Guns on Instagram
The right to keep and bear arms has long been one of the most hotly contested portions of the Constitution. It’s an issue that gets dragged out and debated anew during every election cycle and after every mass shooting. Still, it never seems to get any clearer or closer to being solved. We’ve heard both sides of the argument hundreds of times, but how many of us have really delved into the hard data and seen what people are really saying about firearms in public spheres like social media? We combed through over 6 million Instagram posts to find almost half a million geotagged posts with gun-related hashtags. We used the data to discover the who, what, and where of firearm fanaticism.
A Look at Gun-Related Hashtag Use, by State
Perhaps what’s most immediately striking about the states with the highest proportion of gun-related hashtag use is that, with the exception of Hawaii (which had a total of one homicide by firearm in 2014), all of them have been at the center of widely reported and sometimes tragic gun-related events in the last few years.
In 2014, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy came to an armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management when they tried to remove his cattle that were illegally grazing on federal land. In 2012, unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch captain in Florida. The incident sparked a series of demonstrations around the country. Six people were killed and U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was critically injured in a mass shooting outside of a Tucson, Arizona grocery store in 2011. And most recently, in 2015, a shooter killed nine people at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon before turning the gun on himself.
Which States Like Gun Posts the Most?
Instagram posts are nothing without their likes, and gun-related images are racking them up by the hundreds. Oregon tops the charts with more than twice as many likes per gun-related hashtag than second-place California. This may reflect, more than anything, that people are weighing in on the recent armed standoff between ranchers and the government (yes, again). As of early February 2016, the draw had resulted in one shooting death. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Vermont produces the lowest number of likes per firearm-related hashtag. Interestingly, Vermont has high rates of gun ownership. So while many Vermont residents own guns, they may be liking friends’ gun posts more on Facebook than Instagram.
Which Cities Use Gun-Related Hashtags the Most Overall?
When combining the 12 gun-related hashtags, we can see which cities use gun-related hashtags and post about guns the most on Instagram. Gainesville, Florida has the overwhelming lead, using nearly twice as many hashtags as second-place Anna, Texas. It seems that Gainesville loves guns just as much as they love the Gators. Larger cities also make the list, like Los Angeles and New York City, but many other smaller cities appear in the top 20, including the interestingly named “Three Way.” This tiny Tennessee town has a population of only around 1,700, yet it uses gun-related hashtags nearly as much as San Diego and Chicago.
Do Cities Prefer Certain Gun-Related Hashtags?
When it comes to specific gun-related hashtags, several cities stand out as particularly preoccupied with their Second Amendment rights. Gainesville, Florida appears again with the most content with the hashtags #gun, #gunporn, and #NRA; several other Florida cities claim spots on these lists as well. This is unsurprising in the face of current legislation in Florida that would reverse certain concealed carry requirements, which would allow many citizens to tote firearms in the open. The intricacies of the state’s stand-your-ground laws that came under fire during the Trayvon Martin case are likely a factor as well. Other top-hashtag cities include Paradise, Nevada – home to the Las Vegas strip and the eighth-most armed state in the Union. Rifle, Colorado also ranks high, although we’re betting those statistics are more than slightly skewed by the town’s curious name.
The Relationship Between Gun Fatalities and Hashtags
When you look at the number of firearm-related hashtags per state with the number of gun deaths, you get some new contenders in this Instagram arms race. Hawaii shows the most gun hashtags per firearm death (90.7), largely because it only had 2.6 firearm deaths per 100,000 people in 2014 – the lowest in the country – but more than 255 gun hashtags per 100,000. It seems to be a case of Hawaii talking the talk but not walking the walk. Likewise, Rhode Island only had 2.9 firearm deaths per 100,000 people in 2014, but 16.8 hashtags per firearm death.
Which Hashtags Are Commonly Used with #Gun?
While the stats on the #gun hashtag are interesting, perhaps even more telling are the hashtags that most often accompany it, state to state. In general, people seem more than happy to simply throw in the name of their state or the word “shooting.” But a couple of states stick out as different, most notably Tennessee, which features the most-used tag #molonlabe. The phrase molon labe refers to an ancient Greek battle where the Persian king told King Leonidas and the army of Sparta to lay down their weapons, to which Leonidas supposedly responded, “Molon labe,” or “Come and get them.” It’s now a favorite phrase among certain gun rights activists, including former Florida congressman Allen West, who had it tattooed on his forearm.
Do Mass Shootings Affect Gun-Related Hashtags?
Although the growth in the number of gun-related hashtags over the last few years is concerning, it may be relatively in line with the growth of Instagram in the same time period, meaning that people are posting more about everything – not just guns. That being said, you can’t ignore the fact that gun talk has grown, especially from December 2014 to December 2015. A very obvious uptick, which starts in June 2015, coincides with the tragic Charleston church shooting. 2015 as a whole was a deadly one in the United States, with more than 350 mass shootings that injured or killed four or more people as well as a death toll of more than 460. But whether people are getting the memo seems doubtful as, in December 2015, the #2a hashtag was used more often than just the word #gun.
Gun-related Instagram hashtags and posts are undoubtedly present in states where arms ownership is a trigger issue. With the exception of states like Hawaii, where violent gun incidents are relatively low, #gun social media mentions mirror the nation’s views for better or worse.
For this project, we scraped Instagram for 12 gun-related hashtags (#2a, #9mm, #ak47, #firearms, #girlswithguns, #glock, #gun, #gunporn, #nra, #pewpew, #rifle, and #shotgun), and this resulted in nearly 6 million total posts and nearly half a million geotagged posts containing one or more of the 12 hashtags. We then analyzed the frequency each hashtag was used in each state per 100,000 residents and state gun fatality rates. We also looked at the average number of likes per hashtag used in a post. In some cases, multiple hashtags may be used per post.
Gun fatalities per state were pulled from the CDC’s 2014 firearm mortality database. The CDC’s 2013 data was used for District of Columbia due to availability. #Guns was excluded as an option for the most common hashtag used in #gun posts.
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