It’s been well established that companies that exploit gender stereotypes to prey on women’s self-doubt are harmful to society. But the lawsuit filed by families of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting against gun manufacturer Remington might help to show how men are just as vulnerable to damaging gender ideals.
The case sets a novel and remarkable precedent for gun manufacturers to be held liable for expressly preying on men’s specific vulnerabilities.
The Remington settlement marks the first time a gunmaker has been held accountable for its product’s role in a mass murder in the U.S. Gun companies have been shielded from liability when their products are used in a crime because of a 2005 law called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. But some states are now using consumer protection as a way to hold gunmakers’ feet to the fire. New York passed a law last summer that classified irresponsible marketing of firearms as a “nuisance,” which could allow firearm corporate entities to be sued, and New Jersey could be the next state to follow suit.
For now, one survivor and the families of nine other victims killed in the Sandy Hook shooting will receive $73 million in a settlement from Remington because of the company’s predatory marketing; lawyers representing the families argued that the company “tapped into anxieties of masculinity” to sell men military-grade rifles.
“Consider your man card reissued.” That’s how a 2012 ad from Remington read below the image of the Bushmaster AR-15 rifle. It was featured in Maxim, a magazine whose readership is primarily made up of young impressionable men. The semi-automatic rifle Remington was marketing was similar to the Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle, which Adam Lanza used a few months later to mass murder 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The ad was part of a panopticon-esque marketing campaign targeting men and encouraging them to police one another’s gendered performance. One of the ads in the campaign enlisted men to report peers for not “being a man,” even to share other men’s personal email addresses so that they could receive notices to revoke each other’s “man cards.” The Remington company website featured a test for men to learn how manly they were by asking them to answer such questions as whether tofu was acceptable for a man to eat, or figure skating for a man to watch. It described one proverbial user as “unmanly” because he “avoids eye contact with tough-looking fifth graders,” slapping him with the fate of having his “man card revoked.” The not-so-subtle subtext was clear: Manhood is precarious, and the best way to hold on to it is to get a gun.
The not-so-subtle subtext was clear: Manhood is precarious, and the best way to hold on to it is to get a gun.
Remington unabashedly capitalized on unrealistic and regressive ideals of masculinity where the intended effect seemed to be to humiliate men into arming themselves with combat weapons. And while it’s a cruel tactic, it’s an effective one, given the well-documented data showing that a great way to get men interested in guns is to threaten their masculinity. Research shows that men whose manhood is undermined are more likely to express a desire to own guns. It makes sense when you look at the way guns are portrayed in our society: as a quick gateway to membership in the alpha male club. And while there’s a widespread myth that testosterone makes men want to buy or use guns, a growing body of research finds that it’s the other way around: Men start producing more testosterone only once they’re handed a gun.
The case sets a novel and remarkable precedent for gun manufacturers to be held liable for expressly preying on men’s specific vulnerabilities, especially when the link between masculinity and domestic violence and school shootings has been so widely researched and supported. It’s hard to view someone who commits a mass murderer as a victim, but there’s no question that campaigns like the one Remington carefully crafted help create an environment where gun violence is deliberately presented as an acceptable solution to fragile men’s ills. As one of the lawyers in the case put it during oral arguments in 2017, “Remington may never have known Adam Lanza, but they had been courting him for years.”
While this landmark lawsuit could have wide-ranging effects on the gun industry and become a blueprint for future cases, it’s too early to tell just how significant the impact will be. But some of the families of those lost in the Sandy Hook shooting are holding out hope. David Wheeler, the father of Benjamin, a 6-year-old boy who tragically died that day, says that this lawsuit will put the gun lobby on notice and make it think twice before cashing in on unassertive men’s emotional pliability. “Perhaps there’s some solace in knowing or thinking or hoping that another family will be spared this kind of tragedy and trauma and loss because another young person doesn’t feel it necessary to make themselves feel like more of a man, or more effective or make a mark in society by using this in the wrong way,” Wheeler told NPR. “When you’re making the world’s most lethal consumer product, it doesn’t make sense to try to appeal to the sense of insecurity or to try to appeal to promised glory or masculinity to some disaffected young person.”
As Benjamin’s mom told NPR, he should still be alive and turning 15 years old this year. Instead, his legacy is being etched into history in hopefully helping to prevent future men and boys from falling prey to unbridled and unethical marketing that’s been left unexamined for far too long.
Liz Plank, an MSNBC columnist, award-winning journalist and author, was the host of “Positive Spin.” Her book, “For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity,” was published in 2019.