In 2014, Kendall Jones went viral. The then-19-year-old Texas Tech cheerleader became perhaps the “most eminently hateable person on the Internet,” as The Washington Post put it, for posing with the dead bodies of zebras, rhinos, elephants, and lions, among other big-game animals, for pictures posted to her public Facebook page. The collective antipathy toward Jones made her a minor celebrity — and gave her the notoriety that helped kick off her social media influencing career.
Jones, whose Instagram account has nearly 260,000 followers, has influencing and brand ambassador agreements with companies from the hunting and weapons industries, Media Matters reported in August, including Guns.com. She’s part of a sprawling network of influencers that have built large audiences specifically interested in firearms and gun culture — and, The Trace’s Champe Barton reported this week, helped the gun industry reach younger, more impressionable audiences while dodging social media platform policies that ban firearm sales and marketing on their platforms.
Gun influencers like Jones and others live in a gray area. Although some appear to periodically disregard Federal Trade Commission rules about paid marketing disclosures, they’re technically not doing anything wrong by running subtle campaigns. Their work keeping the gun industry top-of-mind, though, can show up in more than just dollars.
Take Garand Thumb, a verified YouTube account with more than 3 million subscribers. Garand Thumb was named in a New York Attorney General report on the racist mass shooting at a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo last year. The office found that the shooter’s “knowledge of weapons and related equipment” came, in part, from “instructional YouTube videos like those of Garand Thumb.” The account was named elsewhere, too: The Buffalo shooter mentioned Garand Thumb in the manifesto he wrote before the massacre.
In May, a report from the Tech Transparency Project, a Big Tech watchdog organization, revealed that YouTube’s algorithm created a troubling rabbit hole for boys interested in video games: The platform sent them recommendations for videos about guns and school shootings, including from Garand Thumb and other widely followed gun-focused channels. One of those videos — which had over 3 million views and came from a channel with over 200,000 followers — featured a young girl holding and firing a Sig Sauer pistol, and appeared to be an undisclosed paid promotion.
Social media influencers, attorney Joshua Koskoff told Barton, offer lower-risk, higher-reward spaces for the gun industry to promote their wares, compared with TV commercials and billboards. They occupy a niche space that’s unlikely to generate widespread controversy. In short, as gun safe marketer Kyle Clouse put it in 2019, for the gun industry, influencers are “the goose laying the golden egg.”
From Our Team
A roundup of this week’s stories from The Trace.
No federal law prohibits firearm manufacturers from advertising their products. But you’re unlikely to ever see an ad for a gun on a billboard, on national TV, or on social media apps.
The office’s potential will depend upon how much authority it’s given.
Cherelle Parker and David Oh have agreed to one debate, but community leaders worry they won’t get details on the candidates’ proposals to address gun violence.
What to Know This Week
Eugene Stoner had no formal training in firearms design when, inside a California garage during the beginning of the Cold War, he came up with the idea for a rifle that he envisioned would help the U.S. military protect the country he loved. He didn’t know that his invention, the AR-15, would change American history. [The Atlantic]
The Chicago City Council confirmed Mayor Brandon Johnson’s pick for police superintendent, Larry Snelling, a man hailed as a “son of Englewood” and the antithesis of his unpopular predecessor. Now in the hot seat, Snelling faces a city demanding solutions to an alarming surge in armed robberies. [Chicago Sun-Times/Block Club Chicago]
California Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation that will double the taxes on guns and ammunition and siphon that money to violence intervention programs, school safety upgrades, and efforts to enforce the state’s extreme risk protection order law. [CalMatters]
How long does it take to heal from a mass shooting? For residents of Roseburg, Oregon, where a mass shooter killed nine people at Umpqua Community College in 2015, eight years hasn’t proved long enough. [CNN]
Police in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., have yet to solve the 2007 shooting of a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now, after the death of another vocal Kremlin critic in the District, the victim wants to change the way alleged international violence is investigated. [Politico]
Fear of gun violence contributed to a massive growth in home-schooling after the onset of the pandemic, according to a new poll; 62 percent of home-school parents said that concern about on-campus shootings affected their choice. [The Washington Post]
Donald Trump made waves this week when his campaign briefly released a video showing the former president making an offhand comment about buying a handgun. Because Trump is under criminal indictment, he’s barred from purchasing firearms — but the Supreme Court could soon change that. [The Nation] Context: Trump was eyeing guns at the Palmetto State Armory in South Carolina. The gun manufacturer has a history of using anti-government rhetoric and imagery in their marketing and products.
“Football was everything” for Chicago peewee coach James Bell. His love of the sport helped guide him through a number of losses and immense challenges, including two shootings, one of which left him blind. [Chicago Sun-Times]
It takes more than a law enforcement investigation to solve a shooting. “Nuts and Bolts: Solving Gun Cases,” a new issue of Vital City’s journal, examines where cities are falling short, and how they could improve. [Vital City]
On Tuesday, a Philadelphia judge dismissed all charges, including first-degree murder, against the former city police officer who shot and killed Eddie Irizarry in August. As The Trace’s Mensah M. Dean reported this month, Irizarry’s killing, and its aftermath, has become the latest flashpoint in the strained relationship between cops and Philadelphians. The pain was made tangible on Tuesday night: After a peaceful protest against the ruling, groups of people broke into and stole from businesses across the city, many attributing their actions to anger over the dismissal. The widespread vandalism made national headlines, but much of the coverage neglected something crucial: Before he became a symbol of police violence, Eddie Irizarry was a person. This week’s In Memoriam is dedicated to remembering his life.
Eddie Irizarry Jr., 27, liked to fix things up. He loved working on cars and dirt bikes — and he had a passion for driving them, too — and jumped at the chance to patch up mechanical issues for his friends and family. But he was “always looking for a way to help” out in other ways, too, his sister told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Junito,” as Irizarry was affectionately known, was a “protector” for their family, she said, the kind of man who would walk miles to grab groceries for them without complaint. He had moved to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico about seven years ago, following his father’s move there a couple years prior. Irizarry was complex: He was both quiet and vibrant; he struggled with mental health issues, and he always had a smile on his face. He loved reggaetón. “He was a good guy,” Irizarry’s sister said. “Always helping people.”
“‘Keep in mind that the threat can come when you least expect it,’ she told them, remembering how small the shooter had looked that October morning in 2015, how he smiled as he walked into the classroom. … Mass shootings have increased almost every year for more than two decades, becoming such a fixture of the American school system that the trauma has turned generational. Each fall, thousands of victims and survivors send off the next wave of potential victims and survivors, and Brenda had decided that if the country was incapable of solving the problem, at least her children would be prepared.” [The New York Times]
“We have to acknowledge the trauma and accept that for people who responded, people who were on campus, people who saw what that did to us, it will never go away, not now or in seven years.”
— Lance Colley, the city manager of Roseburg, Oregon, at the time of the 2015 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College, on the city’s evaporated support for survivors, to CNN