Screengrabs: Wee1 Tactical via Wayback Machine, Violence Poverty Center
The manufacturers behind the JR-15 rifle sold by the Wee1 Tactical firearm company—which, as both names suggest, is indeed a rifle for tykes—are back with new branding after their cartoonish logos and kid-oriented marketing outraged the public last year.The Illinois-based company’s initial branding featured two gendered skulls: a “boy” one with a yellow mohawk style haircut and a “girl” one with yellow pigtails, both wearing pacifiers and a crosshair patch over one eye. The child skulls flanked the words “Wee1 Tactical,” written in a typeface that would be more at home on an off-brand box of racecar toys than on a lethal weapon.
When news of the JR-15 and its creepy branding first came to light after its unveiling at the 2022 SHOT Show in Las Vegas, the outcry was swift and severe. Lawmakers in both the U.S. Congress and in California moved to restrict guns being advertised to children to varying degrees of success, with the latter passing a fairly sweeping law banning the advertising of firearms to children.Naturally, the pro-gun right had a different take, with lobbyists unsuccessfully trying to get the California law overturned and Republican Marjorie Taylor-Greene suggesting that if the kids who were under fire during a mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas had had JR-15s “they could have defended themselves.”The JR-15 is a .22 caliber rifle—.22s are most commonly used for hunting small game or marksmanship, but the JR-15 has a distinctly military and tactical look similar to an AR-15, a rifle that has been used in countless mass shootings. The Wee1 Tactical website's FAQ notes that .22 bolt-action rifles for youth have long been available, but says that the JR-15 "has a blow-back semi-automatic action." The company advertises safety features such as a safety switch that it claims requires "strength and dexterity" to release.
While public debate about the dystopian concept of guns for kids roiled, the company that started it all went radio silent—until this month, when it came back with cleaner and more “adult” branding and messaging.A new pamphlet for the JR-15, which Wee1 Tactical told Motherboard will also be at this year's SHOT Show, is indeed significantly less cartoonish and does away with the child skulls and kid-friendly fonts. Nevertheless, the newer graphics still reinforce that the youth-oriented firearm “functions like a modern sporting rifle” while boasting a “small size, lightweight rugged polymer construction” and “ergonomics [that] are geared towards smaller enthusiasts,” the Wee1 website states. In an interview with Motherboard, Josh Sugarmann, the founder and executive director of the Violence Policy Center, said that although his group is unaware of the exact reason why Wee1 ditched its cartoon-y branding, it seems likely that it was in response to the outcry and California’s ban on advertising guns to kids. “Most people found that, obviously, repulsive and grotesque,” Sugarmann told Motherboard. After saying “the quiet part out loud” with its past marketing—that Wee1 was and is “directly targeting kids for gun sales” despite their inability to legally purchase firearms themselves, Sugarmann said—the company seemed to have learned their lesson, but that hasn’t stopped them from regrouping after the dust had settled. The language of the new marketing, as evidenced by the updated Wee1 Tactical website that only a few months ago was little more than a landing page for an email update signup form, appears to toe the line of California’s new gun advertising law that ultimately “undercuts [the company’s] mission” of selling guns to kids, Sugarmann said. Indeed, when traveling to the Wee1 site today, visitors are prompted to verify that they’re at least 18 years of age, though of course, those kinds of self-affirmed age checks are incredibly easy for underage people to bypass by lying. In an emailed response to Motherboard's questions about the branding change, a Wee1 spokesperson said that following feedback from “enthusiastic” retailers, the company decided to make it “clearer in our marketing materials that our product is a training rifle designed with the safety and functionality to assist adults wishing to supervise the introduction of hunting and shooting sports to the next generation of responsible gun owners.”Though the statement did not respond directly to Motherboard's questions about California’s ban on advertising guns to kids, the company spokesperson did note that Wee1 “will [be] taking orders for the rifle” later in 2023.