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Biden urgeed an investigation into how guns are peddled to kids. Will it stop the ads?

Last year the Georgia-based gun manufacturer Daniel Defense tweeted an image of a young child with a rifle – about the same size as the child himself – in his lap. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” the caption read.

The post came just eight days before an 18-year-old shot and killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas – using a weapon made by Daniel Defense.

The tweet was swiftly decried by Democratic lawmakers and gun violence prevention groups, who argued that the ads were incendiary and promote violence among the nation’s youngest residents, for whom gun violence is now the leading cause of death.

The ways that children are exposed to firearms through television and video games has been studied for decades. Online advertisements became a central part of this discussion last year, around the same time as the Daniel Defense tweet, when WEE1, a Chicago-based gunmaker used images of two cartoon skulls with pacifiers in their mouths and targets in their eyes to market their JR-15, a .22 rifle that is “geared toward smaller enthusiasts”, according to the company’s website.

Now, Joe Biden is calling on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to examine the ways gun manufacturers market their weapons to Americans, especially children under 18.

It’s one of the several executive actions the White House announced Tuesday aimed at expanding last year’s bipartisan Safer Communities act, a sweeping gun control law that strengthened background checks, helped states put in place red flag laws and boosted mental health programs. Here’s a look at what the order does – and doesn’t – do.

How are gun companies advertising to kids?

Advertisements for firearms are not as ubiquitous as ones for cars or snack foods, and those that do exist are mostly found in places such as gun magazines. Most of these ads are aimed at adults because people under 18 cannot legally buy a gun.

Advertisements explicitly meant to appeal to children are rare, but invocations of militarism, patriotism and gender stereotypes that gun manufacturers have long leaned on are being aimed at younger audiences above the age of 18, according to a 2022 Senate joint economic committee report.

A family, including a young boy, stands at a counter to look at firearms at a gun shop in Fort Worth, Texas.
A family, including a young boy, stands at a counter to look at firearms at a gun shop in Fort Worth, Texas. Photograph: LM Otero/AP/AP

Gun manufacturers and retailers are also relying on paid gun social media influencers to put their wares in front of new audiences, as a way to skirt tech conglomerates Meta and Google’s ban on ads by gun companies. In July, California became the first state in the US to ban gun manufacturers from marketing their weapons to minors.

What’s in Biden’s executive order?

Biden’s executive action will result in a report that analyzes the gun industry’s broader gun marketing practices. In his announcement of the order, Biden emphasized examining advertisements aimed at youth and marketing that incorporates military imagery and themes.

Before the president tapped the FTC to look into gun ads, Democratic senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts introduced the protecting kids from gun marketing act, which would require the FTC to ban gun companies from advertising to kids. Under the bill, gun companies would be prohibited from using cartoon characters, memes, images of children holding guns, or firearms designed for children in advertising, and from offering branded merchandise to kids.

“There are restrictions on cigarette and tobacco advertising, on alcohol advertising, and on cannabis advertising, yet the firearms industry is not subject to any specific restrictions or limitations on their marketing practices,” said a press release announcing the bill.

Markey cited WEE1’s marketing for their JR-15 as an example of the type of ads the new policy would potentially prohibit.

What comes next?

Because Republicans currently control the House, and Democrats only have a slim majority in the Senate, any legislation restricting the way gunmakers advertise is unlikely to reach Biden’s desk. Markey’s proposed legislation does, however, put pressure on tech companies to keep gun ads off their platforms.

It is unclear if a report resulting from Biden’s executive order, if published, will lead to new guidelines for the gun industry and their advertising practices. The FTC did not respond to requests for comments.

Adhering to Biden’s request means the FTC would, for the first time, analyze and report the way gun manufacturers advertise. The agency currently has guidelines on marketing aimed at minors and closely monitors online ads for privacy violations. However, the agency does not have any explicit guardrails to inform the ways gunmakers and adjacent companies and organizations, including youth shooting sport programs, market to young audiences.

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