How Gun-Makers Are Arming the Culture War

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Mary Harris: In the days since the Uvalde Day school shooting. There’s this one video I can’t get out of my head. It’s not the video of desperate parents outside the school building begging police officers to Russian side and save their kids. And it’s not the video of Governor Greg Abbott being booed as he laid flowers outside of Robb Elementary School. It’s a video from before all that made by the manufacturer of one of the weapons the shooter used. This is a promotional video. It shows you how the M4 semi-automatic rifle made by Daniel Defense works.

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Speaker 2: This lightweight modular rifle would make a perfect addition to anybody’s gun safe. It comes standard with a 16 inch.

Mary Harris: It was striking to me because, like it’s scored with this kind of intense rock music. A guy comes on and he he sort of demonstrates all the features of the gun. And then he’s he’s running around shooting as if he was in urban warfare. He’s at a gun range.

Speaker 3: Yeah. That’s I mean, that’s the modern gunman marketing campaign, right?

Mary Harris: Todd Frankel has watched a lot of videos like this. He’s a reporter over at The Washington Post. The specialty is the business of gun manufacturing.

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Speaker 3: You know, the sort of a gentleman farmer with his shotgun slung over his shoulder shooting ducks that doesn’t really sell many guns.

Mary Harris: After a shooting. A video like this one may look unseemly, but Todd says that’s only if you haven’t been paying attention. These promotional videos are just as routine as the thoughts and prayers Daniel Defense offered up after realizing their rifle had been used to murder schoolchildren. You pointed out that the wording in the thoughts and prayers message that Daniel Defense released after Uvalde day, it was almost exactly the same as the wording the company used after their weapons were used in a Las Vegas mass shooting that killed 58 people in 2017.

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Speaker 3: Yeah, no, just sort of a Groundhog’s Day quality to all this. And they just follow the same playbook and no variation. And again, that’s also how the other gun companies react each time to.

Mary Harris: Daniel Defense was supposed to show up at the National Rifle Association Convention a few days after the shooting, but they didn’t. Do you think that means the company’s gone to ground in some way?

Speaker 3: Oh, temporarily, sure. But I don’t see this as any sort of broader retreat on their part.

Mary Harris: Today on the show, their products are used to kill. So why doesn’t a gun manufacturer like Daniel Defense seem eager to do much about it? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What Next? Stick around.

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Mary Harris: Can you just introduce me to Daniel Defense and the people who run it? It’s a relatively new manufacturer, right?

Speaker 3: Yeah. Yeah. They are part of this explosion in gun companies we’ve seen nationwide after the assault weapons ban was repealed in 2004.

Mary Harris: I didn’t know there was an explosion of gun companies after the assault weapons ban was lifted.

Speaker 3: Yeah. I mean, you know, after that ban was lifted, a lot of room for innovation, right. Just entirely new product line that could be introduced and sold to people. This this semiautomatic rifle that looks like it came from the military. And so all these smaller gun manufacturers rushed in to fill this space. Daniel Defense was started by Marti Daniels name for him. He’s a guy who lives outside Savannah, Georgia, and he started his company in 2001.

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Speaker 2: Actually, the story goes, my golf game was so bad that that I gave it up and took up shooting as a hobby.

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Speaker 3: He’s an engineer. He went to engineering school and he was in like much more bland businesses before that, like, you know, windows and overhead doors and fireplaces. And he got into guns using sort of one of these guys who like shooting at the range or skeet shooting.

Speaker 2: And so I was doing those things and and just really fell in love with the AR platform. Platform I had early coal, which I wanted flat top uppers for. Nobody made such an animal.

Speaker 3: And so he he got into it. And as an engineer, I think he was attracted to the sort of engineering challenge of guns.

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Mary Harris: He tells a kind of folksy story about like starting in his garage, right?

Speaker 3: Yeah.

Speaker 2: And I talked to a guy in the build, but for me, I only needed four. So set up a website to sell the other 96. And that’s how that’s how the company started. We sold those first products in 2001.

Speaker 3: But he started off with the military contract, supplying the military with a one part for one of their rifles and just kept on growing from there and eventually started introducing his own line of weapons.

Mary Harris: Cheeky marketing sort of became baked in to Daniel defense as it got bigger and bigger. And I’m wondering if you can explain that with some examples like what is an ad for a Daniel defense weapon look like and how does it compare to an ad for, I don’t know, another weapon?

