A man stands alone in his home, peering downstairs. He senses danger, but is unfazed. In his hands: a Smith & Wesson bullpup shotgun.
“9-1-1 when you have minutes,” the advertisement in the company’s most recent product catalog reads. “The Second Amendment when you don’t.”
It’s a message the Springfield-based gunmaker and the rest of the firearms industry has increasingly used to sell weapons over the last 20 years: In the face of danger, they claim, a gun is the ultimate safety device.
Advertisements targeted at hunters or shooting sports enthusiasts, once the predominant industry norm, have faded into the background. Broad messages appealing to fear — and to patriotism and masculine pride — have replaced them.
Smith & Wesson, one of the industry’s largest and well-reputed brands, has helped lead the charge. A review of 20 years of company advertisements and internal marketing reports obtained by the Globe found that the Massachusetts gunmaker has sought to capitalize on anxieties and safety concerns to reach a broader base of customers, many whom have never owned guns before. And sales have soared.
During that same period, violent crime in the United States has plummeted, falling steadily on most measures since the 1990s. It’s a trend that seemingly runs contrary to the company’s pitch, yet in a sense — experts say — demonstrates its effectiveness. The comparative calm on the crime front has done nothing to impair sales.
The Globe review offers a rare glimpse of a corporate giant in an industry that is notoriously tight-lipped and has fought in court to shield its marketing research from public view. Smith & Wesson did not return repeated requests by the Globe for comment.
And it shows how the company’s ads — and its weapons — have changed over the last two decades, a microcosm of the industry and America’s attitude toward guns.
“How companies like Smith are advertising is egregious, and it’s dangerous,” said Harry Falber, a former Smith & Wesson marketing executive. “At some point you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘Where the hell did we as an industry go wrong?’”
It is a key pillar of Smith & Wesson’s marketing strategy: Owning a gun will keep you safe.
The principle is plainly at work across the company’s product catalogs and online advertisements. Its M&P Shield handgun, a lightweight firearm designed to be easily portable, is sold as a “personal protection pistol.” The new bullpup shotgun, a pump action gun with a sleek finish, is designed for close quarters. Even the company’s M&P15 series of semi-automatic rifles — which can be fitted with 30-round magazines and fire as quickly as someone can pull the trigger — are listed under the “self defense” category on its website. These assault weapons have been used in some of the country’s most notorious mass shootings in recent years, including the Fourth of July parade in suburban Chicago where seven people were killed.
To be sure, firearms manufacturers have marketed their weapons as a means of personal protection for more than a century. One of Smith & Wesson’s ad campaigns from the early 1900s referred to its revolvers as a “burglar alarm,” and another argued its weapons were best for “after the policeman has passed your home.”
But a Globe review found that, prior to the early 2000s, the company’s advertisements focused more on the quality of its weapons, in many cases touting its guns’ safety features and sporting uses.
By and large, those campaigns are fading fast. Today, Smith & Wesson relies on a strategy that Falber, the former marketing executive, calls “sweaty palms” marketing: shadowy imagery and messaging that nags at anxieties and insecurities to create demand for its products.
On one page of a company catalog is a scene of a woman standing alone, scanning the darkness around her, unarmed and helpless. A few pages later, a man toting a high-powered firearm is positioned confidently, ready to take control of any situation. The message is subliminal, yet powerful: Someone is coming to get you, and only a gun can protect you.
“The way to sell guns is to focus on people’s fears,” said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University. “Hunters will buy guns anyways. And collectors will buy guns anyways. But the big surge in gun purchasing, especially in the last couple of years, a lot of that has to do with fear. "
One survey of consumers commissioned by Smith & Wesson in 2010 and provided to the Globe by a former company employee acknowledged that messages around personal and home defense were far and away the greatest incentive for the purchase of handguns, the company’s top product. Some 77 percent of modern gun owners, the report said, had purchased a firearm for the purpose of protection, and those who did were among the most likely to purchase another.
Another report obtained by the Globe divvied Smith & Wesson consumers into three categories: the “gun enthusiast,” loyal, longtime buyers; the “target shooter,” a fading group of mostly middle-aged men who purchased guns for sport; and “protect my family,” the large contingent of gun owners who purchased weapons for safety purposes. That group, Falber said, was the one the company’s top executives saw as the most promising and sought to zero in on.
A longtime marketing executive in a number of industries, Falber was at Smith & Wesson from 2009 to 2012, a period during which he said company executives were split over whether to double down on themes of self-defense and machismo, or back away. He said he clashed with those who pushed to sensationalize the company’s marketing campaigns, and left the company in part due to ethical concerns.
Multiple Smith & Wesson executives, including chief executive Mark Smith, did not return requests for comment. But in court filings, the company has made clear it sees any attempt to regulate its marketing as a violation of First Amendment rights.
