During his 2013 State of the Union speech, President Obama touched on an issue very close to American hearts when he brought up gun control.
“[Gun control] proposals deserve a vote,” the president said to resounding applause. “Because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun.”
Because of gun violence’s increasing visibility in American lives, or perhaps because of the constitutional right to bear arms, the argument for or against stricter gun control has been passionate, to say the least.
On the Internet, where citizens let their opinions out with no holds barred, the debate has been especially polarized. Psychological studies have shown that social media sites encourage more uninhibited and more emotional behavior than other communication mediums. As a result, nowhere is America’s anger, hurt, and frustration over gun control more apparent than on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, and Reddit.
Here is a timeline of some of the most emotionally charged social media moments in the American gun control debate during the last six months:
July 20, 2012: The NRA makes a mistweet
On the morning of the Aurora, Colo., mass shooting that left 12 dead, a shocking scheduled tweet from the National Rifle Association’s official publication, @NRA_Rifleman, hit Twitter like a punch.
“Good morning shooters! Happy Friday! Weekend plans?” the ill-timed tweet ran.
The NRA removed the tweet when it noticed the mistake, but this did nothing to assuage criticism of the pro-gun lobby for its retroactively insensitive remark. Thousands of users retweeted, criticized, and denounced the tweet.
<a href="https://twitter.com/nra">nra</a> really, really needs to figure out its social media strategy. Or come back from vacation and turn off the robot.</p>— Kate Gardiner (KateGardiner) July 20, 2012
July 23, 2012: @gundeaths launched to record gun violence
A few days after the Aurora shooting, the anonymous @GunDeaths Twitter account emerged to prove a point about how common gun violence is in America today.
This account will try to tweet every gun death in America regardless of cause and without comment, to tell the story behind the statistics
— Gun Deaths (@GunDeaths) July 23, 2012
The account’s 18,000 followers must quietly witness the many homicides, suicides, and accidents that take place in America every day.
Sept. 30, 2012: Aurora victim makes YouTube plea
Stephen Barton was one of the lucky ones. He was shot in the face and neck during the Aurora, Colo., shooting, but left with his life. In order to raise awareness about gun violence to as many people as possible, Barton turned to YouTube.
“Demand a Plan,” is Barton’s 30-second public service announcement that urges Congress to consider gun violence. Comments are disabled on his video, but varying opinions run rampant on the movement’s Facebook page.
“The fact that we don’t have a plan by now is CRIMINAL,” Joe Cully wrote.
Dec. 14, 2012: #guncontrol and #newtown trend on Twitter
Just a few months after the nation’s last mass shooting, a new tragedy surfaced in Newtown, Conn., where 26 students and teachers were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Shocked by the event, users’ frantic tweets caused both #guncontrol and #newtown to become national trending topics on Twitter on the same day.
School Principal: A job that now requires a bullet-proof vest.
<a href="https://twitter.com/nra">nra</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/search/%23guncontrol">#guncontrol</a></p>— Gaby Dunn (gabydunn) December 14, 2012
Dec. 14, 2012: Social media converges on the NRA
With emotions running high and no motive to be found for the shooter, social media users found a scapegoat in the NRA. The pro-firearms organization, which made no comment on the Newtown shooting but instead promoted a “10 days of Christmas” giveaway,” became a ready target.
On Facebook, others joined in the spirited debate in defense of the NRA and of the organization’s longstanding support of the right to bear arms.
“Once the government takes your 2nd amendment rights, they will come for you 1st amendment rights next,” Robert Klein wrote.
Jan. 11, 2013: Reddit founds TrueGunControl community
As gun control surged as a national and global issue, forum participants on Reddit wanted to join in the debate, too. Frustrated by the inactivity in Reddit’s 3-year-old GunControl forum, founders launched TrueGunControl this year as a forum for “reasonable people” to discuss new regulations.
The mostly pro-regulation community discusses articles, legislation, and PSAs released about gun control. While fights do break out, the goal here is to address the issue in a more civil manner than usual. (For example, using language like “gun-nut” to refer to people with opposing views is forbidden.)
Jan. 18, 2013: Tumblr gun control petition breaks records
The ease of quoting and reblogging can cause movements that users are passionate about to go viral in no time at all. When Tumblr user David Glynn, distraught over the Sandy Hook shooting, posted a White House petition on gun control to his Tumblr, it broke the record for most signatures on any petition ever posted to the White House.
More than 200,000 people ended up signing the petition, and its popularity convinced President Obama to release his first ever video response to a White House petition, saying, “We hear you.”
“[K]now that social media changes people’s lives,” Glynn wrote on Tumblr.
Jan. 31, 2013: Gabby Giffords’ testimony goes viral on Facebook
Shot in the head during an assassination attempt, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords has become an icon of the gun control movement. Shortly after the Newtown massacre, Giffords made a plea to the Senate Judiciary Committee to consider stricter gun laws.
Since speaking and writing are still difficult for Giffords a year after her near-fatal brain injury, her speech therapist prepared the statement. A photo of these handwritten speaking notes went viral on Facebook as a symbol of all that Giffords has been through, and how she continues to speak out even now.
“Speaking is difficult but I need to say something,” Giffords said in her speech. “Gun violence is a big problem. Too many people are dying. Too many children. We must do something.”
Feb. 3, 2013: ‘Shotgun Obama’ becomes a meme
As the gun control debate raged on, the White House released an eight-month-old photo of Obama shooting skeet at a Camp David retreat. If the move was intended to win over pro-gun supporters, it didn’t work.
“This is all political posturing. It’s a PR stunt to show that Obama feels our pain,” guns-rights activist Rick McDermott told the New York Post. “The Second Amendment has nothing to do with skeet shooting.”
While it may have failed as a political message, the photo did some good in humoring Internet users. On Reddit, participants used Photoshop to alter the image in various ways, and the funny knockoffs became a viral meme.
Feb. 4, 2013: Navy Seal death sparks Twitter fight
After the NRA responded to the Newtown shooting, its statement was simple: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But when a mentally ill man shot and killed an armed Navy Seal, the truth of that statement became cloudy.
“So much for good/talented guy with a gun being able to stop mentally ill guy with a gun,” tweeted Clara Jefferey, the co-editor of liberal news blog Mother Jones. However, as emotions raged, users responded to Jefferey’s tweet — and eventually one another — with sexist and hateful speech. After the fact, journalist Jamil Smith tweeted that the gun control debate is impossible unless social media users can be civil.
Until women can participate without experiencing what
<a href="https://twitter.com/clarajeffery">clarajeffery</a> experienced, let's stop pretending there's a "debate" about gun control.</p>— Jamil Smith (JamilSmith) February 4, 2013
Now that President Obama has encouraged the Senate to vote on gun control legislation, the issue is only going to heat up from here. What do you think about America’s gun laws, and how have you used social media to make your opinion known?
Lauren Orsini is a journalist based in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Her reporting has appeared in Forbes, CNN, and the Daily Dot.