Joe Camel with Feathers – Section One: “An Old-Fashioned Wrestling Match for the Hearts and Minds of our Children”

The National Rifle Association recognizes that its future and that of the firearms industry depends on the recruitment of new shooters. As a result, throughout its history the NRA has beckoned to America’s youth. Two consistent themes have been present in these appeals. The first is that familiarity with firearms, and eventual ownership, are building blocks to patriotism, morality, and civic virtue. The second is that involving youth in America’s gun culture is necessary not only to ensure the political might of the NRA, but also the financial health of the firearms industry.

As early as 1907 NRA advertisements entreated, “Boys!! Become a `Junior Marksman'” and encouraged children to organize NRA rifle clubs in their schools to “instill the principle of manhood and loyal citizenship in the youth of the land.”10 Since then, little has changed. An editorial in the September 1963 American Rifleman noted that “the desire to shoot a gun, like the desire to drive an automobile, is one of the strong instincts of many youngsters. A gun should not be a forbidden implement which must be investigated by a child in secret and without the practical skill to handle it. A knowledge of firearms should be a part of the education of every boy (and every girl who is so inclined) until he becomes so familiar with them that he will do no harm to himself or to others.” And in January 1985 the NRA board reaffirmed a 1980 resolution that stated: “WHEREAS, The future of the shooting sports in America rests with the youth of the nation…[i]t is the official policy of the National Rifle Association to introduce as many of our nation’s youth as possible to the legitimate use of the [sic] firearms, and to provide specific assistance to involve them via other organizations in firearms related activities.”11

Most recently, these themes have been adopted by Marion Hammer, the NRA’s first woman president. In a 1995 address before the American Legion, Hammer— who was taught to shoot at the age of five—promised that the complex problems of life for today’s youth had a very simple solution: guns. Warned Hammer:

Today, America has new enemies; enemies that are tearing at the fabric of our heritage and our society. Those enemies are moral decay, disrespect, parental neglect, dependence on government and phony quick-fix government solutions to complex social problems. America’s children are the victims of those enemies. Because we love our country, we have a duty to America’s youngsters. They are the future of America. We must teach them values and strengths. Teach them discipline, self-reliance, respect and honor. Teach them to love America and what it stands for. NRA’s Eddie Eagle Gun Safety program for young children is about much more than just teaching safety. Youngsters learn safety but they also learn respect for guns.

In detailing her belief in the transmogrifying power of firearms, Hammer reveals what others have charged: “NRA’s Eddie Eagle Gun Safety program for young children is about much more than just teaching safety.” Through Eddie Eagle, Hammer promises, “Youngsters learn safety but they also learn respect for guns.” The lack of respect Hammer alludes to, however, is not the necessary caution that children might fail to grant a lethal weapon, but the lack of admiration Hammer feels firearms are due in their standing as totems of freedom and touchstones to her much-longed-for, idealized past. The purpose of Eddie Eagle is not to keep children safe from guns, but safe with guns.i

The high profile afforded Hammer and her youth initiative are just two of the most recent manifestations of an industry-wide effort by gun manufacturers and lobbying organizations to increase the involvement of youth in America’s gun culture. These efforts stem from an industry-wide sales slump that hit the firearms industry in the mid-1980s as the result of saturation of the primary market of white males. At the same time, the firearms industry has come under attack by legislators and advocacy organizations as the result of increases in firearms violence, much of it associated with the increased lethality of its products (e.g. assault weapons, the shift from six-shot revolvers to more powerful, high-capacity pistols, new ammunition types such as the Black Talon hollowpoint bullet, etc.). As a result, the NRA has begun a new and expanding partnership with the firearms industry to lift it out of its doldrums and reach out to a new generation of customers. In doing so, it has followed the trail blazed by America’s tobacco industry.

“Replacement Customers”—Facing the Same Problems as the Tobacco Industry

Many of the problems being faced today by the NRA and the firearms industry are, in fact, similar to those faced in the past by the cigarette and smokeless tobacco industries. Faced with declines in its primary market, the gun industry and the NRA, like the tobacco industry before them, recognized the need to expand their market to include women and children. Yet, as is the case with tobacco products, there are strict prohibitions on the sale and possession of guns by children and youth.j

While in their efforts to market to children the gun and tobacco industries have taken similar paths, there is one striking difference: the tobacco industry denies that it is working to entice children to use their product, the NRA and the gun industry openly acknowledge it.

