Gun in Texas shooting came from company known for pushing boundaries

After one of its military-style rifles was used in the Texas elementary school shooting Tuesday, gun manufacturer Daniel Defense published a pop-up statement on its homepage sending “thoughts and prayers” to the community of Uvalde, Texas, and pledging to cooperate with authorities.

When the pop-up disappeared, a different message took center stage: a promotion, adorned with gold-encased bullets, for a sweepstakes to win $15,000 worth of guns or ammunition.

The Texas shooting, which left 19 schoolchildren and two teachers dead and more than a dozen wounded, has put a national spotlight on Daniel Defense, a family-owned business in Georgia that has emerged as a trailblazer in an aggressive, boundary-pushing style of weapons marketing and sales.

Some of its advertisements invoke popular video games like “Call of Duty” and feature “Star Wars” characters and Santa Claus, messages that are likely to appeal to teenagers. The company was an early adopter of a direct-to-consumer business model that aimed to make buying military gear as simple as ordering from Amazon, enticing customers with “adventure now, pay later” installment plans that make expensive weaponry more affordable.

And the company’s founder and CEO, Marty Daniel, has fashioned himself as a provocateur who ridicules gun control proposals and uses publicity stunts to drum up sales.

Daniel Defense is at the forefront of an industry that has grown increasingly aggressive in recent years as it tries to expand beyond its aging, mostly white customer base and resists the calls for stronger regulation that seem to intensify after every mass shooting.

“Daniel Defense is basically the poster child of this egregious, aggressive marketing,” said Ryan Busse, a former executive at gun company Kimber who is now an industry critic. “Marty Daniel burst in the door, a lot louder and more brazen than other gun-makers, much like Donald Trump did on the political scene.”

He added, “Through this company, you are telling the story of how the gun industry has become increasingly radicalized.”

Daniel Defense’s strategy seems to have been effective. Its sales have soared, in part because of its successful targeting of young customers like Salvador Ramos, the gunman in Texas. Ramos, whom authorities killed Tuesday, was a “Call of Duty” video game enthusiast and appears to have bought his assault rifle directly from Daniel Defense less than a week after turning 18.

Daniel did not respond to emails or calls. Steve Reed, a Daniel Defense spokesperson, said in a statement that the company was “deeply saddened” by the Texas shooting.

Daniel, 59, is a practiced storyteller who adopts a folksy tone to market his company and its guns. He often casts himself as something of a goofball, a screw-up who flunked out of Georgia Southern University — not once, but twice — before finally graduating and starting a company that made garage doors.

He has said that his gun company was born out of his poor golf game. Instead of puttering around the course, Daniel started using an AR-15 — the type of gun he would later go on to make — for target practice. “Every shot he fired filled him with a satisfaction he’d never before experienced,” the company’s website says.

At the time, Daniel had trouble finding a way to mount a scope onto his rifle. He began designing and selling his own accessory that allowed gun owners to add lights, a range finder and lasers onto the rifle.

He got his break in 2002 at a gun show in Orlando, Florida, where he was approached by a representative of the U.S. Special Forces. He ultimately won a $20 million contract to produce the accessories for combat rifles. More deals followed. In 2008, he won a contract with the British military, according to Daniel Defense’s website.

By 2009, the company had expanded to making guns for consumers. Its military ties were the basis of its marketing, which often featured heavily armed fighters. “Use what they use,” one ad says. Another shows a military-style scope aimed at passing cars on what looks like a regular city street. Others include references — using hashtags and catchphrases — to the “Call of Duty” video game.

A flag flies at half-mast at Daniel Defense’s headquarters in Black Creek, Ga., May 27, 2022. (Dylan Wilson/The New York Times)

Before the 2000s, most gun-makers did not market military-style assault weapons to civilians. At the largest industry trade shows, tactical military gear and guns were cordoned off, away from the general public. That started to change around 2004, industry experts say, with the expiration of the federal assault weapon ban.

“Companies like Daniel Defense glorify violence and war in their marketing to consumers,” said Nick Suplina, a senior vice president at Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that supports gun control.

In 2012, the Sandy Hook shooting led to an industrywide surge in gun sales, as firearm enthusiasts stocked up, fearing a government crackdown. In an interview with Forbes, Daniel said the shooting “drove a lot of sales.” (Forbes reported that Daniel Defense had sales of $73 million in 2016.)

After the shooting, Daniel Defense offered employees extra overtime to meet skyrocketing demand, according to Christopher Powell, who worked for the company at the time. “They kept people focused on the task at hand,” he said.

But in the late 2010s, some colleagues started to worry that Daniel had become distracted by the glamour of marketing the brand and rubbing shoulders with celebrities and politicians, according to a former Daniel Defense manager. They voiced concerns that some of the marketing materials were inappropriate for a company that manufactures deadly weapons, said the manager and a former executive, who did not want their names used because they feared legal or professional repercussions.

