On Thursday, a group of Democratic senators pushed for more scrutiny, asking the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation into the company’s marketing practices.
“The law says you shouldn’t be marketing guns to kids,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.
The FTC declined to comment.
The development and marketing of rifles like the JR-15 comes amid a decline in hunting as a hobby, which is how most gun owners were traditionally gifted their first weapon, experts told The Washington Post. These firearms, they say, open up a dangerous pathway for gun companies to place tactical and far more lethal weapons in the hands of children who are still psychologically and physiologically maturing at that age — all in the hopes of cultivating the next generation of American gun owners who will continue to fund the industry.
“This is a dramatic step forward in that not only have [Schmid Tool and WEE1 Tactical] manufactured an assault rifle for children, but they designed the advertising to appeal directly to kids,” Josh Sugarmann, the executive director of the Violence Policy Center, told The Post.
The companies described the JR-15 as “designed with the safety and functionality to assist adults wishing to supervise the introduction of hunting and shooting sports to the next generation of responsible owners,” and said retailers enthusiastically responded to the product after its launch.
It’s unclear how many of these rifles, if any, the companies have sold since its release. Regulations set by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shield gun manufacturers from having to disclose the number of guns produced and sold across the country. Heidi Schaefer, a spokeswoman for the companies, did not respond to an emailed question about the number of JR-15s sold since its launch or to a question about a potential FTC probe.
The JR-15 made its first public appearance last January at the SHOT show in Las Vegas, what some would call the auto show of guns.
Attendees gathered around a corner booth with “JR-15” in big bold letters on a green banner to view the .22 caliber rifle displayed on its walls. Eric Schmid, the owner of Schmid Tool, described the rifle as a “scaled down AR-15” made out of polymer and weighing 2.2 pounds.
“It’s about a 20 percent reduction in size, so it fits the kids really well and that will give them the confidence to hold this thing the way they should have confidence holding this thing,” Schmid told an attendee. Schmid did not respond to a message from The Post.
The backlash after its launch was swift. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) called the JR-15 “vile” in a tweet.
Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the gun’s advertising was “sickening” while holding a poster of it for lawmakers on the House floor. “Here is an advertisement for a JR-15, designed to be a so-called ‘smaller, safer, lighter version’ of the horrific AR-15, which has been used to murder so many of their playmates and friends,” Pelosi said. “Look at these little skulls with ponytails.”
The company took down the JR-15’s website, deleted its initial news release and went into virtual hibernation. Not much was said about the rifle until it re-emerged at this year’s SHOT show in Las Vegas with a muted website, marketing campaign and booth, just days after police say a 6-year-old student pulled out his mother’s pistol and shot his teacher at a Virginia elementary school. A gun that was once among the most scanned products of the 2022 SHOT show was not mentioned in this year’s conference website.
The rebranding of its marketing campaign was a product of customer feedback, Schaefer, the companies’ spokeswoman, told The Post in an email.
“We listened to their input and over the last year have made it clearer in our marketing materials that our product is a training rifle, which have been available for decades,” she said.
With less hunting, the gun industry now markets sports rifles to American families interested in bonding while shooting at ranges and competitions, said Daniel Webster, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where he leads the Center for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy.
Even if the companies have toned down their advertising of the weapon, Webster worries about the long-term effects of giving children a rifle like the JR-15.
“What [these guns] mean quite honestly is far more than here’s some family hobby kind of thing,” Webster said. “What they mean is power — the power to kill. You give out a highly lethal weapon that is very easy for them to shoot … It could set the stage for bad outcomes.”
Gun violence is the leading cause of death for young children and teenagers in the United States. In 2020, firearms killed more children and teens than car accidents for the first time, a Post analysis revealed.
As the companies attempt to sell the JR-15, gun-control groups are pursuing legal action against major gun manufacturers.
Nick Suplina, senior vice president of law and policy for Everytown for Gun Safety, called the JR-15 a “disgusting” example of how the gun industry continues to market to kids instead of making weapons safer.
Others like Ryan Busse, a former firearms executive and now a senior adviser to the gun-control group founded by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, doesn’t see an issue with children and teens owning rifles for sporting events. Busse said his dad had a rifle when he was a kid, he had one as a kid too and now his children shoot with him.
The issue, Busse told The Post, has to do with what type of rifle children are taught to shoot.
“One should be very worried that they are taught to do this with a tactical, offensive weapon of war [that is] scaled down,” Busse said. “Lots of other rifles can be purchased and be effective training tools for kids. Why this one? Because it has the dangerous right-wing politics wrapped around it.”
He would not buy a JR-15 for his kids, Busse said. “I don’t need a high-capacity weapon of war to shoot targets and hunt with my boys.”
John Woodrow Cox contributed to this report.