At the NRA’s 1996 Annual Meeting in Dallas, Texas, Marion Hammer introduced her 10-year-old grandson Michael, stating, “I know that when NRA reaches out and takes the hand of a child, we are touching America’s future.” Hammer also outlined the NRA’s agenda to “invest” in America’s youth, win their “hearts and minds,” and ensure the organization’s longevity:

I pledge to you to dedicate my term in office to two demanding missions. One is building an NRA bridge to America’s youth. The other is being fiscally far-sighted to provide for bold new programs that will teach America’s children values to last a lifetime. It will be an old-fashioned wrestling match for the hearts and minds of our children, and we’d better engage our adversaries with no holds barred….If we do not successfully reach out to the next generation, then the freedom and liberty that we’ve lived for—and that many of our ancestors have died for—will not live beyond us.The NRA is committed to expanding our programs, to reaching out to more children and to investing in the future by helping to instill values and build character in the youngsters we touch throughout America….We need to make sound investments that ensure that we’re still strong, still proud, and still defenders of the Second Amendment while teaching NRA values, the NRA way to America’s youngsters….When we pass the torch of freedom to my grandson, Michael, and his generation—they must be ready. That is our challenge….

“New Faces and Pocketbooks”

Hammer’s openness is not unique.  S.H.O.T. Business is an industry trade magazine published by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the leading trade association for the firearms industry.kNSSF has been a leader in marketing to women and children. In 1992 the organization’s NSSF Reports announced a “New Focus on Women & Youngsters” and promised, “Bringing women and youngsters to the shooting sports is the goal of fully half of the NSSF’s new 1992 programs….”l  S.H.O.T. Business is distributed free of charge to a wide range of gun industry members, including manufacturers, dealers, and distributors. A 1993 “Community Relations” column by Grits Gresham featured the following heading: “The school children of today are the leaders of tomorrow…and your future customers. These suggestions may help them develop an interest in our industry.” In the article, Gresham noted:

Customers. If you don’t have them you won’t be in business very long. If you don’t keep them, same thing. And, although it’s a bit down the road, if you don’t have a supply of replacement customers coming along, that road will begin to get rough. There’s a way to help ensure that new faces and pocketbooks will continue to patronize your business: Use the schools. This is where most of your potential, down-the-line shooters and hunters now are. Kids can’t buy guns, you say? Well, yes and no. It’s true that most students from kindergarten through high school can’t purchase firearms on their own. But it’s also true that in many parts of the country, youngsters (from preteens on up) are shooting and hunting. Pop picks up the tab. Whether they continue to shoot and hunt depends, to a great degree, on whether or not the desire is there. That’s where you come in. Every decade there is a whole new crop of shining young faces taking their place in society as adults. They will quickly become the movers and shakers. Many of them can vote before leaving high school, whether they do or not. You can help see that they do….Are you in for the long haul? If so, it’s time to make your pitch for young minds, as well as for the adult ones. Unless you and I, and all who want a good climate for shooting and hunting, imprint our positions in the minds of those future leaders, we’re in trouble….Schools should not be a problem as far as your business is concerned. In fact, they can be a huge asset. Think about it. Schools collect, at one point, a large number of minds and bodies that are important to your future well being. How else would you get these potential customers and future leaders together, to receive your message about guns and hunting, without the help of the schools. How much effort and expense would be involved? Schools are an opportunity. Grasp it.

Under a section of the article titled, “Count the Ways,” Gresham asked the reader, “What can you do to take advantage of this opportunity? Let’s take a look.” Gresham first advises readers to get school principals and coaches “on your side” to help with “the education of children and teachers in the outdoor fields.” Then, among suggestions that include teaching a “firearms familiarization class,” working to “reach” teachers by giving them information on various guns, including how they are used in self-defense, and sponsoring a youth shooting team, Gresham adds:

Make sure that teachers and school libraries have a listing of sources for information about the subjects we hold dear. Tell them about the NRA’s `Eddie the Eagle’ gun safety program for school children (`Stop, Don’t Touch, Leave the Area, Tell an Adult’), and how they can bring it into their classes.

