Threatened by long-term declining participation in shooting sports, the firearms industry has poured millions of dollars into a broad campaign to ensure its future by getting guns into the hands of more, and younger, children.
The industry's strategies include giving firearms, ammunition and cash to youth groups; weakening state restrictions on hunting by young children; marketing an affordable military-style rifle for "junior shooters" and sponsoring semiautomatic-handgun competitions for youths; and developing a target-shooting video game that promotes brand-name weapons, with links to the websites of their makers.
The pages of Junior Shooters, an industry-supported magazine that seeks to get children involved in the recreational use of firearms, once featured a smiling 15-year-old girl clutching a semiautomatic rifle. At the end of an accompanying article that extolled target shooting with a Bushmaster AR-15 -- an advertisement elsewhere in the magazine directed readers to a coupon for buying one -- the author encouraged youngsters to share the article with a parent.
"Who knows?" it said. "Maybe you'll find a Bushmaster AR-15 under your tree some frosty Christmas morning!"
The industry's youth-marketing effort is backed by extensive social research and is carried out by an array of nonprofit groups financed by the gun industry, an examination by The New York Times found. The campaign picked up steam about five years ago with the completion of a major study that urged a stronger emphasis on the "recruitment and retention" of new hunters and target shooters.
The overall objective was summed up in another study, commissioned last year by the shooting sports industry, that suggested encouraging children experienced in firearms to recruit other young people. The report, which focused on children ages 8 to 17, said these "peer ambassadors" should help introduce wary youngsters to guns slowly, perhaps through paintball, archery or some other less intimidating activity.
"The point should be to get newcomers started shooting something, with the natural next step being a move toward actual firearms," said the report, which was prepared for the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Hunting Heritage Trust.
Firearms manufacturers and their two primary surrogates, the National Rifle Association of America and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, have long been associated with high-profile battles to fend off efforts at gun control and to widen access to firearms. The public debate over the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and elsewhere has focused largely on the availability of guns, along with mental illness and the influence of violent video games.
Little attention has been paid, though, to the industry's youth-marketing initiatives. They stir passionate views, with proponents arguing that introducing children to guns can provide a safe and healthy pastime, and critics countering that it fosters a corrosive gun culture and is potentially dangerous.
The NRA has given grants for decades to youth shooting programs, mostly to Boy Scout councils and 4-H groups, which traditionally involved single-shot rimfire rifles, BB guns and archery. Its $21 million in total grants in 2010 was nearly double what it gave out five years earlier.
Newer initiatives by other organizations go further, seeking to introduce children to high-powered rifles and handguns while invoking the same rationale of those older, more traditional programs: that firearms can teach "life skills" like responsibility, ethics and citizenship. And the gun industry points to injury statistics that it says show a greater likelihood of getting hurt cheerleading or playing softball than using firearms for fun and sport.
Still, some experts in child psychiatry say that encouraging youthful exposure to guns, even in a structured setting with an emphasis on safety, is asking for trouble. Jess P. Shatkin, the director of undergraduate studies in child and adolescent mental health at New York University, said that young people are naturally impulsive and that their brains "are engineered to take risks," making them ill suited for handling guns.
"There are lots of ways to teach responsibility to a kid," Dr. Shatkin said. "You don't need a gun to do it."
Steve Sanetti, the president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said it was better to instruct children in the safe use of a firearm through hunting and target shooting, and engage them in positive ways with the heritage of guns in America. His industry is well-positioned for the task, he said, but faces an unusual challenge: introducing minors to activities that involve products they cannot legally buy and that require a high level of maturity.
Ultimately, Mr. Sanetti said, it should be left to parents, not the government, to decide if and when to introduce their children to shooting and what sort of firearms to use.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, thousands of people, many holding signs with names of gun violence victims and messages such as "Ban Assault Weapons Now," joined a rally in Washington, D.C., for gun control, marching from the Capitol to the Washington Monument.
Leading the crowd were marchers with "We Are Sandy Hook" signs, paying tribute to victims of the December school shooting in Connecticut. About 100 residents from Newtown, where a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six teachers, traveled to Washington together, organizers said.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the crowd it's not about taking away Second Amendment gun rights, but about gun safety and saving lives. He said he and President Barack Obama would do everything they could to enact gun control policies.
Associated Press contributed.