Discover more from The Bulwark
Guns for Tots: What Could Go Wrong?
For firearms merchants, it’s never too early to teach kids how to use assault weapons.
ON HER MSNBC SHOW LAST WEEK, Rachel Maddow did a segment on the marketing of an assault-style rifle made with little kids in mind. It is the JR-15, which stands for Junior 15, a smaller, lighter version of the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. It is made and sold by an Illinois-based company called Wee 1 Tactical (“wee one,” get it?) and advertised with the tagline, “Get ’em One Like Yours.”
Maddow called it “a gun specifically designed to be wielded by babies.” That might not be literally true, but, as Maddow goes on to point out, the JR-15 until recently used logos showing a skull and crossbones for a little boy or a little girl with pacifiers in their mouths. As she parsed it, “Because why should any kid have to wait until they’re done with the teething process before they can start carrying their own assault rifle?”
While these logos have been removed, the intended demographic for the weapon remains the same. This is clear from the image that appears on a pamphlet for the gun showing a bearded man teaching a little girl, who appears to be about five years old, how to shoot.
Maddow’s segment prompted an impassioned rebuttal from NewsBusters, a website that says it covers “short-term outrages and long-term trends in liberal media tilt.” In an article titled “Maddow MELTDOWN: Falsely Claims AR-15 for ‘Babies’ Has Hit the Market,” NewsBusters associate editor Nicholas Fondacaro described Maddow’s segment as a “hissy fit” and her delivery as “shrieking.” Worse, it was all over something as innocent and wholesome as modifying a weapon of war for the use of little kids.
“Imagine you’re a parent with a love for exercising your Second Amendment rights and you want to share your hobbies with your kids and teach them to respect and handle firearms safely,” Fondacaro mused. “Many parents in this situation would start their kid off with a .22LR caliber rifle.” The JR-15, he explained, is “more or less a Ruger 10/22, the ubiquitous semiautomatic .22LR rifle in America, except it’s in the AR-style platform.”
Moreover, Fondacaro wrote, the JR-15 was designed for “young kids,” not babies or toddlers. “Wee 1 Tactical did use some cartoony skulls and crossbones with pacifiers” in its early marketing, he conceded, but dropped these motifs “in favor of a more serious tone.” And it would not be kids but adults who actually purchased these weapons, he helpfully points out. No toddlers are “going into gun stores, dragging stepstools to the counter, and slapping down their tooth fairy money for a Jr-15,” he assured. “Even three or four toddlers stacked in a trench coat would have a hard time pulling off that caper.”
Fondacaro cited Wee 1’s contention that it is simply helping parents pass on the “great American tradition” of teaching their children to develop “a love for hunting and shooting sports,” as families have been doing “since our nation’s founding.” (In fact, many hunters regard AR-15–style rifles as inferior for hunting and see those who use them as “not hunters but wannabe weekend warriors” susceptible to aggressive marketing.) In sum, Fondacaro clucked, “What Maddow tried to do was vilify that tradition and make it sound like something abnormal and contemptible.”
Yes, what could possibly be considered abnormal about teaching your five-year-old how to fire an assault-style rifle? Why would any parent hesitate to bring weapons like these into their children’s lives?
Some of these same parents, let’s remember, find it intolerable that a public school teacher might let on to a third-grader that some families have two mommies or two daddies. They think their kids need to be protected from seeing a dude dressed as a woman, or from being exposed to Michelangelo’s “David” in an art history lesson, or even from reading the works of that filth merchant, William Shakespeare. They worry that putting in a bad word for slavery might be too much for even white teenagers to bear.
And yet, these snowflakes turn to ice balls at the firing range, as they introduce their young children to the weapons that may someday be used to kill them.
WHILE NO CHILD HAS EVER DIED from reading a book—even Heather Has Two Mommies—guns are now the single most common killer of children in America. In 2021, the last year tallied, there were 2,571 U.S. child deaths due to firearms, an increase of 68 percent since 2000, according to KFF, the research group formerly known as the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Griffin Dix, co-chair of the Oakland/Alameda County Chapter of Brady United Against Gun Violence, will this fall publish a book titled Who Killed Kenzo?: The Loss of a Son and the Ongoing Battle for Gun Safety. It’s an account of how his 15-year-old son was accidentally shot to death in 1994 by his good friend Mark, 14, who was showing off one of his father’s handguns.