An NSSF brochure titled “When your youngster wants a gun” also addresses the issue of children and firearms. The pamphlet asks the question, “How old is old enough?” and answers:

Age is not the major yardstick. Some youngsters are ready to start at 10, others at 14. The only real measures are those of maturity and individual responsibility. Does your youngster follow directions well? Is he conscientious and reliable? Would you leave him alone in the house for two or three hours? Would you send him to the grocery store with a list and a $20 bill? If the answer to these questions or similar ones are `yes,’ then the answer can also be `yes’ when your child asks for his first gun.

Three Stooges: Joe Camel, Willie the Kool, and Eddie Eagle

The similarities between the tobacco and gun industries’ marketing to young customers are striking. Both recognize that they must attract new customers before adulthood. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, four-fifths of smokers begin before the age of 21.12 Relatively few Americans take up smoking after they have reached adulthood. It is generally acknowledged by both the NRA and the firearms industry that the same holds true for gun use. Participation in shooting activities must begin at an early age.

According to the study Factors Related to Hunting and Fishing Participation in the United States published by the Fish and Wildlife Reference Service, men and women who do not become hunters by the time they graduate from high school are unlikely ever to become hunters. Nationwide, more than half of all hunters, 54 percent, began hunting before they turned 13 years old, 69 percent began before they turned 16, and 83 percent before they turned 19. In a “strategic analysis” for the firearms industry, the National Shooting Sports Foundation concluded that “there is a continuing need to encourage new first-time shooters and, as much as is practical and responsible, ease their entry into the shooting sports.”13

This view is echoed by individual industry members. According to Travis Hall of shotgun manufacturer Browning, “We haven’t done a good job of introducing shooting, hunting and the outdoors to young people…. We clearly need to change that if we’re going to have customers in the future.” In addition to financially supporting the NRA’s youth marketing efforts through contributions to The NRA Foundation, Browning has launched its own efforts to “preach `outside the choir.'”15 The company has hired 70s rock singer and NRA board member Ted Nugent to promote its guns and bows and “reach a younger audience.”16 According to Hall, Nugent is “going to reach the next generation of sportsmen that we must reach, or our industries will wither.”17

In working to attract young customers, the tobacco industry has recognized the need to put on a face that is at once friendly and welcoming yet “cool.” The embodiment of these goals is, of course, Joe Camel. INFACT, a national grassroots organization working “to stop life-threatening abuses by transnational corporations and increase their accountability to people throughout the world,” notes:

Joe Camel…is a particularly appalling example of the industry hitting its target. Modeled after James Bond and Don Johnson of Miami Vice, Joe Camel has profoundly influenced even the very young. One study showed that nearly one-third of three-year-olds matched Joe Camel with cigarettes and that by age six, children were as familiar with him as the Mickey Mouse logo on the Disney Channel! The cartoon camel catapulted Camel cigarettes from a brand smoked by less than one percent of U.S. smokers under age 18 to a one-third share of the youth market…within three years. The enormous success of Joe Camel has apparently inspired other cartoon ad campaigns, including a penguin tested by Brown & Williamson….`Willie the Kool,’ the penguin used to promote Kool cigarettes, has buzz-cut hair, day-glo sneakers, sunglasses, and is very conscious of being `cool.’18



Like Joe Camel, Eddie Eagle has changed with the times. The first incarnation of Eddie Eagle appeared in a 1988 NRA coloring book titled My Gun Safety Book. With a pointed beak and prominent claws, this initial cartoon version looked more fearsome than fuzzy. The only anthropomorphic feature was a blue baseball cap perched on the bird’s head. The six-page publication opened with “Dick and Jane found the gun.” Upon seeing the revolver, left on a living room coffee table, an alarmed Dick tells a quizzical Jane, “Stop, Jane. Don’t touch the gun.” Apron-clad Mom is then told of their find. A sheepish Mom hugs the tykes, telling them, “I am proud of you for telling me so I could put it away.” Eddie Eagle’s role is limited to scurrying along the bottom of each page, repeating the program’s mantra of “Stop. Don’t touch. Leave the area. Tell an Adult.” An accompanying poster featured Eddie Eagle offering youngsters a message open to varying interpretation: “`Always be safe’ with guns: Only with a parent should you be around guns.”


