Just 10 days after a 6-year-old shot his teacher during class, a gun trade show will feature a JR-15 .22-caliber long rifle meant for kids.
“The JR-15 is the first in a line of shooting platforms that will assist families in safely passing on the proud American tradition of responsible gun ownership to the next generation of recreational shooting and hunting enthusiasts,” the rifle’s description on the trade show’s website reads.
Student protesters, including at least one who is the survivor of a school shooting, are demonstrating Tuesday outside the National Shooting Sports Foundation and its annual trade show — called the SHOT Show in Las Vegas. Inside, gun manufacturers are promoting guns that are specifically marketed toward children, including the JR-15 and a building blocks sniper toy.
“The gun industry already markets so many of its products to children, but making an AR-15 for kids is a disgusting new low,” said Sari Kaufman, a volunteer with Students Demand Action, which is part of Everytown for Gun Safety. “Instead of seeing young people as an opportunity to boost sales and arm more people with weapons designed for mass violence, the gun industry should be working to make their products safer.”
Kaufman, Ade Osadolor-Hernandez, and Peren Tiemann are three of the young protesters from across the country from Students Demand Action, a gun control organization, who’ve gathered to protest the SHOT Show. The gun trade show has over 2,000 exhibits for sports, hunting, outdoor, and law enforcement industries.
The student protesters told BuzzFeed News that gun violence consumes their thoughts any time they go out in public.
“I really am just afraid to walk at night, to go to class, and obviously with the school violence epidemic and school shootings, I was even scared to participate in class,” said Osadolor-Hernandez, a 21-year-old student at the University of Chicago and board member of Students Demand Action. “I was always looking for the nearest exit.”
Before thousands of gun enthusiasts made their way into the Venetian Expo and Caesars Forum on Tuesday, they were met with billboards with Students Demand Action's message: “Guns are the #1 killer of kids and teens in America.”
“We want to bring attention to the fact that while they’re partying, kids are dying,” said Tiemann, an 18-year-old first-year student at Miami University. “They won’t be able to ignore us any longer.”
The American Public Health Association calls gun violence a public health crisis and it is a leading cause of premature death in the country, responsible for more than 38,000 deaths annually. Less than three weeks into the new year and at least 1,954 people have died from gun violence so far in 2023, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive. More than 44,000 people died from gun violence in 2022. Gun violence is also now the leading cause of death for American children. According to a BuzzFeed News analysis, at least 117 children and teachers have died going to school, attending class, or walking home since the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.
That kind of violence has led to a “lockdown generation,” as Tiemann called it, forcing students to participate in several drills at school per year to practice how they will respond if there is a mass shooting.
For Kaufman, a 20-year-old sophomore at Yale, it’s not something she has to imagine. She was a sophomore at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland when a shooter opened fire and killed 17 people and injured 17 more.
“I think about it every day,” she said. “Going through a tragedy and trauma like that at 15 years old right when you’re developing into an adult, it impacts you every day in various ways. … There’s constant reminders because gun violence goes unchecked and it continues to happen.”
Kaufman called each new mass shooting a “sad cycle,” where virtually nothing changes and gun manufacturers continue to profit.
“It’s upsetting that at 20 years old I’ve been through a mass shooting and now I’m having to call out lawmakers and an industry because adults aren’t doing their jobs,” she said.
Tiemann said they are fighting for gun control because of suicide rates, particularly when statistics show nearly half of young queer people in the US have considered dying by suicide. In 2022, more than 24,000 people in the US died by suicide with a gun, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
“As the gun industry keeps marketing to LGBTQ+ youth, that drives an extreme issue for our community and perpetuates the cycle of hate and violence against ourselves,” Tiemann said.
The gun industry has been accused of marketing toward young people, according to some recent lawsuits. Victims of the 4th of July parade shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, have sued the gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson for allegedly targeting young men seeking "more adrenaline."
And most recently, the mother of a 10-year-old victim of the Uvalde school shooting sued gun manufacturer Daniel Defense for using "militaristic imagery" to suggest that customers use the weapons to engage in combat missions.
“We need to address both mental health and gun violence at the root of the problems,” Tiemann said. “People who have mental health issues that cannot be remedied at that time should not be able to access a gun if they’re in danger of hurting themselves or someone else and we need to be able to ensure that the gun industry is held accountable and they’re not marketing to people who are at high risk.”
Osadolor-Hernandez said the onus is on lawmakers to enact change by passing safer gun laws and ensuring Americans are safer.
“Blood is on their hands,” Tiemann said. “They’re sitting by while we are dying.”