Both Mark and his father had significant firearms experience, but the weapon did not clearly warn that a bullet could remain in the chamber after the clip was removed. Dix’s compelling book is about how he and others have fought for decades, in the courts, state legislatures, and the court of public opinion, to get gun makers to adopt safety features that could have prevented the accident that killed Kenzo. They have been met with much resistance and many setbacks, but also some success.
I asked Dix—whom I know from my former job at the Progressive, which has published and distributed some of his op-eds—for his take on the JR-15. He responded:
One might think that selling small assault weapons made for kids is so outrageous that it’s just a gimmick to “own the libs” by making them overreact. But no. This fits right into a gun industry pattern. To make as much profit as possible, the gun industry is known for trying to sell any type of weapon it can, no matter how dangerous, to anyone it can, no matter the consequences. So, it’s no surprise that a gun company is marketing JR-15 assault rifles to children and youngsters.
Dix, not unreasonably, thinks some children could end up mistaking the guns—which are made from a lightweight polymer—for toys and “kill[ing] people with them unintentionally.”
An analysis by Brady United for the five-year period between 2017 and 2021 found that an average of 503 people per year are killed by firearms unintentionally, including 106 children. Another 2,893 children, on average, are shot unintentionally and survive. And yet the firearm industry, notes Dix, “has tried for years to market guns to children.” He cites a 2016 study titled “Start Them Young” by the Violence Policy Center, which gives numerous examples.
Dix, also a past president of the California chapters of Brady United, says that state’s laws regarding firearms—including its ban on assault weapons of any kind for any age group—have been instrumental in reducing gun deaths in that state. In 2021, the state recorded nine gun deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to a national average of 14.6 and Mississippi’s grim chart-topping rate of 33.9.
“California’s assault weapons ban,” he says, “prohibits the marketing of assault weapons to anyone.”
IN A RECENT STATEMENT, Wee 1 Tactical said the JR-15 is meant “for adults who wish to supervise the safe introduction of hunting and shooting sports to the next generation of responsible gun owners.” Josh Sugarmann, the executive director of the Violence Policy Center, argues that “the company’s persistence in selling assault rifles for children makes clear the need for continued vigilance by parents and communities as well as legislative action.”
The JR-15 was unveiled in January 2022, a few months before a shooter armed with an assault-style rifle killed 19 children and two adults and injured 17 others at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. It got a fresh promotional boost in January 2023, about two weeks after a six-year-old in Virginia shot his first-grade teacher.
That same month, the fact-checking website Snopes looked into the JR-15 and confirmed that, you heard right, there really is a company selling a semiautomatic rifle for children. “As 2023 began with a number of harrowing stories about children shooting themselves or others due to their access to guns, one company was selling a rifle that they said was ‘safe and instructive’ for children,” the site reported. (The article included an embedded video of an interview with Wee 1 founder Eric Schmid, during which the interviewer mentions having gotten both of his kids started with shooting firearms around age 3. “That’s great,” Schmid replies.)
The news hook for Maddow’s story is that the state of Illinois, where the JR-15 is made, recently passed a bill, which Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law last Saturday, to allow gun companies to be sued for marketing guns to children or militants. Similar laws rolling back protections against gun companies have passed in seven other states: New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Washington, California, Hawaii, and Colorado.
“We’ve gone after the marketing that has historically driven up the consumption by minors for those products that are harmful to them,” said Illinois’s Democratic attorney general, Kwame Raoul, citing the restrictions placed on tobacco and vaping companies. “The firearms industry shouldn’t be immune to the standards that we put on other industries.”
The gun lobby, predictably, is up in arms. “They’re infringing on your Second Amendment rights by taking away your First Amendment rights,” declared Mark Oliva, a spokesperson for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which has sued to block these bans. Todd Vandermyde, a former lobbyist in Springfield for gun-rights groups, said, according to the AP, that Democrats who have failed to pass legislation to curb gun violence are turning to the courts for help.
Heaven forbid that the courts should ever be used as a means to reduce gun violence.
Last year, in what was then known as a tweet, Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia wished that child victims in the Uvalde mass shooting had JR-15s, so they “could have defended themselves since no one else did.”
To have such hopes for children is to surrender to darkness and despair.
Join us in hoping for something better.