Armed Extremism in Buffalo
Online Gun Communities Provide a Path of Radicalization and Training to a Racist Shooter
On May 14, 2022, a gunman used an assault weapon to open fire at the Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people and wounding three others. All 10 of those killed were Black, with the gunman specifically targeting a predominantly Black community. This mass shooting was an act of white supremacist, hate-motivated violence, and an entire community has been forever traumatized.
In recent years, the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund (“Everytown”) has conducted research and written on armed extremism, the intersection between far-right extremism and guns.1See e.g., Everytown for Gun Safety “Armed Extremism” website, https://www.everytown.org/issues/armed-extremism/; Everytown for Gun Safety, “Armed and Dangerous: How the Gun Lobby Enshrines Guns as Tools of the Extreme Right,” September 20, 2020, https://everytownresearch.org/report/extreme-right/. The two most prominent categories of far-right extremism are anti-government extremism (e.g., militias or the boogaloo movement) and white supremacist extremism. The Buffalo shooter falls into the latter category, having expressed racist and accelerationist2Accelerationism is a philosophy adopted by some on the extreme right that view existing institutions in society as irreparably corrupt, and thus encourages adherents to take action to accelerate the downfall of such institutions, and society more broadly. views in various writings, and is yet another example of how racist and hateful ideologies can have deadly consequences, especially when mixed with easy access to firearms. To fully analyze the radicalization of the Buffalo shooter, Everytown has partnered with the digital investigations firm Memetica for this report. Memetica has also produced its own report, which can be viewed here, examining the ways in which (1) firearms content on YouTube makes its way to /k/, the 4chan board dedicated to weapons, where it mixes with racist and other extremist content on the board and (2) how that mix largely matched the themes of the content cited by the Buffalo shooter in his writings.
Everytown and Memetica’s research into the Buffalo shooter’s writings reveal an individual whose gun extremism was central to his identity. For many far right extremists, the combination of their deep skepticism toward democratic institutions and paranoia over fictional threats from shadowy actors leads them to conclude that there are few, if any, legitimate democratic solutions to these threats, and as a result, mass violence is inevitable or even justified.3Matthew Kriner, Meghan Conroy and Yasmine Ashwal, “Understanding Accelerationist Narratives: ‘There Is No Political Solution’”, Global Network on Extremism & Technology, September 2, 2021, https://gnet-research.org/2021/09/02/understanding-accelerationist-narratives-there-is-no-political-solution/. For these groups and radicalized individuals, guns are the best tools for that violence and consequently, opposing regulation of firearms ownership in order to maintain unfettered access to guns is essential. In order to justify this opposition, they embrace conspiracy theories and propaganda, often boosted by the gun lobby, about a tyrannical plot to forcibly disarm all civilians which easily fit into their already paranoid worldview.
Other extremists, like the shooter in Buffalo, seem to “back into” this same mindset: starting with a deep interest in guns and the conspiracy theories that justify opposition to any regulation of firearms ownership, which opens the door to even broader reaching conspiracy theories,4Research has shown that “the single best predictor of belief in one conspiracy theory is belief in a different conspiracy theory,” see: Jan‐Willem van Prooijencorresponding and Karen M. Douglas, “Belief in conspiracy theories: Basic principles of an emerging research domain”, European Journal of Social Psychology, December 2018, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6282974/. like racist propaganda targeting marginalized groups. According to his own writings,5Because the foundational context of this report comes directly from a primary source, researchers are faced with the dilemma of taking the Buffalo shooter at his word through documents he created (the Discord diary and 180-page diatribe), knowing they would be read and circulated after committing a mass shooting. As a result, it’s not unlikely that it misrepresents and obfuscates elements of his past. the shooter’s path to radicalization began with his fascination with firearms, particularly on /k/, the 4chan board dedicated to weapons. In his writings, the shooter regurgitated some of the most prevalent gun lobby propaganda, including referencing conspiracy theories about the supposedly looming mass civilian disarmament by political elites for the purpose of installing a tyrannical government.
When gun extremism fused with his growing white supremacist beliefs, the Buffalo shooter decided to commit mass murder, targeting the Black community in Buffalo. However, according to his own writings, the shooter faced an operational challenge in planning and coordinating his attack: He didn’t quite know how to do it.
