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Guns on the Internet: Online Gun Communities, First Amendment Protections, and the Search for Common Ground on Gun Control, 1st Edition

By Connie Hassett-Walker
New York: Routledge. 2018. pp. 144.

Guns on the Internet starts with a description of the tragic events that took place recently in Las Vegas, Nevada, where a shooter armed with many firearms shot hundreds of people (p. 1). Dozens were killed and many more wounded before the man turned the gun on himself. By presenting this case, Hassett-Walker draws a link to this shooter’s bump-stock device, which allowed him to fire bullets rapidly, to loopholes in the law that make these modifications legal to purchase and own. Even if they had been illegal, however, she explains that it would not have prevented such a tragedy. Through her exploration, she located videos uploaded and shared through the Internet that allow gun owners to learn how to fire rapidly without a modification device. These first few pages set the tone for the remainder of the book, as Hassett-Walker draws on real events, previous literature, and methods of observation, interaction, and digital cultural analysis to present a wide array of insights into online gun subcultures and communities. Although the author notes that omissions are inevitable and her work represents only a limited sample of the topic, her presentation of statistics, contextual factors, and her own research provide a more holistic account of ‘guns on the Internet.’

The central question explored throughout the book is how gun owners make use of the Internet and social media—in other words, how gun culture operates online (p. 3). Hassett-Walker is clear that the purpose of this work is not to argue for or against guns, but rather to find common ground between the opposed gun control and gun rights groups through the lens of the Internet. In doing this, she attempts to gain insight into the real and significant effects of online factors on laws and policies. As a reader who needs not look very far to see the harmful effects of guns, both in my home country of Canada and nearby in the United States, I wondered why the author did not, at least in-part, condemn guns. The book anticipated my wonderment and addressed it by explaining that practically speaking, guns in the U.S. are not going anywhere in the author’s view (p. 3). Although this view appears pragmatic and realistic, such a view is limiting in addressing the broader question of whether guns really should be here to stay. This said, Hassett-Walker makes it clear that such topics are not relevant to the objectives of this book, and for this reason, the omission should not be considered a limitation.

The book is divided into three parts. In Part I (includes Chapters 1 to 5) titled, The Tour: Guns, the Internet and Social Media, Hassett-Walker gives us an overview of online gun communities and considers how concepts of homophily, sharing, signalling, and reinforcing views operate online. Additionally, the unique positions of politicians, lobbyists, and women, respectively, are discussed. In Part II (includes Chapters 6 to 8), First Amendment Protections for Gun-Related Online Content-Balancing the Right to Free Speech with the Need for Public Safety, there is more engagement with controversial issues of free speech and the potential for the Internet to undermine gun control laws. In Part III (includes Chapter 9) titled, Finding Common Ground?, the book questions whether social media and the Internet have brought both sides closer to a common ground.

Following the introduction, Chapter 2 discusses the themes mentioned above of sharing, signalling, and reinforcing views regarding the results of the Pew Research Center’s online survey investigating if and how gun owners use the Internet and social media. This chapter also presents the results of the author’s online survey relative to the broader findings. Chapter 3 continues the discussion of gun owners online by presenting the insights gained from Hassett-Walker’s cyber ethnography on Facebook. Using a moniker, she observes and interacts with other pro-gun Facebook profiles to analyze and present her findings. The varied use of digital analyses is useful in understanding the overall trends of gun subcultures online.

Chapter 4 conclusively demonstrates that even the mention of guns or lack thereof, by a politician online can have significant consequences. These technologies shape the ways that politicians and lobbyists engage with issues. In this chapter, the online presence (Facebook, Twitter, and blogs) of both leading gun rights and gun control groups are presented. Additionally, the use of Twitter by Presidential Candidates after the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina Church shooting is discussed.

