“Dude! There’s Communists falling out of the sky” exclaims Eric Blandford in his “Five Guns for life and liberty” YouTube video.
Blandford and his co-host Chad discuss the best five guns that their viewers should own to protect the United States’ proud tradition of freedom and liberty. Over the course of 17 minutes, the two gun advocates showcase a carefully assorted range of firearms, which include everything from pistols to semi-automatic machine guns.
The two presenters run Iraqveteran8888, one of YouTube’s most popular “shooting” channels, which have grown alongside other popular genres on the social media website. Armed with nothing more than a camera and their guns, these channels have amassed millions of subscribers by producing videos that have been embraced as a new modern strand of the Second Amendment.
And these channels are not just middle-aged men talking to themselves in front of a camera. By producing highly professional content, a group of gun advocates have created a strong community of individuals who now view social media as a crucial part to their Second Amendment rights.
However, in a country where gun violence holds such prominence within both mainstream politics and everyday life, the community’s content has been known to tread an extremely thin line between what they see as fun and potentially dangerous endorsements of gun use.
According to the United States Gun Violence archive, 45,000 gun-related incidents have occurred in the country this year alone with over 11,000 resulting in fatalities. The website’s database is updated so frequently that it even features an entire section dedicated to incidents that have occurred within a previous 48-hour timeframe.
The community has even grown to such a size that popular channels now reach audiences in their millions. Take the frenzied Demolition Ranch for example, which is known for extravagant gun modifications such as quadruple-barrelled shotguns. It now boasts over two million subscribers and a total of 300 million views. These figures are even surpassed by the self-defined “family-friendly” shooting channel Hickok45, which is edging closer to a total of 600 million views.
For both adamant gun advocates and casual viewers, these YouTube channels are tapping into an interest that is finding itself a comfortable home on the website. This was something that Don Porter, founder of popular shooting channel Sootch00, felt was important to highlight when speaking with Artefact; “The large YouTube channels have magnetic personalities that reveal we’re just normal, everyday people”.
Porter’s channel, which currently has 454,000 subscribers and 123 million views, is self-described as an outlet for fun gun reviews that promote “rugged individualism, independent thinking and self-reliance”.
It is interestingly hard to argue with Porter’s point as a relaxed light-hearted atmosphere exists throughout many YouTube shooting channels, with presenters joking, laughing and generally just having a fun time. The community even meet up each year for Iraqveteran8888’s “annual shoot” where popular online stars gather to reinforce their light-hearted perception.
However, certain videos uploaded by popular channels have tread a thin line between producing content for leisured watching and actively promoting potentially violent gun use.
This careful balance is apparent in one of Iraqveteran8888’s popular videos where the two presenters discuss popular guns for prospective college students, which is interestingly just as much aimed at parents as it is to freshers.
“Political correctness has labelled gun owners as a fringe group but self-defence is a basic human right and anyone who says otherwise is dead wrong”.
In this video, which currently has over 1.5 million views, the two presenters showcase five carefully selected guns that they claim will allow students to protect themselves during their studies.
Over the course of 15 minutes, viewers are treated to in-depth discussion about topics such as what guns are best for protection and specifically designed semi-automatics that can be folded to create a “backpack gun”. As the video was produced for students, the presenters even take price into consideration when recommending guns.
However, it is when the topic of college gun laws enters the conversation that both presenters descend into a murky area of what constitutes light-hearted content and what supports students carrying weapons on college campuses.
This contradiction comes to light when host Eric, founder of the channel, states that their video “isn’t about what you should do or may do, but rather what you can do”.
This is while a recent report discovered that the number of shootings occurring on US college campuses have more than doubled during the last five academic years. The report, conducted by the NYC Citizen’s Crime Commission, analysed statistics from 2001-2016 to discover that US students are now being subjected to shootings at an alarming rate with statistics rising by 153% during the 15 years of research.
By analysing separate figures from two academic periods of 2001-2006 and 2011-2016 the report found that an “explosion” of on-campus gun violence had seen 290 students killed during their studies with another 270 wounded. This represented a surge of gun deaths, which grew by 241% in 2011-2016 compared with the previous decade.
However, when asked about the potential negative influence that shooting content could have on such audiences, Don Porter believes we should view it in opposite terms. “YouTube has been huge in building a community of like-minded people who don’t feel alone or crazy”. He then added; “Political correctness has labelled gun owners as a fringe group but self-defence is a basic human right and anyone who says otherwise is dead wrong”.
So, as university freshers in Britain consider how they should best spend their money on cheap alcohol and nights out, their contemporaries in America could be planning to purchase a more lethal alternative.
In a country that keeps the right to bear arms so seriously, it hasn’t come as a surprise for some that gun content is now so popular on social media. However, the same divisions that separate gun advocates from anti-gun campaigners are as prevalent within this area as any other.
While some like Don Porter view it as a revolutionary new campaigning tool for gun advocates, others see it as nothing more than a potentially dangerous tool for influencing individuals to purchase weapons. However, whether it should be viewed as simple leisure content like other popular YouTube genres such as gaming and vlogging or rather as an unsafe video platform isn’t a question that the community is acknowledging while it continues to boom.