The Buffalo shooter turned to online gun communities, including on YouTube.
A review of the shooter’s writings indicates that YouTube served as his library, instructing him in ways to improve his marksmanship, reload firearms faster, “win gunfights,” and easily modify his Bushmaster XM-15 to accept detachable high-capacity magazines, which are illegal in New York. Just days before his attack, posts attributed to the shooter on Discord read, “I’ve just been sitting around watching YouTube and shit for the last few days. I think this is the closest I’ll ever be to being ready.”6Note: so as not to give the shooter a platform for his racism, we will not quote from any of the shooter’s writings as it pertains to his views on society, politics, or race. Instead, references to the shooter’s writings in this piece will be limited to how the shooter operationalized his desire to carry out mass murder.
The Buffalo shooter presents a case study on the dangerous mix of racism, easy access to firearms, and easy access to technical and tactical video instructions that go far beyond practical and safe firearms training for civilian gun owners. This report concludes with steps YouTube could take to adjust its Community Guidelines and content moderation practices to curb the ability of those planning such attacks to gain knowledge and inspiration from firearm-related videos hosted on YouTube.
Guns Are Weapons of Choice in Hate Motivated Violence
An Everytown analysis of mass shootings between 2009 and 2019 indicates that one-third of the shooters in these crimes were motivated by, or previously expressed support for, white supremacist extremism. A separate analysis by the Anti-Defamation League found 187 incidents from 2012 to 2021 in which extremists used firearms to commit murder or violently engage with law enforcement.1Anti-Defamation League, “Firearms Remain the Weapon of Choice for Domestic Extremists,” June 21, 2022, https://www.adl.org/resources/blog/firearms-remain-weapons-choice-domestic-extremists.
In September 2019, for the first time since its inception, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) named white supremacist extremism “one of the most potent forces driving domestic terrorism” in the United States.2“Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence,” US Department of Homeland Security, September 2019, https://bit.ly/3djvjiZ. Two months later, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs that domestic terrorism posed a “serious, persistent threat,” and that the majority of the FBI’s investigations into domestic, racially motivated extremism attacks are “fueled by some kind of white supremacy.”3FBI Director Christopher Wray, testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, November 5, 2019, C-SPAN, https://cs.pn/2Ygeilp. Comments begin at 39 minutes into recorded testimony. In February 2020, Wray appeared before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and revealed that the FBI had elevated the threat of racially motivated violent extremism to a top-level priority.4FBI Director Christopher Wray, testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, February 5, 2020, C-SPAN, https://cs.pn/2V2RYdb. Comments begin at 3 hours and 55 minutes into recorded testimony. A March 2021 unclassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence indicated that lone domestic violent extremists “will continue to pose significant detection and disruption challenges because of their capacity for independent radicalization to violence, ability to mobilize discreetly, and access to firearms.”5“Strategic Framework for Countering Terrorism and Targeted Violence,” U.S. Department of Homeland Security, September 2019, https://bit.ly/3djvjiZ; FBI Director Christopher Wray, testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, November 5, 2019, C-SPAN, https://cs.pn/2Ygeilp. Comments begin at 39 minutes into recorded testimony; FBI Director Christopher Wray, testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, February 5, 2020, C-SPAN, https://cs.pn/2V2RYdb. Comments begin at 3 hours and 55 minutes into recorded testimony; “Domestic Violent Extremism Poses Hightened Threat in 2021,” March 1, 2021, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/21_0301_odni_unclass-summary-of-dve-assessment-17_march-final_508.pdf.
The Buffalo Shooter’s Path to Radicalization
The white supremacist perpetrator of the shooting in Buffalo kept a private online diary of the preparation for his attack starting in November 2021. This diary, along with the 180-page diatribe he left to publicly explain his actions, paints a picture of a young man whose obsession with firearms served as a bridge into white supremacist extremism. His writings indicate that he not only gained technical and tactical information online to increase the effectiveness of his attack, but that he sought the approval of online firearms spaces where users obsessively debate and rate firearms and shooting tactics.
In his 180-page diatribe, the Buffalo shooter wrote frankly that his path to radicalization began with his fascination with firearms, particularly on /k/, the 4chan board dedicated to weapons. The /k/ board features a toxic mix of discussions of firearms and tactics alongside racism and other forms of violent extremist rhetoric. He wrote that he “started browsing 4chan in May 2020,” when he “would normally browse /k/ because I’m a gun nut and /out/ because I love the outdoors and I eventually wound up on /pol/.”
The /pol/ board is notorious for serving as a hub for extremism7See Rob Arthur, “We Analyzed More Than 1 Million Comments on 4chan. Hate Speech There Has Spiked by 40% Since 2015,” Vice News, July 10, 2019, https://www.vice.com/en/article/d3nbzy/we-analyzed-more-than-1-million-comments-on-4chan-hate-speech-there-has-spiked-by-40-since-2015. and the shooter’s path from the extremist content shared on /k/ to the firehose of hate on /pol/ is hardly a surprising one: “Boards like /k/ have attempted to differentiate themselves from the openly racist culture of /pol/ boards, yet their murky relationship with politics and discrimination makes it more difficult to clearly distinguish between violent and non-violent content.”8Blyth Crawford, “/K/ And The Visual Culture Of Weapons Boards”, Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats, October 28, 2020, https://crestresearch.ac.uk/comment/k-and-the-visual-culture-of-weapons-boards/. This was particularly on display in the board’s role in spawning the boogaloo movement,9Robert Evans and Jason Wilson, “The Boogaloo Movement Is Not What You Think”, Bellingcat, May 27, 2020, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/2020/05/27/the-boogaloo-movement-is-not-what-you-think/. a far right movement that has been linked to multiple murders in recent years.10Kelly Weill, “Sixteen ‘Boogaloo’ Followers Have Been Busted in 7 Days”, The Daily Beast, October 9, 2020, https://www.thedailybeast.com/with-the-gov-gretchen-whitmer-busts-16-boogaloo-followers-have-been-busted-in-7-days.
Once at /pol/, the shooter explains that he began digesting white supremacist propaganda and “learned the truth” about racist conspiracy theories. He wrote that at first he was considering suicide until he encountered propaganda from the racist 2019 mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which led him to other mass killers motivated by white supremacist extremism that inspired him.
The shooter’s Discord “diary,” which he appears to have started in November 2021, paints a similar path and adds real-time color to his experiences. In the diary, the shooter repeatedly reiterated starting at the weapons board on 4chan and proceeding to the white supremacist propaganda on /pol/, including the video and writings of the racist Christchurch shooter. Throughout his writings, the Buffalo shooter describes how he was influenced by the Christchurch shooter, acknowledging what others would report later: that significant portions of the Buffalo shooter’s 180-page screed were even lifted directly from the writings of the Christchurch shooter.11See e.g., Anti-Defamation League, “Striking Similarities Between Gendron and Tarrant Manifestos,” May 24, 2022, https://www.adl.org/resources/blog/striking-similarities-between-gendron-and-tarrant-manifestos.
But online spaces did not just provide the shooter with the ideological motivation for the attack. Online gun communities provided him with tactical and technical know-how to effectively carry out mass murder. It’s clear that the shooter saw guns as a key tool in his terrorist attack: He wrote in his 180-page diatribe that he chose to use firearms because “[t]here are very few weapons that are easier to use, accessible, and effective at killing than firearms.”
From “guntubers” on YouTube who glamorize violence with firearms to the /k/ board’s toxic mix of guns and racist and homophobic slurs, the shooter was steeped in firearms content online that helped him learn which guns, ammunition, and body armor would best suit his purposes. He seems to have been a regular at a number of gun stores within miles of his home as well. On April 21, the shooter’s writings made clear how important these online gun spaces were to his attack, writing, “even in only [three] months I learned so much more about AR-15s” than he knew before.
The shooter’s Discord “diary” was a live view into learning lessons about firearms and shooting tactics that he would later compile in his 180-page racist diatribe. It’s also clear from both documents that he was concerned not just with the approval of his terrorist act by his fellow /pol/ extremists, but of the kit he used to carry it out from the tactical firearms enthusiasts on the /k/ board, where users regularly debate the merits of different firearms, body armor, and tactics. Throughout his writing, the shooter spent pages and pages examining the pros and cons of particular firearms and tactical gear. At least 96 pages of his 180-page diatribe are dedicated to offering the “best” options for carrying out this kind of attack, everything from rifles to ammunition magazines to socks. On nearly 30 occasions in his diary, he rated different gear into tiers, mimicking the terminology used on /k/ to rank different makes of the same product (e.g. using the term “shit tier” when describing products he thought were of low quality).
The shooter also sought the approval of his fellow 4chan users and clearly both expected and feared the harsh judgment of the /k/ board. On April 4, he wrote a “daily reminder” seemingly directed at /k/ that he is “not a firearms expert and also not very good at anything.” In fact, the weapons sections of the document were so important to him, that he admitted on April 5 that the rest of the document was mostly copy-pasted because “I’ve been working on my armor section the entire time.”
The Role of 4chan and Discord
As discussed above, various 4chan message boards frequented by the shooter contain racist extremist content, in addition to violent discussions about the intersection of guns and hate. The shooter’s writings make clear he drew inspiration and guidance from these online communities.
Discord is a voice, video, and text chat application that has gained popularity, especially in the gaming community. A statement made by the company after the Buffalo shooting indicates that the shooter’s Discord diary was private, and only visible to him up until the shooting. About 30 minutes prior to the shooting, the shooter shared invitations to the diary – the company estimates 15 users clicked on the invitation.6“Our Response to the Tragedy in Buffalo,” May 20, 2022, https://discord.com/blog/our-response-to-the-tragedy-in-buffalo.
At the time of this report, the New York Attorney General’s Office has an ongoing investigation into the role of online platforms in connection with the Buffalo shooting.7“Attorney General James Launches Investigations Into Social Media Companies for Role in Buffalo Attack”, New York Attorney General, May 18, 2022, https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2022/attorney-general-james-launches-investigations-social-media-companies-role.
The Buffalo Shooter Used YouTube as a Library to Watch Videos That He Says Helped Him Plan His Attack
The Buffalo shooter’s writings link to dozens of different YouTube videos, some of which deal specifically with firearms. Of the YouTube videos referenced by the Buffalo shooter in his writings, the vast majority of the videos can be categorized as demonstrations of tactics (39 videos), firearms (37 videos), and equipment (24 videos).12Chris Jones, Becs Rogers, PhD, Emile Robert, and Ben Decker, “YouTune and 4Chan/K/”, June 2022.
Types of YouTube Videos Referenced by Buffalo Shooter
Most notably, the Buffalo shooter viewed and posted links to multiple videos on YouTube about how to modify his firearm so that it could function as an illegal assault weapon with removable, large-capacity magazines. New York’s assault weapons ban requires that semi-automatic rifles use fixed magazines or, if they accept detachable and easily reloadable magazines, they cannot have military-style features, such as pistol grips and collapsible stocks. To purportedly make an AR-style rifle compliant, some companies offer for sale to New York residents a lock to fix a 10-round magazine within the rifle’s receiver. With only a fixed magazine, a shooter must partially disassemble the rifle to reload it — a time-consuming affair that, in a mass shooting, could provide valuable, lifesaving seconds for potential victims to escape.
To get around this, the shooter’s writings indicate he decided to modify his rifle – a Bushmaster XM-15 E2S Target rifle with such a lock installed – such that he could reload at a higher rate of speed using detachable high-capacity magazines, which are illegal in New York. To learn how to do so, he appeared to turn to online sources, posting multiple instructional videos on his Discord “diary.” On December 23, 2021, the shooter cited a YouTube video from firearms retailer MidwayUSA, in which company CEO Larry Potterfield explains to viewers how to install an AR-15 magazine release button,13Citations for such problematic videos are available upon request. which the shooter would have to do after removing a magazine lock. With such a magazine release installed, a shooter is able to load and reload a rifle with several high-capacity 30-round magazines in a matter of seconds and continue unleashing a barrage of bullets.
The next day, the Buffalo shooter cited yet another YouTube video that demonstrates how to remove a magazine lock on an AR-15 rifle.14Citations for such problematic videos are available upon request. That video had more than 285,000 views as of this writing. Later that day, the shooter cited a YouTube video about how to install a magazine lock on an AR-style rifle, which, based on comments he included along with the video, he was evidently using to reverse-engineer the process. The shooter subsequently cited a video in which the uploader explains how he modified his two AR-style rifles to purportedly comply with the New York assault weapons ban,15Citations for such problematic videos are available upon request. with the shooter noting in the diary that the video “[gave] some more info on other ways the fixed mag release is optimized.”
On January 11, 2022, the Buffalo shooter cited a video which, in part, described how to use a basic hand drill to easily remove the mechanism that locks magazines into the lower receivers of AR-style rifles using a particular drill bit.16Citations for such problematic videos are available upon request. The shooter noted that the Bushmaster XM-15 rifle he would eventually purchase17Jeff Murray, “Gun shop where accused Buffalo shooter bought rifle currently closed, facing online accusations,” Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, May 16, 2022, https://www.pressconnects.com/story/news/public-safety/2022/05/16/endicott-gun-shop-where-accused-buffalo-shooter-bought-rifle-closed/9796292002/. had the same lock mechanism, adding he could use the same kind of “drill bit on hole [sic] and it will come right out.” He later noted that he had “investigated” the rifle he planned to purchase “and learned that I can take the fixed mag out.”
Just over a week later, on January 19, the shooter said he purchased the Bushmaster XM-15 and “worked on removing the fixed mag release.” In his 180-page diatribe, he wrote instructions on how to remove locked magazines with a drill bit, instructions that were nearly identical to those he consumed on YouTube.
Instruction Provided in YouTube Video Cited by Buffalo Shooter:
“what you do is take one of those [drill] bits, you put it in your drill, and you just put it right in that hole [pointing at the Mean Arms MA Lock filling the cavity where the magazine release would normally be], and it’ll come right out.”
Buffalo Shooter’s Diatribe:
“drill bit on hole and it will come right out.”
According to his Discord entries, the shooter also learned how to set up and customize a plate carrier — to carry the kind of body armor he eventually wore to carry out his attack,18Dan Herbeck, “Iowa company that sold body armor to accused Tops shooter ‘devastated’ by tragedy,” Buffalo News, June 3, 2022, https://buffalonews.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/iowa-company-that-sold-body-armor-to-accused-tops-shooter-devastated-by-tragedy/article_002b9a14-e2b4-11ec-93f7-831ae8129c9e.html. and that potentially prevented an armed security guard from stopping the shooter’s killing spree — from YouTube personality “Garand Thumb,” who has over two million subscribers and specializes in military-themed content. The Garand Thumb channel often provides tactical advice. According to his own writings, the shooter also watched Garand Thumb’s YouTube videos to learn “how to win a gunfight” as well as drills to increase his shooting skills.
On April 2, the shooter wrote that he was considering shooting the armed guard at Tops supermarket through the window of the store before entering but was worried that the bullet may be altered from its path by the glass or that the glass may even be bulletproof. To solve the latter concern, he turned to YouTube, citing a video which discussed how to shoot through both safety glass and bulletproof glass. He added that he would “[w]atch some more” videos from the same user “and try to train” to deal with the armed security guard.
The shooter’s writings, YouTube citations, and the way he ultimately carried out his attack demonstrate that he viewed YouTube, along with other online spaces, as his personal library of firearms and tactical information.
Additional Instructional Videos Available to the Buffalo Shooter and Others in the Public
The videos referenced above are only some of the YouTube videos the Buffalo shooter felt the need to include in his writings. He had access to a much broader world of instructional videos about gun building and customization. In his own words, he was “not a mechanic or a gunsmith so bear with me.”