“Smith & Wesson and other firearms manufacturers would have to think twice, and likely self-censor, before making constitutionally protected opinion statements concerning ‘safety,’ self-defense, or ‘lifestyle’ benefits they believe their product affords,” representatives for the company wrote in recent filings in a case out of New Jersey.
On Wednesday, the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform said she would subpoena Smith, the Smith & Wesson chief executive, for marketing documents.
Gunmakers began shifting toward this new marketing in the early 2000s as sales to the industry’s base of white hunters and shooting sports enthusiasts stagnated. In the years since, the gun market has exploded, fueled by a surge in self-defense purchasers and a steady increase in first-time buyers, many from more diverse backgrounds than what used to be considered the “traditional” gun owner. Most Smith & Wesson ads appear in niche magazines such as Field & Stream and Guns & Ammo, though some reach consumers through targeted online campaigns, the company says in its corporate filings.
The shift in strategy has helped create an entirely new market of firearms purchasers, said Tufts University professor Michael Siegel, who has studied gun advertising and American culture, even while a substantial body of research indicates that having a firearm in your home significantly raises the odds of a gun-related fatality. It has especially helped influence the demand for laws allowing gun owners to carry a concealed weapon in public, he said, and aided lobbying efforts to loosen restrictions.
Gunmakers “needed to establish new uses for guns in order to maintain their market,” said Siegel. “So they have sold this idea that, in order to be safe in today’s world, you need to have a gun. And it has worked astonishingly well.”
Indeed, by at least one measure, gun purchases have soared. In 2001, there were 7.4 million background checks for the purchase of a gun, according to a National Shooting Sports Foundation analysis of FBI data. In 2021, there were 18.5 million, with the foundation estimating 5.4 million were for first-time gun buyers that year. Smith & Wesson made more weapons in that period than almost any other gun manufacturer.
The increased reach of the media — particularly stories of horrific crimes and, in counterpoint, of “good guys with guns” — has played a part, too.
“If your window to the nation is through the television screen, then you’re always going to think that crime is going up,” said Fox, the Northeastern criminologist. “And the gun industry will very happily go along and tell you that bad guys are out to get you.”
Gun industry advocates see it differently. Today’s gun advertisements are no more than “a recognition of what the consumers need,” said Mark Oliva, managing director of public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the industry trade group.
“What they’re actually selling is reassurance,” Oliva said. “They’re selling the ability to protect yourself. I don’t think it’s a matter of scaring people to buy guns. The people who are buying guns aren’t scared. They’re buying guns to reassure their own personal safety.”
The messaging is resonating. Hsuanyeh Chang, a patent attorney based in Boston, couldn’t imagine owning a gun five years ago. But in June he purchased his first — a Smith & Wesson M&P Shield — after reading about a prominent Chinese lawyer in New York City who was stabbed to death by a client earlier this year. The recent spate of high-profile mass shootings and pandemic-era attacks targeting people of Asian descent has only solidified his view that he needs a handgun to protect himself, and Chang, who was born in Taiwan, begun urging his wife and two daughters to apply for their license to carry as well.
“It’s hard to look at the state of the world right now and feel like you don’t need a gun,” he said.
For buyers like Chang, Smith & Wesson and other manufacturers have built a new feature into their pitch: lethality. Today’s guns are sleeker and deadlier, appealing to people who want the best defense they can get.
“All guns kill,” said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a gun control advocacy group. “These guns kill better.”
To be sure, Smith & Wesson’s ads are far from the industry’s most aggressive, experts said. They don’t go nearly as far as the now-infamous 2012 “Consider your man card reissued” ad from Bushmaster-maker Remington. Others, such as ads from Daniel Defense, which made the weapon used in the May shooting at a Texas school that left 19 children and two teachers dead, evoke video game fantasies (though some argue Smith & Wesson has dabbled in that realm as well).
But as the industry’s most profitable company — a leader in both handgun and rifle sales — Smith & Wesson has great sway with other gun manufacturers.
“The big companies like Smith drive the whole industry,” said Ryan Busse, a former executive at the gun manufacturer Kimber. “They have the ability to change the market and marketing. And that’s what they’ve done.”
Some advocates, including Sugarmann, see the ads of today’s gun industry as mirroring those of the tobacco industry in the 1950s. They’re selling a dangerous product, they argue, and as such, their advertisements should be carefully regulated. An increasing number of state prosecutors have signaled that they agree.
But Oliva, the NSSF spokesman, rejected that premise.
“When people want to sue over advertising, what they’re trying to do is muzzle the industry from being able to exercise First Amendment rights,” he said.
And so for now at least, the industry is steady in its ways — and message.
Why buy a gun, Smith & Wesson asks in its ads? To “prepare for the worst.”
Andrew Brinker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker.