In July, the mobile car-hailing service Uber fired an Austin, Texas, driver after he discharged a handgun during an altercation with a passenger. It wasn’t the first time an Uber driver has engaged in gunplay; the company announced in June that it would ban both drivers and fares from carrying guns, but many drivers either claim ignorance of the policy or choose to carry for self-protection anyway. Meanwhile, Airbnb, the online lodging empire that rose from humble couch-surfing beginnings, has yet to offer an explicit policy on hosts or guests possessing weapons. As more Americans come together to exchange goods and services in the so-called “sharing economy,” where do guns, and people carrying guns, fit into the brave new landscape?
This question of armaments is an increasingly urgent one: The ad hoc labor and service markets are mushrooming, even as the availability and number of concealed carry permits grows nationwide. In August, Uber secured a new round of venture capital, bringing the company’s overall value to an estimated $51 billion. Airbnb snagged more private funding in June, raising its own net valuation to $25.5 billion. Along with other companies like TaskRabbit (the “Uber for everything” that pairs consumers with independent contractors who perform miscellaneous tasks), these businesses have spearheaded a novel, tech-fueled move toward intimate person-to-person transactions.
The lucrative allure of the sharing economy figures heavily in media narratives and 2016 campaign rhetoric alike. There’s a strongly libertarian feel to this way of doing business, and many Republicans embrace these firms as harbingers of a near future in which innovation can avoid the “friction” of government interference. Senator Rand Paul has invoked Uber and Airbnb as champions of a crowdsourced, bureaucracy-free techno-utopian future. “The crowd wants good service — you rate your Uber driver, your stay at a hotel,” he said. “As information becomes more widespread, maybe you need less and less government.” Senator Ted Cruz literally compares himself to Uber: “What I’m trying to do more than anything else is to bring a disruptive app to politics.” Jeb Bush, Senator Marco Rubio, and Republican anti-tax activist Grover Norquist have all praised Uber as a vehicle for cultivating anti-government sentiment and GOP support among young, urban voters.
Of course, “sharing economy” businesses also have plenty of fans among young, tech-savvy liberals and left-leaning Silicon Valley types. Even as she skewers some corporations for exploiting workers and sabotaging competition, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton praises the “so-called ‘gig economy'” for “creating exciting economies and unleashing innovation.” To pad its executive ranks, Uber has recruited prominent Democratic operatives like David Plouffe, as well as key former advisers of Michael Bloomberg and Rahm Emanuel. And what communitarian leftist wouldn’t be sympathetic toward “sharing” by companies who vow to “bring people and their cities closer?”
But as guns enter the picture, matters get more complicated. When you hail an Uber, you’re entering into a close-quarters space with a stranger. The language of “sharing,” with its connotations of hospitality and friendliness, obscures the risks of such an encounter. This is true for other on-demand services as well: Summoning a masseuse or plumber via TaskRabbit means inviting a stranger into your home (if you’re the client) or going somewhere you’ve never been (if you’re the contractor). TaskRabbit insures clients for bodily harm or other losses; it also charges a 5 percent “Trust and Safety Fee” to “ensure that TaskRabbit remains the safest marketplace in the world.” But while the company performs background checks on its “Taskers,” it doesn’t do so for its clients. TaskRabbit has not replied to multiple requests for clarification on any company policies governing whether its Taskers are allowed to be armed. The ambiguity opens up a veritable rabbit hole of questions. Can a private firm like Task Rabbit tenably prohibit contractors who are licensed to carry concealed weapons, or who are legally allowed to open carry, from doing so while working on jobs or while traveling between them? How far do a Tasker’s self-defense rights extend when they enter the homes of third-parties, particularly in states where a homeowner’s Castle Doctrine rights might directly collide with a Tasker’s rights under “Stand Your Ground” laws? And what would Task Rabbit’s liability be in the event of a hypothetical violent encounter between an armed homeowner and an armed contractor?
Even when sharing economy companies do have policies about weapons, there’s also the issue that many workers can and do choose to disregard them — often for understandable reasons. Women drivers for Uber and its competitor, Lyft, can face problems from aggressive clients, and it’s understandable for on-demand drivers working in neighborhoods that traditional cabs avoid to want some kind of self-protection — like, say, a firearm. As one driver told The Trace: “I carry because I would much rather lose the ability to work with Uber than be robbed, physically assaulted, or need to defend myself and be unable to.”
Viewed this way, there’s a clear conflict between libertarians’ support for a de-regulated “sharing economy” tailored to consumer whims and corporate interests, on one hand, and their support of individual self-defense and Second Amendment freedoms on the other. Uber responded swiftly to its ridership’s demand to sit in gun-free cars, but should consumer impulses and company policies trump their drivers’ rights to self-protection? Liberals aren’t off the hook here either: beyond criticizing the pay and labor practices of firms like Uber, how much do even well-intentioned consumers contemplate the concrete safety issues faced by the people who serve them?
So far, the sharing economy’s biggest ideological cheerleaders have yet to acknowledge the disconnects. In his book, American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone, Senator Rubio describes a Dead-Poets-Society-esque moment in which he teaches a class of students at Florida International University to embrace libertarianism with the example of Uber — which at the time was barred from operating around the college’s Miami campus. “As my progressive young students listened to me explain why government was preventing them from using their cell phones to get home from the bars on Saturday night, I could see their minds change,” he writes. “They went from fervently believing that big government is necessary to protect the little guy to realizing that big government is often used to stick it to the little guy.”
How does Rubio, who co-sponsored “Stand Your Ground” legislation in Florida and who has also championed gun ownership for personal defense, square this throaty tribute to the “little guy” with his silence this summer when Uber fired a Florida driver — a former cop and licensed concealed carrier — who discharged a gun while allegedly preventing a fare from choking him? Unfortunately, the Rubio Campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this issue. And so the questions of who “the little guy” is in the sharing economy, and who deserves protection from whom in it, remain murky at best.
After a recent campaign event praising Uber, Jeb Bush visited another sharing economy company (taking an Uber car there, naturally). The company, Thumbtack, matches consumers with “experienced professionals” to complete various projects. The professionals whose services are offered include dogsitters, CNC millers, boudoir photographers … and bodyguards. “Close-quarters protection” and “weapons training” are options the customer can select. According to a Thumbtack representative, in states where laws permit it, and provided that they’ve passed a background check, those bodyguards can be armed.
[Photo: Flickr user Alien Gear Holsters]