Some ads featured children carrying and firing guns. In another, posted on Instagram two days after Christmas last year, a man dressed as Santa Claus and wearing a military helmet is smoking a cigar and holding a Daniel Defense rifle. “After a long weekend, Santa is enjoying MK18 Monday,” the caption states, referring to the gun’s model.

The industry’s aggressive marketing has landed some companies in trouble. Earlier this year, gun-maker Remington reached a $73 million settlement with families of children killed at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. The families had said that Remington improperly marketed its assault rifles, including with its weapons appearing in “Call of Duty,” which the killer at Sandy Hook had frequently played.

A year after Sandy Hook, with the Super Bowl approaching, Daniel Defense deployed a new marketing stunt.

The NFL had a policy prohibiting ads for weapons on its telecasts. But Daniel Defense tried to buy a 60-second spot that depicted a soldier returning home to his family, with ominous music in the background. “I am responsible for their protection,” the ad’s narrator intones. “And no one has the right to tell me how to defend them.”

Given the NFL’s ban on gun ads, it was no surprise that the ad was rejected. (Daniel Defense said that the ad complied with the policy because the company sells products besides guns.) But Daniel turned the rejection into a rallying cry, and the conservative media lapped it up. Appearing on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends,” he urged viewers to “call the NFL and say, ‘C’mon, man, run my ad.’”

“That is Marty Daniel at work,” Powell said. “He’s not one of those typical CEOs that you see.”

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Daniel and his wife, Cindy, have worked hand in hand with the National Rifle Association to raise money for the group, sell weapons to its members and beat back calls for gun control.

In recent years, Marty Daniel and Cindy Daniel, the company’s chief operating officer, became outspoken supporters of Trump, contributing $300,000 to a group aligned with him. Daniel joined the Second Amendment Coalition, a group of gun industry heavyweights who advised Trump on gun policy.

Daniel told Breitbart News in 2017 that Trump’s election saved “our Second Amendment rights.” He and his wife have also donated to other Republican candidates and groups, including in their home state of Georgia. So far in the 2022 election cycle, they have given more than $70,000 to Republicans.

Before the Uvalde massacre, Daniel Defense’s guns were used in at least one other mass shooting. Four of its semi-automatic rifles were found in the hotel room of the gunman who killed 59 people at a Las Vegas music festival in 2017, one of the deadliest shootings in U.S. history.

Daniel has been an especially vocal critic of gun control. After the shooting at Parkland High School in Florida in 2018, he briefly expressed support for legislation, backed by the NRA, to bolster the federal background check system. But he soon reversed his position, citing “overwhelming feedback.” He declared that “all firearms laws that limit the rights of law-abiding citizens are unconstitutional.”

“You don’t see the same kind of boldness from the chief executives of Smith & Wesson or the old-guard gun companies,” said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the nonprofit Violence Policy Center. “Daniel is more at the edges.”

Daniel Defense is only a fraction of the size of those rivals. It manufactured nearly 53,000 guns in 2020, the most recent year for which government data is available, giving it a less than 1% share of the market.

But experts say it has led the way in building a direct-to-consumer sales business as gun manufacturers try to match the success of other industries in capitalizing on e-commerce.

In the past, gun companies would sell their products to stores, which then sold the weapons to customers.

Now, industry experts say, the manufacturers are increasingly trying to sell guns and accessories online, targeting consumers with slick ad campaigns. (Guns sold online have to be picked up at a licensed firearms dealer, who conducts a background check.)

Daniel Defense also offers a buy-now-pay-later financing option that allows qualified buyers to spread the price — some of its guns retail for more than $1,800 — over a number of payments. The approval takes seconds, the company’s website says.

“They’ve been a brand leader,” said Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University who studies the gun industry. “They’ve been exceptionally successful at selling the idea that civilians who’d like to own a firearm for self-protection need a high-capacity, semi-automatic weapon.”

Gun sales surged during the pandemic, including at Daniel Defense. The company also received help via a $3.1 million loan from the federal Payment Protection Program, which was intended for small businesses at risk of laying off employees.

The week before the Texas shooting, Daniel Defense posted a photograph on Facebook and Twitter, showing a little boy sitting cross-legged, an assault rifle balanced across his lap. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” the caption reads, echoing a biblical proverb. “When he is old, he will not depart from it.”

The ad was posted May 16. It was Ramos’ 18th birthday.

A day later, he bought his first gun, a Smith & Wesson assault-style rifle, from a store in Uvalde, according to state Sen. Roland Gutierrez of Texas, who cited law enforcement officials. The store has been identified as Oasis Outback. Three days later, he bought the Daniel Defense rifle for $1,870 plus tax, according to a photo of the receipt that Ramos reportedly posted on the social media platform Yubo.

Amid a national outcry after the shooting, Daniel Defense retreated from its usual provocative online presence. The company restricted access to its Twitter feed. It canceled plans to have a booth at this weekend’s NRA convention in Houston.

And Thursday, it removed the $15,000 guns-or-ammo sweepstakes from its homepage.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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