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Daniel Defense, the maker of the gun used in Uvalde, is accused of marketing to teens

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The firearms industry is under fresh scrutiny following the latest string of mass shootings. That includes Daniel Defense, a Georgia-based gun manufacturer. It made the AR-15-style rifle used to kill 21 people in Uvalde. As WABE's Sam Gringlas reports, Daniel Defense is known for aggressive marketing and its founder's prolific political contributions.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: This is probably the most well-known Daniel Defense ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: My family's safety is my highest priority.

GRINGLAS: A father arrives home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I am responsible for their protection.

GRINGLAS: He kisses his wife. A baby coos in a crib.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And no one has the right to tell me how to defend them. So I've chosen the most effective tool for the job.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Daniel Defense - defending your nation, defending your home.

GRINGLAS: Several hundred manufacturers now produce AR-15-style rifles. Companies like Daniel Defense push the envelope to stand out. Daniel Defense is all over Instagram. Since the Uvalde shooting, the company has been accused of marketing towards teens. During the pandemic, sales surged, and the owners funneled some of those profits into political contributions.

TIMOTHY LYTTON: The bulk of financial muscle, politically, has traditionally come from the NRA in this space.

GRINGLAS: That's Timothy Lytton, a law professor at Georgia State University. He says the NRA's dominance has been disrupted by mismanagement and corruption.

LYTTON: Some of that slack is being picked up by the firearms industry. They are probably flush with cash because there's been a dramatic rise in firearms sales during the pandemic.

GRINGLAS: CEO Marty Daniel and his wife, Cindy, have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates, including Herschel Walker, who's running for U.S. Senate from Georgia.

UCLA professor Adam Winkler is an expert on money in politics and gun policy.

ADAM WINKLER: It's certainly the case that our campaign finance system has created an environment in which wealthy people can really overwhelm elected officials with campaign contributions.

GRINGLAS: But Winkler says the gun industry's contributions aren't that different from, say, pharmaceuticals or oil and gas.

WINKLER: If we want to understand why gun politics are stalemated, it's too simple to look at campaign contributions. It's that fear of losing voters in the next primary election.

GRINGLAS: Republican Rick Jasperse is a state rep from the foothills of north Georgia. He's got a small farm where the wild blackberries are almost ripe.

RICK JASPERSE: This is my front porch. I see the original beginning of the Appalachian Trail.

GRINGLAS: Jasperse first ran for office in 2010. People worried President Obama would pass new gun restrictions, and Jasperse remembers that coming up while he campaigned.

JASPERSE: One gentleman kind of sat right in the middle of the room. But he just comes out and says, Rick Jasperse, where are you at on the Second Amendment? And I found very quickly, Sam, that wherever I went, that was the No. 1 question.

GRINGLAS: The U.S. congressman here, Republican Andrew Clyde, has an AR-15-style rifle on his 2022 campaign signs. Those weapons and their gear have become an increasingly important profit source for the firearms industry, says former exec Ryan Busse.

RYAN BUSSE: Bulletproof vest, gloves, boots - I mean, everything to live the tactical lifestyle and glamorize the garb and weapons of war.

GRINGLAS: That new emphasis is apparent in marketing by companies like Daniel Defense.

BUSSE: Faux machismo patriotism, must own an AR-15 to be a good American - that - you know, fortunes have been made and companies have been built on that.

GRINGLAS: Busse, now an adviser to the gun control group Giffords, believes that kind of marketing is more potent than campaign contributions in shaping gun politics in America.

BUSSE: The incendiary, fear-based political message is perfectly aligned with what has become the right, kind of radical part of firearm sales and what that has become in our culture.

GRINGLAS: Daniel Defense did not respond to a request for comment. A statement on their website after the Uvalde shooting offered thoughts and prayers to the families, quote, "devastated by this evil act." On Friday, a school clerk who was inside Robb Elementary initiated court proceedings against Daniel Defense. Lawyers want information on its lobbying, sales and marketing of AR-15-style rifles - likely the beginning of a long-shot bid to hold Daniel Defense liable in the massacre.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Gringlas in Atlanta.

RASCOE: And the parents of a child killed in the attack in Uvalde have also now taken the first steps towards suing Daniel Defense. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.