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Speaker 3: Yeah. You know, so their ads, I mean, they’re different than you might see from them or they’re definitely something you would see from like a hunting rifle sort of ad, you know, where the ad, the deer and the guy out in the woods and, you know, sort of sitting in a tree stand. Theirs is more more aggressive. You know, this there’s a sort of a tinge of religiosity to it as well. The sort of there’s a been an interesting sort of crossover with guns in Christianity, sort of hardcore, like this belief of protecting your family. And, you know, this is sort of one of those God given rights to arm yourself.

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Speaker 2: Our products are on the front edge of protecting our freedom. The Second Amendment was, I believe, put in place. So it is truly the muscle behind the First Amendment.

Mary Harris: A lot of children with guns in their ads.

Speaker 3: Within the culture, it doesn’t look as strange outside. Yes, it looks really bizarre. Just like a week before the Uvalde a shooting. Right. They had that online social media ad where they there’s, you know, a toddler sitting crisscross applesauce on the floor with a a rifle on his lap. And it’s clearly unloaded and there’s a finger pointing at him. And it and there’s a proverb quoted above him sort of saying, you know, teach them well now. And, you know, you won’t have to teach them later, which reads very bizarrely to outside the the gun culture. And, you know, there’s a lot of stressing on freedom, too. I think one of their taglines was manufacturing freedom. Right. And this idea that the gun industry and guns are constantly under threat. And, you know, there’s no bigger way to show that you support America and freedom than, you know, owning one of these guns. That’s a really important sort of marketing tactic to sort of moving this.

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Mary Harris: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s so important what you’re saying about the separate culture where, you know, the companies kind of created or worked within a culture that would seem bizarre to someone outside of it, but inside of it like has makes complete sense. And so it’s part of what’s strange after a shooting like this.

Speaker 3: Yeah, it’s completely jarring and even offensive in some ways, right? I mean, when the outcome is murdered kids and then in their marketing, they have young kids and you’re like, well, cheese, what the heck is going on here? You know? And there’s a backlash to it, you know, and those folks, even within the gun industry, you know, I talked to some on the record, some off the record who were uncomfortable about this this sort of shift within the industry, that it’s going too far in trying to sell its weapons in its marketing, especially when you have these horrible outcomes later on.

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Mary Harris: Yeah, one gun critic said. Daniel, defense is a perfect illustration of the growing extremism in the gun industry. Do you think that’s a fair assessment? Yeah.

Speaker 3: You know, the rifles that they sell and even the pistols, I mean, the things that they call pistols which aren’t I mean, they’re technically pistols. They to the ordinary do not look like pistols and they look like just smaller semi-automatic military rifles. And, you know, the couch commando industry of, you know, making these folks who sort of want to play act soldier and want to have this real aggressive, you know, it’s like the guy who drives the big muscle truck with the big muffler and the, you know, Calvin pissing on the Ford logo. It’s tough when you’re selling that imagery. It’s like the Marlboro Man, right, is a tough, rugged guy. And this is what you do. That’s what you do. If you’re tough and rugged is you get this really aggressive rifle and it’s, you know, quite frankly, probably what attracts a lot of these mass shooters to using it to their angry, disaffected.

Speaker 3: Let’s get the most macho thing out there.

Mary Harris: How much of this marketing is about, Marty? Daniel, the owner of Daniel Defense, the creator, the founder? And how much of it is just about the industry changing?

Speaker 3: Yeah, I mean, sort of the chicken and egg is Marty, Daniel, you know, pushing this or is he sort of shaping his image to go along with, you know, what is in demand, you know, to folks who know him is even known within the sort of loud in industry as is sort of a bombastic figure, sort of loud and aggressive with his, you know, sort of sales pitch. And, you know, he sort of really enjoys this sort of position of gun as sort of a sort of totem in the culture wars. And so he he enjoys that role playing that role playing up the showmanship of it and sort of pushing the envelope, perhaps sometimes with his marketing, I’m not sure, you know, was he like that when he was selling overhead doors and fireplaces? I don’t know. But it fits really, really well. When you are selling something like a semiautomatic rifle.

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Mary Harris: Are there other ways other than marketing that you see? Daniel Defense as kind of an interesting illustration of bigger trends in the firearm industry. Like you mentioned, this company is headquartered in Georgia, which is where Marty Daniel lives. But. You know, for many years, the South was not the cradle of gun manufacturing in the United States. Is that changing, too?