There has also been a successful attempt by the mainstream gun advocate National Rifle Association to create a more accessible connection to their supporters on YouTube. By creating a mixture of content that ranges from simple advice videos to a professionally funded news channel, the NRA has firmly established itself within YouTube’s gun community.
In recent years, the NRA have received criticism from anti-gun campaigners for their promotion of using firearms for self-defence purposes, which has now transcended onto online content. This criticism has been pushed by groups like the Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence who recently stated that “owning a gun is linked to a higher risk of being shot in homicides, suicides and unintentional shooting but all gun lobby groups care about is selling guns and making profit”.
Armed with nothing more than a camera and their guns, these channels have amassed millions of subscribers by producing videos that have been embraced as a new modern strand of the Second Amendment.
This issue was experienced first-hand in the gun community when Keith Ratliff, producer of Youtube’s most successful shooting channel “FPS Russia” was mysteriously shot dead in January 2013. As the gun community mourned the loss of a popular face his sister told local media outlet Lex18 that he always carried a firearm for protection and it was strange “for him not to pull out his gun to defend himself.
Ratliff’s death caused a string of responses from popular shooting channels with Col Richard Hunter stating in a video that “there is no justice in this case”. He added, “as one of us has been murdered, especially with a firearm, we should come together on this”. However, in Ratliff’s absence, the FPS Russia channel has struggled to recapture a successful flow of video content leaving over six million subscribers without any content since April 2016.
YouTube has now witnessed the first death of one of its popular shooting channels, which was ironically caused by the very weapons that it used to achieve such success.
While the NRA continues to wrestle with arguments of self-defence, one of its top poster boys is standing out by helping gun advocates break through their general stereotypes. In contrast to what he describes as the NRA stereotype of “fat, middle-aged white men”, Colion Noir is a 31 year old trendy and articulate African American male.
The YouTuber, based in Dallas, conveys himself as a narcissistic character who boasts keen support for everything gun related. His face is a regular feature in NRA videos with his personal channel now boasting nearly 400,000 subscribers and 50 million views. Within one video, he even claims that no one can be “Anti-Gun”; rather they are either pro-gun or “scared of” weapons.
It is this confident rhetoric that has seen Noir break through stereotypes closely associated with the NRA to form a substantial cross-community following of over 345,000 subscribers on their channel.
Noir has also been vocal in putting across his belief that the mainstream media have created racial stereotypes of gun advocates by “hijacking a notion of black communities being against gun ownership”. As racial issues continue to dominate US mainstream discourse, Noir has been taking a different standpoint from the conventional media perception.
Noir concentrates on this topic regularly as he believes that a growing tide of media coverage surrounding gun violence committed by US police against African-American citizens has portrayed an image of black communities being anti-gun.
This viewpoint was apparent during recent controversy surrounding a pro-gun billboard in the US state of Maine that drew opposition for using the slogan “Black Rifles Matter”, a reference to the activism group Black Lives Matter. The billboard was created in response to a nationwide ban on certain assault rifles coming into effect across the country.
In an interview with Fox news, Noir stated that he had no problem with the billboard and actually agreed with the sentiment of its promotion.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Centre, Noir’s opinion is different to that of most African Americans’ across the country, with only 34% favouring the right to bear arms over gun controls. The figure for white Americans was nearly double this with 61% believing that gun controls should not be introduced.
As the YouTube gun industry community continues to develop, a growing number of fans are now looking for content that provides more than just conventional gun reviews and shooting range videos.
This is something that the NRA have targeted by commissioning Colion Noir to produce a series of commentary pieces in which he delves deeper into the political and social sides of gun use.
However, while Noir works hard to eradicate issues such as race in the gun community he also falls into other stereotypes himself. In his popular “Be careful taking women on dates to the shooting range” video, Noir states that men in American society are seen as the “protectors”. This he believes, makes it natural for them to see firearms as their own community.
However, this gender imbalance hasn’t stopped women like Kirsten Joy Weiss from using YouTube to create their own take on gun content. A champion sharp-shooter prior to Youtube, Weiss began making videos in 2013, but rather than producing conventional content at a shooting range she has become known for obscure trick shot videos.
Her channel now boasts over 4.5 million views with 74,000 people subscribing to watch videos such as yoga pistol shooting and gun pilates. In the latter video, Weiss combines the popular workout of pilates with a rifle to demonstrate her flexible shooting skills.
What Weiss’ content does show though is how YouTube gun channels are adapting to the specific demands of an ever growing gender equal industry, which is witnessing viewers seeking something more than conventional hands-on reviews.
As the community continues to gain popularity in a country that has been ravaged with a past of gun violence, which according to Politifact has contributed to more deaths in American history than its entire military casualty list, the social media site will only see more shooting content.
The power of YouTube and other social media platforms has allowed gun owners across the US to feel part of an ever-closer community, which now believes it holds as much relevance to the 2nd amendment and American values as any other group.
However, whether their content should be viewed simply as entertainment or potentially dangerous influences in American culture is a question that will produce debates for as long as the community continues to grow.