Today Dick and Jane’s scruffy aviary friend has been replaced by a cartoon version of Eddie Eagle that is taller, friendlier, shares Willie the Kool’s affinity for casual footwear, and carries a cell phone. The caucasian Dick and Jane are no longer to be seen. In their stead is a multi-cultural array of children. Program materials have expanded to include workbooks in English and Spanish, instructor guides, and a letter to parents as well as Eddie Eagle posters, stickers, backpacks, lunch boxes, and stuffed animals. In addition to the cartoon Eddie Eagle, the NRA also uses a giant, Barney-like mascot version of the character.

Eddie Eagle’s “cool” credentials are established in an animated video—Learn Gun Safety with Eddie Eagle—featuring Beverly Hills 90210 actor Jason Priestly. In the video, Eddie Eagle talks with Priestly on his cell phone, relaxes on a chaise lounge on top of a city building while drinking an iced beverage, and smoothly slicks his feathers back off of his forehead. Throughout the video a catchy tune somewhere between Sesame Street and the Macarena repeats as Eddie Eagle chants his mantra.

The factors that can be used to motivate children and youth to smoke are strikingly applicable to the firearms industry. According to INFACT:

In the US, cigarette advertising links smoking with being `cool,’ taking risks, and growing up. At the same time the tobacco industry insists that it does not want children to smoke—and backs up its claims with campaigns supposedly designed to discourage young people from smoking. But [such] programs…are not only slick public relations efforts designed to bolster industry credibility, they actually encourage youth tobacco use. By leaving out the health dangers, ignoring addiction, and glamorizing smoking as an `adult custom,’ these campaigns reinforce the industry’s advertising theme presenting smoking as a way for children to exert independence and be grown up.

INFACT explains that “framing smoking as a marker of maturity… actually strengthens the cigarette’s power as a symbol of adulthood and independence.” Like tobacco use, guns represent an “adult custom” that symbolizes independence and adulthood. And, in the same way that the tobacco industry’s “education” programs ignore the risks of smoking, Eddie Eagle never mentions the risks associated with firearms and their use.

Go to Section Two: “New Blood Really Helps”

Back to Joe Camel with Feathers Table of Contents

i) In 1997 Hammer was joined by newly elected NRA First Vice President Charlton Heston in her children’s crusade. The cover of the September 1997 American Rifleman magazine featured a determined Heston surrounded by a multi-ethnic array of children. The cover asked the question, “Are Gun Rights Lost on Our Kids?” Inside the magazine, Heston bemoaned “a nation of children, a couple of entire generations, that have been brainwashed into believing that the Second Amendment is criminal in origin, rather than framed within the Constitution.”

j) Under the Gun Control Act of 1968 persons must be at least 18 years of age to purchase a rifle or shotgun and 21 years of age to buy a handgun from a holder of a Federal Firearms License (FFL). The Violent Crime Control Law Enforcement Act of 1994 made it illegal for any person, with some exceptions, to sell or transfer a handgun or handgun ammunition to anyone under 18 years of age. The exceptions include: temporary transfer or possession or use to a juvenile in the course of employment, target practice, hunting, safety instruction, and with prior written consent of the juvenile’s parent or guardian who is not prohibited from possessing a firearm; juveniles who are members of the Armed Forces of the United States or the National Guard; a transfer by inheritance of title (but not possession) to a juvenile; and, possession taken in self-defense or for other persons against an intruder into the residence of a juvenile or a residence in which the juvenile is an invited guest. It also made it unlawful for a juvenile, with the same exceptions, to possess a handgun or handgun ammunition.

k) The National Shooting Sports Foundation is a 501(c)(6) tax-exempt association founded in 1961 to “promote a better understanding of and more active participation in the shooting sports.” Its more than 900 members include “manufacturers of firearms and ammunition, accessories, components, gun sights, hunting clothes and other reputable firms that make a profit from hunting and shooting….” The NSSF’s 1993 budget totaled more than $3.7 million.

l) Like the National Rifle Association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation has worked through public and private schools to introduce youth to firearms via NSSF educational materials for grades four through 12. For more information on this issue, please see the 1994 Violence Policy Center study “Use the Schools”—How Federal Tax Dollars Are Spent to Market Guns to Kids.