Speaker 3: Yeah, that definitely is changing. You know, the sort of cradle of American gun making for a really long time was the northeast in in and around Springfield, Massachusetts. I thought it was interesting that Smith and Wesson, you know, which even if you know nothing about guns, that name sort of means something. You know, it’s a publicly traded company. It’s huge. They’ve been based forever in Springfield, Massachusetts. And they announced late last year that they are moving operations to Tennessee in part and that they probably blame the gun restrictions in Massachusetts. And they said, you know, Tennessee is much friendlier to the Second Amendment. And that is partly true.

Speaker 3: But also, you know, it’s an economic development issue. You know, they were lured there by the state and of course, lower taxes, you know, but it’s tougher for the gun manufacturers who are still looking in these areas as guns are, you know, more and more a cultural war issue after the Parkland shooting, you know, the horrible shooting in Florida school shooting, the shooter used a Smith and Wesson AR 15 style weapon.

Speaker 3: And there were protests outside of the Springfield, Massachusetts, headquarters of Smith and Wesson. Right. I mean, it’s a huge manufacture. The Springfield, Mass. Is not like a prosperous town. These jobs are good paying, solid jobs. But they were students and other people who were just out there protesting angry Smith Wesson is probably not going to face protests like that when they moved to Tennessee.

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Mary Harris: It’s interesting listening to you because I get a sense that we’re in the middle of this bifurcation that becomes clearer when you look at a manufacturer like Daniel Defense, where everyone knows about the cultural bifurcation and to some extent the physical bifurcation in the country, it becomes sort of crystallized when you look at what’s happening in the gun industry.

Speaker 3: Yeah, certainly. You know, we talk about blue states and red states and, you know, folks are as self sorting themselves into neighborhoods where they’re like minded neighbors, you know, along political lines. And guns are very much a political issue there. You know, it’s not like Democrats don’t own guns and aren’t even aggressive, you know, Second Amendment Democrats. But it is become very much a sort of symbol on the right when right wingers want to intimidate folks in public. You know, the open carry that the AR 15 slung over the shoulder is the image that is projected out there. And there’s a reason for that. Weapons are incredibly sort of aggressive. And so you have these gun manufacturers then sort of self sorting and choosing to relocate. And in some ways, these issues get harder to solve when we are sort of divided across geography like that.

Mary Harris: We’ll be right back.

Mary Harris: Has the honor of Daniel Defense. Mardy Daniel. Has he ever shown support for greater gun control measures?

Speaker 3: Yeah, once he did, his customers did not appreciate it.

Mary Harris: What happened?

Speaker 3: One thing is, you know, they’re trying to tell these stories. You Bill know which mass shooting was this, which is just such a bizarre way to have to think about this. So the 2017 Sutherland Springs, Texas shooting and that and so it not to get confused with you know the school shooting this was a church shooting where a guy was upset with the church and is up in sort of office rocker and shot at church and killed a whole bunch of people. But he never should have actually been able to buy the weapons he was he bought.

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Speaker 3: And so in 2018, a bill sponsored by Republicans who have sort of no to tighten gun control measures, they supported a bill to require and sort of encourage more information to be fed into the background check system so that things like this would be caught. And Marty, Daniel came out and supported that, you know, hey, let’s keep folks who shouldn’t have guns from getting guns. You know, this is part of the law. And there was a huge blowback, you know, as customers were like, you know, this is a Trojan horse. I mean, everything’s a Trojan horse to absolutists on the on the gun rights issue, you know, any sort of giving an inch, you know, oh, my God, they’re going to come for your guns next. And it’s really a very tough negotiating position.

Speaker 3: So they came at him and he he backtracked. He said, oh, I’m sorry. You know, I didn’t really think this through. I, I shouldn’t support this bill and he didn’t support it. You know, notably, the Republican and Democrats pass this bill and President Trump signed it. It was the one time that I saw where, you know, Marty Daniels sort of didn’t follow the script that we so often see the gun industry follow. And you sort of learn quickly. What I’ve heard from others is that, you know, you don’t step out of line. You know, in the gun industry, you have to sort of follow the line that all gun control measures are bad.

Mary Harris: There’s no strange incentive structure for gun manufacturers that you’ve nodded to, like after a mass shooting. Sales of firearms go up. Marty, Daniel actually told Forbes that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary drove a lot of sales, which is a really ugly fact. And, you know, the stock price of Smith and Wesson rose 8% in the days following the shooting and in Uvalde Day.

