Social Media & The Second Amendment

Gun ownership in America has long been a hot-button issue about which much has been written and debated. “The controversy is not likely to lessen any time soon, particularly as the 2012 presidential election approaches,” said Dr. Connie Hassett-Walker, assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice.

Focusing on the advance of electronic social media, Hassett-Walker and the department’s graduate assistant, Sadia Mohamed, are now adding another layer of exploration to the ongoing debate. The research team is seeking to determine how those on both sides of the issue – gun owners and gun activists – are using these new channels of communication.

There was been scant research on the use of social media with regards to The Second Amendment debate. - Dr. Connie Hassett-Walker

The researchers presented their study, Bumpfiring on YouTube, as part of the Civilian Gun Ownership: Legal and Illegal Outcomes panel, at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology (ASC), held in November in Washington, D.C. Among those in attendance were criminal justice scholars, funding agents, practitioners and staff from government agencies.

Their research focused on a content analysis of YouTube videos uploaded by gun owners and anti-gun activists. As Hassett-Walker explained, state gun laws range from strict, such as those in New Jersey and New York, to lenient, as is the case in Florida. Despite the differences in restrictions, social networking sites such as YouTube facilitate information sharing between firearm enthusiasts. The study hypothesized that gun owners use social media to legally share information, such as instructions on how to bumpfire – a technique for making a semi-automatic weapon perform like an automatic weapon through alternative finger and hand movements. “Advances in technology and electronic communication may legally circumvent gun control laws, rendering them less effective,” she said.

According to Hassett-Walker, their study showed that there is some evidence to suggest that videos depicting legally questionable content originate from less strict gun law states. For instance, Florida had virtually no anti-gun videos. By comparison, New York had videos showcasing law enforcement anti-firearm actions, including gun shows investigations.

“We also discovered that gun owners love to make videos of themselves and their friends shooting and blowing things up, such as targets, fake rubber animals and kitchen sinks,” said Hassett-Walker, adding that other finds included “Hey, look what I can make this weapon do” videos; advertisements, such as those for gun shops and tactical firearms academies; informational, neutral-toned videos on both gun control and how to legally carry a concealed firearm; and videos of politicians discussing gun-related legislation.

“With regards to our question of whether YouTube videos provide legal loopholes around anti-weapon legislation, we did not find much evidence of this,” Hassett-Walker said. “However, we found a variety of video complaints from law-abiding, citizen gun owners in various states regarding their state’s gun laws, such as the proposed California ban on online ammunition purchases.”

The researchers are now in the process of examining the use of other forms of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, by both gun owners and anti-gun activists.

Hassett-Walker said that she hopes that other researchers realize that they too can tap into the many new forms of electronic communication as an alternative and potentially rich data source. “Social scientists are very familiar with the standard research methods and data sources like surveys, interviews, focus groups and the like,” she said. “Social media such as YouTube present a whole new set of opportunities and challenges for researchers, and I look forward to seeing scholarship published that takes advantage of these.”