Top Democrats are going after the maker of an assault-style rifle designed for children, saying the company might be illegally marketing to youngsters and helping to propagate a “culture of chaos” that values profits over lives.
New scrutiny of the JR-15 — a smaller and lighter version of the notorious AR-15, which is itself a civilian version of a military machinegun — comes as the US reels from yet another string of mass shootings, including three in California this week.
Democratic senators on Thursday held a news conference to say that Chicago-based Wee1 Tactical, maker of the JR-15, may be breaking rules that prevent the marketing of firearms to children.
“The last thing we need to be doing is reducing in size these deadly weapons of war and then marketing them to children,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
“We must stop the raining of bullets across the nation and stop this horrible marketing campaign — not only so it stops, but so that others don't do it.”
In a statement, Wee1 told The National that the JR-15 is a “youth training rifle” for “adults who wish to supervise the safe introduction of hunting and shooting sports to the next generation of responsible gun owners”.
The company said its guns had a patented safety lock that “provides an added level of safety available on no other rifle in production”.
Wee1's website shows an image of what appears to be a child taking aim with a JR-15 while an adult assists. The gun maker says in a flyer that a special safety mechanism “puts the adult in control”.
The gun is a .22-calibre semi-automatic rifle that is light in weight and “geared towards smaller enthusiasts” or a “younger enthusiast”, the company says.
“This JR-15 is marketed as a kid-friendly version of the weapon of choice used in so many mass shootings,” Senator Ed Markey said.
Senator Alex Padilla, whose home state of California this week was the scene of mass shootings in Monterey Park near Los Angeles, Half Moon Bay near San Francisco and Oakland, said gun makers are “shamelessly pushing these weapons of war on our children”.
“They are propagating a culture of chaos and fear where Americans lives are worth less than the profits they can make from a JR-15,” Mr Padilla said.
In America, federal law prevents anyone under the age of 18 from buying guns. State laws vary, but in many cases parents are free to buy weapons for their children, as long as the guns are secured properly.
In a country with more guns than people, children frequently get their hands on sloppily stored firearms, often with devastating consequences.
This month, a six-year-old first grader shot and seriously wounded a schoolteacher, and reports of children as young as three or four accidentally shooting a parent or sibling are common.
Senator Richard Blumenthal said gun makers often market to children in the same way tobacco companies once did through, for example, the cigarette-puffing Joe Camel advertising mascot.
“The firearms industry has taken a page from Big Tobacco's book. In fact, they've taken the whole book, marketing to kids — that's where the money is,” Mr Blumenthal said.
Senators said they had asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Wee1 Tactical was breaking any “laws and regulations”.
Democrats have been trying to tighten America's notoriously lax gun laws for decades as firearm ownership and deaths have soared.
Republicans have, for the most part, blocked any meaningful reform, saying new measures would infringe on the US Constitution's Second Amendment, which grants people the right to bear arms.
Still, Congress did pass some new gun control laws last year following back-to-back mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, in which more than 30 people, including 19 children, were killed.