By DAVID KLEPPER, Associated Press
The young man in jeans and sunglasses proudly shows off his gun in the YouTube video, then instructs his 1 million subscribers on how to insert an extra clip into his gun belt, and offers a chilling observation.
“Pretty cool for active shooter stuff, if you need extra magazines.”
This is a typical video, one of thousands teaching civilian gun owners military style training and tactics, offering instruction on silencers and grenade launchers, shooting from vehicles or in buildings. Other websites sell ghost gun kits, gas masks, and body armor.
“You shouldn’t be afraid of the NRA. You should be scared of us,” an online ghost arms dealer tweeted last week.
As Americans reel from repeated mass shootings, law enforcement officials and extremism experts are increasingly taking notice of the sprawling online space for guns and gun rights. guns: gun forums, tactical training videos, websites that sell unregistered gun kits, and social media platforms where far – good gun owners trade practical advice with discussions on dark plots to take their weapons.
It is an ecosystem rich in potential recruits for extremist groups exploiting the often blurred line separating mainstream support for a constitutional right from militant anti-government movements that champion racism and violence.
White supremacists have carried out many of the deadliest attacks on American soil in the past five years, including a 2018 shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue and a 2019 rampage in which a gunman targeting Hispanics in the interior of a Texas Walmart killed 23 people.
The gunman who carried out last month’s rampage in Buffalo, for example, claimed in a rambling racist rant that he became radicalized when pandemic boredom drove him to far-right social media groups and to tactical training videos he found online.
One of the companies specifically cited by the shooter sells gun accessories and operates popular social media channels featuring hundreds of training videos. The videos cover topics such as shooting from cars, attacking a building, using gas masks while filming, and night vision goggles.
“I think we’re going to see an increase in these kinds of attacks,” said Kurt Braddock, a professor and extremism researcher at American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab. “Until we are able to find a way to address it, this type of misinformation will continue to spread, and with it the risk of further radicalization and violence.”
Elected leaders in some states are considering how to address the internet’s role in radicalizing extremists. New York lawmakers, for example, recently introduced legislation to require social media companies to establish “hateful conduct” policies and create mechanisms for users to report disturbing posts they might read.
New York Attorney General Letitia James has opened an investigation into some of the platforms used by the Buffalo shooter, who broadcast his attack on Amazon-owned Twitch. Twitch pulled the livestream after about two minutes.
Federal authorities have also taken note, increasing funding for domestic terrorism investigations, a challenge that FBI Director Christopher Wray last year called “metastasizing.” But law enforcement can do little more than monitor extremists who use the threat of gun control to recruit new members.
According to Callum Hood, research director at the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a UK-based organization that studies extremism and online abuse, extremists describe any effort to regulate guns as the prelude to seizures. widespread use of firearms.
“The message quickly becomes ‘the government is coming to take your guns and leaving you defenseless,'” Hood said. Despite the obvious political challenges that even modest attempts at gun control face in the United States. Despite a long and growing list of mass shootings, gun rights have not been significantly curtailed in the United States for decades.
Rather than being threatened, weapons flourish. Since 2000, the year after the Columbine school shooting in Colorado, the number of firearms made in the United States has tripled. There are now about 400 million firearms in the United States – more than one for everyone in the country – giving the nation the highest gun ownership rate in the world.
According to Braddock, gun manufacturers and industry groups like the National Rifle Association bear some blame for unfounded conspiracy theories about federal plots to seize American weapons.
“What is the first rule in the art of selling? It is to create the need for the object. We think of guns as something different – and they are because they are instruments of violence – but they are also commodities that are sold in huge quantities,” Braddock said. “They create the illusion of need.”
Contacted by The Associated Press, a website selling ghost gun kits responded with a statement saying “all questions” about gun regulations amounted to “naked attempts to disarm mainstream Americans, arm the government against them and subject them to the ignorant and vicious tools of federal power”.
While some of the creators of tactical training videos posted on platforms like YouTube say their target audience is law enforcement, others say their subscriber base is mostly made up of those looking to arm against the government.
Despite their concern, law enforcement officials and extremism experts warn that there is little that can be done about the growing online spaces devoted to military-style weapons unless they don’t find evidence of illegal gun sales or other crimes.
For their part, tech companies and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter say they have rules to prohibit violent threats, hate speech and other content that causes direct harm. Some platforms also prohibit the sale of firearms.
According to militia expert Amy Cooter, further content restrictions on guns or even extremism will only backfire. While efforts to ban users may succeed in the short term, they are doomed to failure as these users flee to other platforms with less restraint.
“If we want to reduce the size of the move, de-platforming is really effective,” Cooter said. “But if we want to de-radicalize it, it’s not. The more extreme elements will find other ways to stay connected.
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