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Mary Harris: Do we have a good idea of how these kinds of incentives influence company decision making.

Speaker 3: As so much of the gun industry’s sales and marketing is driven on fear. Fear that someone’s going to break into your house, fear that you know you’re going to get accosted by a rapist. Fear that the feds are going to come and take your guns. There’s going to be more gun control measures. And so, yeah, there’s this perverse effect of these mass shootings where they drive stock prices, they drive sales, people get freaked out. You know, there’s a inverse to that, too, which is sort of fascinating, is that when Hillary Clinton lost unexpected right to to President Trump, there was a the gun industry had been ramping up production, expecting Hillary Clinton to win and expecting gun control to be a main problem and feature of that debate. And that didn’t happen. And the so-called Trump slump hit and these gun manufacturers really suffered. Some even went bankrupt because fear drives sales and there was no longer a fear of gun control with a Republican in the White House.

Mary Harris: Yeah, I mean, you’ve said yourself a responsible gun owner might look at the fact that Daniel Defense manufactured a weapon used in mass shootings and say, listen, this isn’t the company’s fault. It makes a tool that can be used responsibly or irresponsibly. Do you see it differently? Like how is Daniel Defense different from, say, Budweiser selling someone beer and then they crash their car?

Speaker 3: That’s argument you hear a lot from to a supporters amendment. Supporters, you know, you don’t hear them doing anything but about that other stuff, you know? But we do. Right. I mean, sort of it’s like, well, actually. Right. Budweiser took a lot of heat for drunk driving and and now runs ads encouraging you to a driver. Right. To you know, there’s been a lot of pushback and, you know, lawsuits against bartenders for over serving people and for automobiles. You know, we have a licensure system, a insurance system. Shortly after the assault weapons ban was repealed, Congress also passed basically an immunity shield, a liability shield for gun makers so that people can’t sue for some of these sort of overreaches and stuff like that.

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Speaker 3: So imagine if, like, you know, Ford or GM or Honda had that to write where you couldn’t see when the car is being used rapidly in bad ways. But we have all these we have seatbelts, we have airbags. We’ve done these things to try and make these things safer. And there is nothing to make guns safer in. If anything, we are trying to make guns riskier and more lethal. And that’s the selling point.

Mary Harris: The mass shooting at Sandy Hook opened the door to some kind of accountability for some companies because families sued the Remington company, which made the gun that was used in the massacre. And this lawsuit created a kind of blueprint for suing other gun makers. It was all based on state law because there’s the federal protection that you alluded to there. Is there any evidence that Daniel Defense is thinking about that as a potential liability?

Speaker 3: No, no. Since it didn’t necessary dan offenses. Think about that at the moment. These lawsuits do get filed after shootings, but it was notable at the Sandy Hook one against against Bushmaster and Remington the maker of the rifle used there was how far did progress but notably it was settled. Right. Last year for like I think $73 million.

Mary Harris: So they didn’t win.

Speaker 3: Right. They didn’t actually have the judges decide in their favor. And the gun industry is very quick to point out that this was settled by the insurers, the insurance companies of the gun manufacturers settled this. And so they are not taking this as any sort of message. But it’s really interesting to think about if they do not have this liability shield. I mean, they said it was for when they passed it, right? Oh, because it’s nuisance lawsuits, but there’s some real liability here, right. When you market your weapon in such a way and, you know, just let it out into the wild and then something happens, you know, without that shield, I think they’d be in a huge bunch of trouble.

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Mary Harris: It’s funny because I kind of have the sense that the financial power of the gun industry and its lobby is weakening. Like because of that lawsuit that was settled with Remington or the insurers of Remington because the NRA filed for bankruptcy after being sued by the New York state attorney general. But does the evidence show that that the power of the gun industry is changing or weakening in any way?

Speaker 3: I think it’s changing, right? Yeah, you’re right. You know, the NRA has been hobbled by its bankruptcy and Wayne LaPierre is sort of being criticized for his leadership style. You know, I think it’s notable, though, that, like, you know, Mike Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety is also a major contributor on the other side. And, you know, the gun issue is not just a you know, everyone wants to blame the NRA. It’s not just a political money issue. It’s a cultural issue. Right. It’s an identity issue for a lot of folks, especially on the right is now sort of a culture issue where the money almost doesn’t matter. In some ways, this is part and parcel of your identity.

