Eight days before a Texas teenager killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School, the manufacturer of the rifle used in the massacre posted an ad on social media that featured a toddler holding a similar weapon.
“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” read the post from Daniel Defense on May 16, the same day the Robb Elementary shooter turned 18.
The ad represented the kind of provocative marketing that has helped the Georgia-based gun company become one the largest privately owned firearms manufacturers in the country.
“In an industry with 500 companies all making the same products, you have to get ahead somehow,” said Ryan Busse, a former firearms executive and author of the book “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that Radicalized America.”
Busse said the “incendiary marketing” pushed by Daniel Defense founder Marty Daniel has long broken norms in the industry.
“This is how he has grown his business by being on the edge and wrapping this holy roller thing around it,” added Busse, who is a senior adviser for the gun violence prevention group Giffords.
The company, which declined interview requests, is now on the defensive in the wake of Tuesday’s mass shooting in the tiny town of Uvalde. Daniel Defense pulled out of an NRA convention taking place this weekend in Houston. It also locked its Twitter page amid growing outrage.
But in a cruel irony for gun control advocates, the rampage at Robb Elementary School is likely to increase gun sales for Daniel Defense and other manufacturers, experts say.
Daniel himself acknowledged the effect of high-profile shootings on his business five years after 20 kids and six teachers were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
“The mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 drove a lot of sales,” Daniel said in a 2017 interview with Forbes. “That was a horrible event and we don’t use those kinds of terrible things to drive sales, but when people see politicians start talking about gun control, they have this fear and they go out and buy guns.”
In the same interview, Daniel dismissed a question about his position on “common-sense gun control proposals” like closing the gun-show loophole.
“Terms like ‘common sense’ come from people whose only goal is to take our guns away,” Daniel said.
This is not the first time the company’s weapons have been used in a mass shooting.
In the worst such case in modern US history, in 2017 a gunman in Las Vegas perched in his hotel suite opened fire on an outdoor music festival and killed 58 people; nearly 500 others were wounded. Among the arsenal discovered in his hotel room were four semi-automatic rifles manufactured by Daniel Defense.
“Our deepest thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families of the Las Vegas incident,” the company said in a statement posted to its Facebook page after the shooting.
Daniel Defense posted a similar statement on his website after the Robb Elementary shooting.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic events in Texas this week,” it said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and community devastated by this evil act.”
A Daniel Defense spokesman told NBC News that the company has decided to skip the NRA event in Houston “due to the horrifying tragedy in Uvalde, Texas where one of our products was criminally misused.”
“We believe this week is not the appropriate time to be promoting our products in Texas at the NRA meeting,” he added.
The weapon used by the Texas shooter was a DDM4 V7 rifle, which sells for upward of $1,870. A Daniel Defense promotional video hails it as “a perfect rifle for everybody.”
Daniel Defense makes some of the priciest semi-automatic rifles on the market, charging upwards of $3,000 for versions of weapons that can be bought elsewhere for less than a quarter of the price.
In 2016, Daniel Defense brought in $73 million in sales, Marty Daniel told Forbes.
The company also makes firearms for US special forces and the British military, according to its founder.
Daniel, who twice flunked out of Georgia Southern University before finally graduating years later, launched a garage door company out of college. According to him, Daniel Defense would likely not exist were it not for his terrible golf game.
“Daniel Defense got its start because Marty’s golf game sucked,” the company’s website says.
“He would spend most of his free time unwinding on the golf course, until the day a friend invited him to shoot his AR. That invitation proved to be a golden opportunity, as Marty had been looking for a recreational outlet to deal with the stress of being a business owner and had a strong desire to work in a field he was truly passionate about. I have found a path to fulfilling both of these goals that day at the range. Every shot he fired filled him with a satisfaction he’d never before experienced.”
Daniel Defense manufactured its first firearm in 2009. Over the next several years, Daniel’s notoriety grew along with his company’s.
Two days before the 2016 presidential election, he was named to Donald Trump Jr.’s “Second Amendment coalition.” Trump Jr. was photographed with Daniel and his wife two years later at an industry trade show in Las Vegas.
In a 2017 interview with Breitbart News — the right-wing news site long overseen by former White House adviser Steve Bannon — Daniel said he believes the right to bear arms is granted by God.
“We are in business, we believe, to be a supporter of the Gospel,” Daniel said. “And, therefore, a supporter of the Second Amendment. In other words, not only do we have those Second Amendment rights because God gives them to us, but also the Gospel.”
The company sought to make a huge splash in 2014 with its first Super Bowl ad — a spot featuring a fictional Marine vet with his wife and baby — but it was denied due to league rules.
Since then, the gun-maker has filled its social media pages with ads featuring Bible verses and heroic images of heavily armed men and women.
One post shows what appears to be a soldier in a war zone shooting an assault-style rifle.
“Use what they use,” it reads.
Busse, the former firearm executive, said the industry largely shunned marketing campaigns like these 15 years ago, but now it’s not unusual to see ads focused on AR-15s and gear like bulletproof vests, which he said are often cloaked with political and religious messaging —and sometimes feature scantily clad women.
“I look at it and think how can you be surprised that 19-year-old kids are attracted to this,” Busse said.
On Tuesday, the company posted a photo on its Twitter page showing a DDM4 V7 rifle and an assortment of Daniel Defense gear.
Hours later, the Robb Elementary shooter showed up at the school with the same gun, and began firing at children and teachers.