For this report, Everytown conducted a non-exhaustive review of YouTube for content that would appear to violate its own Community Guidelines with respect to the construction, modification, or sale of weapons. The analysis found over 200 videos readily accessible on YouTube that garnered, collectively, over 40 million views.19Citations for such problematic videos are available upon request. The problematic videos fall into the following categories:
|Category||Number of Videos Found During Non-Exhaustive Review||Collective View Count|
|Instructions on how to make or finish a firearm, a frame or receiver, ammunition, or other accessories. This can include prefabricated “80%” parts.||108||23,357,510|
|Instructions on how to 3D-print firearms, components, or accessories.||62||5,222,900|
|Selling guns, ammunition, magazines, etc.||48||4,272,171|
|Instructions on how to make homemade silencers/suppressors||27||9,922,921|
|Instructions on how to make a gun capable of fully automatic fire. This can include 3D-printed and homemade conversion parts.||24||3,101,174|
The videos identified often made no effort to conceal or hide their violative content. Some included titles like “3D printed an AR-15”, “Polymer 80 Assembly”, “DIY Suppressor” and other titles that clearly indicate the violative nature of the videos, which can teach viewers — including those who may be legally prohibited from owning firearms — how to build unserialized, and thus untraceable, AR-15s, Glock-style pistols, and silencers at home. Between 2016 and 2021, the ATF estimates that law enforcement recovered 45,240 such “ghost guns” at crime scenes,20ATF, “Definition of ‘Frame or Receiver’ and Identification of Firearms,” April 26, 2022, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2022/04/26/2022-08026/definition-of-frame-or-receiver-and-identification-of-firearms. and the danger of silencers, which allow shooters to conceal their firing positions, cannot be overstated. This is why federal regulations have restricted their ownership since 1934.
This is Not the First Time Everytown Has Warned About Firearms Content on YouTube
Firearms content is incredibly popular on YouTube, with several content creators focused on guns having over one million followers. Such content ranges from product reviews and shooting range demonstrations to tactical firefight instructional videos and, as mentioned above, instructions on how to modify weapons to increase their rates of fire and lethality.
YouTube spells out content that is, and is not, permitted on its platform via its Community Guidelines.21YouTube’s firearms policy can be found at https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/7667605?hl=en. With respect to guns, the Guidelines provide that content intended to “sell firearms, instruct viewers on how to make firearms, ammunition, and certain accessories, or instruct viewers on how to install those accessories” is prohibited. The Guidelines provide a list of those items that posters may not provide content on how to manufacture (emphasis added):
- High capacity magazines;
- Homemade silencers/suppressors;
- Accessories that enable a firearm to simulate automatic fire;
- Accessories that convert a firearm to automatic fire, such as: bump stocks, gatling triggers, drop-in auto sears, or conversion kits
The Guidelines also ban videos intended to “provide instructions on how to convert a firearm to automatic or simulated automatic firing capabilities” and to “provide instructions on how to install the above-mentioned accessories or modifications.”
Everytown has repeatedly notified YouTube of videos that instruct individuals how to construct or modify weapons. By way of example, on December 6, 2021, Everytown wrote to YouTube to inform the company of several examples of videos instructing individuals how to construct untraceable “ghost guns” that were hosted on the platform.22Letter from Justin Wagner to Susan Wojkicki, December 6, 2021, https://everytownsupportfund.org/documents/2021/12/youtube-ghost-guns-letter.pdf/ . Everytown’s correspondence and research was then cited in an NBC News investigative article about the prevalence of ghost gun instructional videos on YouTube, which are violative of the platform’s Community Guidelines.23Joshua Eaton, “YouTube banned ‘ghost gun’ videos. They’re still up.”, NBC News, December 9, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/youtube-ghost-gun-videos-rcna7605. On February 13, 2022, several U.S. Senators wrote to YouTube regarding their concerns about ghost gun videos on the platform, citing Everytown’s research.24U.S. Senators letter to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, February 13, 2022, https://www.blumenthal.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/0215.22youtubeghostguns.pdf . Finally, on May 19, 2022, just days after the Buffalo shooting, Everytown wrote to YouTube once again, pointing out that “based on our review of the writings by the shooter in the Buffalo mass shooting, it appears that he honed his knowledge of firearms and firearm modifications on YouTube.”25“In Aftermath of Buffalo Shooting, Everytown Sends Letter to YouTube Highlighting Dangerous Videos Named in Diatribe by Shooter,” May 20, 2022, https://everytownsupportfund.org/press/1364/.
Recommendations for a Safer YouTube as it Pertains to Guns
High-profile mass shootings, such as the attack in Buffalo, shake the national conscience and often spur action from citizens, lawmakers, corporations, and other actors in our society. After the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, even the U.S. Congress, which has failed to act on significant gun safety legislation for decades, passed a historic gun safety, mental health, and school safety bill in June 2022, by a vote of 65-33 in the Senate and 234-193 in the House of Representatives.