Mary Harris: It’s interesting how you say it’s kind of self-perpetuating at this point, and I feel like that’s really underlined by the fact that if you look at Marty Daniel, who runs Daniel Defense, he’s given money politically. But he’s only given money to Republicans. And in some ways they feel like that’s important because it underlines the cultural thing. It’s saying like, we don’t need to spread this around. We just need this one group on our side. It mirrors the sort of cultural separation you talked about in political separation as well.

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Speaker 3: He 100%. You know, it’s sort of interesting. Like, you know, there’s sort of goofy political ads, you see, of politicians, you know, running shooting firearms. Right. It’s become sort of a thing. Right. But Democrats, again, they own guns, too. Right. But when those politicians use guns in ads, it is generally the single shot rifle or something with a regular looking handgun. Where the conservative sort of more right wing politician is going to be using their 15 and it’s real aggressive in your face. And so even how we think about guns is so split along those political lines.

Speaker 3: And the air 15 is not it’s not a Democratic gun, I guess, in some ways. Right. It’s become such a totem and such a symbol of the right that that’s what you think of and you associate it with. And I do think the focus and the one way that this debate can sort of change in interesting ways is if we single out and think about the assault rifle as separate from and different from the hunting rifle or the home protection, you know, handgun.

Mary Harris: Yeah. I mean, when one former gun industry executive you spoke to compared the gun industry to the opioid industry, and I thought that was an interesting comparison. But I wondered what you made of it, because it it struck me that there are also important differences between how we think about the drug industry and how we think about guns.

Speaker 3: The opioid industry. Right. They went from it’s been well chronicled now. You know, they went from making this miracle drug that was hailed and is a breakthrough for treating, you know, the pain of cancer patients and stuff. And they got a little heavy in their marketing. Right. And they wanted to find a bigger market for their for their product. And they started pushing it out to perhaps places they shouldn’t in to pain clinics and, you know, just the script. MILLS And it became a huge issue that fed this other broader epidemic of heroin and addiction. But it started with a very legitimate company. You know, selling something was very legal and well thought of and just going too far.

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Mary Harris: A difference that I thought about when it came to opioids versus guns was like, for instance, it took us so long to even collect data on gun deaths. Like it was explicitly basically forbidden from the nineties because it was seen as somehow anti-gun to collect information about gun deaths. But of course, the CDC has always kept records on opioid deaths. And so to me, that was a place where you could see at least some broad agreement between people about like, oh, we need to keep track of this. We need to look at this because it’s important.

Mary Harris: But then also in the opioid industry, you have a family like the Sacklers, who many blame for spreading opioids around the country. But the Sacklers wanted to be part of the broader culture. They still do. They were putting their names on museums and, you know, all over the country, including very blue places. And those things seem important to me because they create a place where you can enter and put pressure in. If you are government, if you’re working with someone who actually wants to be part of your larger project, you can, you know, come in with regulations because you’re doing something together. But what I see when you talk to me about the gun industry is a group that’s really separating itself intentionally, physically and sort of mentally, too, in terms of culture.

Speaker 3: Yeah, that’s a great point. Marty, Daniel and Daniel Defense have a a sign over the scoreboard at the local football stadium. Right, right on the scoreboard. And it’s hard to imagine how that would play in New York State. Right. You know, a place or a place that’s typically more liberal and a little more wary of guns. Yeah. And so how do you apply that social pressure? The San Francisco, of course, want acceptance, broader acceptance. And these gun manufacturers, they don’t need. Right. They can totally subsist in their own sort of subcultures out there. And that you’re exactly right that it does make it more difficult to come to a solution on this.

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Mary Harris: Todd Frankel Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about all this.

Speaker 3: I appreciate it. Thank you.

Mary Harris: Todd Frankel is an enterprise reporter at the Washington Post’s Financial Desk. And that’s the show. Quick note before I get off the line here. We had an error in yesterday’s show. I mixed up my soccer clubs. But you know what’s kind of great? A listener reached out on Twitter, told me what I got wrong, and we were able to correct it. So what’s in your feed now? That should be right. But anyway, if you’ve got feedback on the show, want to correct something? Just find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Mary Wilson and Elaina Schwartz. We’re getting a lot of help these days from Sam Kim and Anna Rubanova. We’re led by Joann Levine and Alicia montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris.