sturm Ruger (RGR) report double-digit sales growth. Retailers say they can't keep shelves stocked. The main reason for the rush to augment home arsenals is that whenever the industry perceives a threat of greater regulation, it persuades longtime customers to go out and buy another gun—just in case.

"We believe that the Obama Administration will try to make gun laws in this country more restrictive," a spokesman for the National Rifle Assn. tells Reuters. In a chain reaction, gun merchants repeat the message. "It's fear, anxiety, and 'get 'em while you can,' " the owner of M&M Plimouth Bay Outfitters, a firearm dealer in Plymouth, Mass., informs The Patriot Ledger. AR-15s and other military-style rifles have been M&M's hot sellers.

As Dennis Henigan, the author of Lethal Logic and a longtime gun-control advocate with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, observes, Obama's impact is history repeating itself. Prior to President Bill Clinton signing legislation in 1994 curtailing marketing of rifles such as the AR-15, sales of "assault weapons" soared. Afterward, gunmakers made cosmetic changes to their assault rifles and kept right on selling them.

Henigan explains that a series of slogans—he calls them "bumper-sticker logic"—have stimulated gun sales over the years. The mere hint of greater regulation elicits warnings from the NRA of a "slippery slope toward more Draconian gun restrictions and, ultimately, toward confiscation of all guns," Henigan notes. Here's where NRA chief Wayne LaPierre stands on waiting periods before buyers get their guns: "Some people call it 'the camel's nose under the tent'some call it a 'foot in the door,' but regardless of what you call it, it's still the same—the first step."

Other classics from the industry's repertoire: "An armed society is a polite society," "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns," and the granddaddy of them all, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people."

Henigan demonstrates how the gun business deploys these messages, along with grassroots activism, to keep politicians in line. If you subtract the ideological content, these catchphrases can be seen as an inspired marketing campaign.

One of the most impressive attributes of the firearm industry is that it can sell new products at all. Americans already own more than 200 million guns, which last for generations if properly maintained. Yet gun owners are buying backups, even though Obama so far has disappointed gun-control proponents by avoiding the issue.

Whatever your views on guns, their relationship to crime, and the meaning of the Second Amendment, Lethal Logic has something important to teach: A consistent, passionate message cultivates customer loyalty.

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