Similarly, there are steps YouTube can take to make its platform safer.
As an initial matter, YouTube videos showing individuals how to safely operate and store their firearms can arguably be a positive influence in teaching individuals about responsible gun ownership and use.
However, many of the videos consumed by the Buffalo shooter went way beyond any reasonable interpretation of gun safety or basic shooting instruction, and instead provided technical instruction on how to modify weapons in ways that make them more dangerous, and in some cases illegal. YouTube’s existing Community Guidelines explicitly prohibit videos that provide instructions on how to increase the rate of fire on a weapon, yet such videos are easily found on YouTube, sometimes garnering thousands, if not tens of thousands, of views.
Moreover, the review of the Buffalo shooter’s YouTube consumption also raises questions as to the influence of tactical or combat videos — videos that show a user how to “win” a firefight, shoot out of a car, construct body armor, or other such scenarios typically limited to those in the military.
These videos, and others like them, allow untrained individuals to quickly develop the expertise to modify, handle, and shoot weapons in ways that inflict the most damage.
YouTube can take the following steps to improve the safety of its platform:
YouTube needs to enforce existing Community Guidelines with respect to guns.
As Everytown has pointed out in the past and in our analysis in this report, YouTube is full of content demonstrating how to manufacture ghost guns (including the 3D printing of guns), in addition to silencers and other accessories. This is a clear violation of YouTube’s prohibition on content providing tutorials on how to manufacture weapons. YouTube needs to put more resources into content moderation with respect to guns and start actively enforcing its Community Guidelines. This content moderation should be proactive, and not simply rely on community reporting.
YouTube should place age restrictions on firearms content on its platform.
As YouTube’s Community Guidelines state, “Sometimes content doesn’t violate our policies, but it may not be appropriate for viewers under 18. In these cases, we may place an age-restriction on the video.”26YouTube Help, “Age-restricted content,” https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/2802167?hl=en. This includes “[c]ontent containing adults participating in dangerous activities that minors could easily imitate” and content featuring acts that “could lead to serious injury or death.”27YouTube Help, “Child safety policy,” https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/2801999#age_restricted&zippy=%2Cage-restricted-content. It’s clear that a significant amount of firearms content on YouTube would fit that description and has no reasonable utility for minors who cannot legally purchase, or in some cases even possess, the firearms and accessories featured in the videos. YouTube should review its policies with regards to placing age restrictions on firearms content, particularly content like tactical firearms training videos that serve no positive purpose for minors on the platform.
YouTube should clarify its Community Guidelines to make clear that videos showing how to modify a weapon to (i) increase its rate of fire, (ii) evade a state or federal regulation, or (iii) otherwise make the weapon more dangerous, are not permitted on the platform.
This would cover videos like the ones consumed by the Buffalo shooter that showed him how to modify his Bushmaster XM-15 to accept detachable high-capacity magazines. The current Community Guidelines are arguably unclear on some of this type of content.
YouTube should amend its Community Guidelines to ban content related to body armor.
Given the focus on body armor of many mass shooters, YouTube and other social media companies should amend their Community Guidelines to prevent videos and advertisements promoting body armor. Indeed, body armor is not a common need for a civilian, and those in law enforcement and the military receive proper training in the use of such products. At the very least, such content should be age restricted (see recommendation above).
YouTube should amend its Community Guidelines to ban content that provides tactical live-fire instructions on how to inflict the most damage.
There is a difference between teaching someone how to properly discharge a weapon and tactical military advice about how to shoot from cars and/or “win gunfights” against multiple adversaries. The latter content does not provide any significant benefit to the public, but does provide instructions to would-be mass shooters and other criminals that could lead to greater carnage. At the very least, such content should be age restricted (see recommendation above).
YouTube should proactively watch known spaces where radicalization takes place, like 4chan, for how YouTube weapons content is being shared and promoted.
Everytown Research & Policy is a program of Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to understanding and reducing gun violence. Everytown Research & Policy works to do so by conducting methodologically rigorous research, supporting evidence-based policies, and communicating this knowledge to the American public.