Chapter 5 presents a critical examination of women in gun culture. Although women are increasingly mentioned and targeted by pro-gun groups, their inclusion is still about and for men. Hassett-Walker reviews tweets from the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) and NRA Family’s twitter accounts that mentioned females over six months to gain greater insight into gun rights’ discourses on women (p. 75). The picture of a feminine woman who needs protection reinforces gendered stereotypes of women as inherently weak. Marketing strategies visibly lack any space for women’s empowerment or anger towards sexism in conservative frameworks (p. 70). Hassett-Walker poignantly recognizes that threats to women are portrayed as being external or outside the home when, in reality, we know that the majority of these dangers are domestic (p. 71).

In a notable shift from the first part of the book, Chapters 6, 7, and 8 draw our attention to how gun owners have legally exposed loopholes in gun laws through the Internet and whether this type of online speech is deserving of protection under the First Amendment to the United States’ Constitution. Chapter 6 sets the stage for such a discussion by reviewing relevant U.S. Supreme Court decisions both before and after the creation of the Internet. Following this synthesis, Hassett-Walker questions whether someone who posts a video showing how to make a firearm noise suppressor, for example, should be arrested or if they can invoke free speech protections (p. 97). Criteria for free speech protections emerge from these cases, which are discussed further in Chapter 7. This chapter focuses on social media sites, including YouTube, as platforms for sharing controversial gun-related content. Again, the author presents and utilizes her own exploration online to inform readers. Chapter 8 discusses the purchase of firearms online and highlights the nuanced legal questions that prospective buyers have in the context of changing laws and differing state laws.

The first limitation of this book is that it revolves more around gaining insight into gun rights perspectives, rather than both gun rights and gun control perspectives. Considering a subtitle that explicitly mentions “a search for common ground on gun control,” a more in-depth discussion of gun control advocates, and who should be equal participants in any common ground, would seem to have been useful and more fitting. This said, it does appear that gun rights groups, particularly the NRA, and gun owners have a more substantial presence online, which may explain why the book puts a greater focus on understanding the gun rights’ perspective.

The second limitation of this book is the lack of in-depth discussion on the particularly controversial issue of free speech about the criterion of “advocacy of violence or crime” (p. 110). There are only brief considerations for this issue in Chapter 6 (pp. 96-96) and Chapter 7 (pp. 110-111). How does each respective side (gun control vs. gun rights) define ‘advocating violence,’ and what are the implications of these definitions on searching for common ground? For gun-control advocates, violence is the problem. In order to fully consider their perspectives, a more extensive discussion is required.

Hassett-Walker ends Chapter 9 with an anecdote that serves as a reminder of how our personal experiences shape our interests and allow us to gain greater insight into social phenomena and ourselves through reflexivity. When her husband, who had been a legal gun-owner, mentioned wanting to get guns, she went through feelings of dread, trepidation, and finally acceptance over the idea of having guns in her home. Being part of a gun-owning household challenged her “guns are evil mindset” (p. 136). Before becoming a Criminal Justice Professor, Hassett-Walker worked as a researcher for the Violence Institute of New Jersey, so she has seen and studied the effects of gun violence (pp. 3-4). In listening and being open-minded, though, she was able to increase her understanding and bridge the divide.

This book acknowledges that guns are a profoundly political issue in the United States and that each side likely has emotional ties. The author hopes that the Internet will help approach a shared understanding. Unfortunately, it seems that the web and social media have not yet brought either side closer to a common ground. However, in sharing her insights and experiences, she hopes that others will be moved to listen and talk with, rather than past, their opponents. This book leaves readers with a challenge to watch 100 YouTube videos that express views contrasting with their own, not for changing minds but to increase empathy and perhaps increase understanding (p. 131).

Hassett-Walker’s Guns on the Internet presents a valuable description and analysis of gun subculture online; moreover, the book draws our attention to the importance of human connection and communication. Although the issue of guns in the United States is broad, the Internet and its evolution are essential considerations in any social, political, and legal discourse on guns.

DANIKA DECARLO-SLOBODNIK
GRADUATE STUDENT, CRIMINOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF OTTAWA

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