I Fooled the Internet with a Petition to Allow Guns at the Republican Convention
It started out as a joke, but my petition ended up attracting more than 50,000 signatures and becoming a national news story.
A gun owner in Virginia at the opening of a gun shop. (Rex Features via AP Images)
This week, an anonymous internet person calling himself the "Hyper Rationalist" launched a Change.org petition calling for guns to be allowed at the GOP convention this July. It went viral, gathering more than 50,000 signatures and launching a bevy of incredulous news articles. Some people assumed it was a joke, or supported it jokingly, but others took it seriously enough that Donald Trump said he would consider it, and the Secret Service had to clarify that no guns would be allowed at the event.
It was, it turns out, a piece of satire from a self-described liberal, but you can't blame people if they weren't sure whether they should laugh—in 2016, it's increasingly difficult to sort out satire from fact. Even if it weren't in earnest, the petition did spark an upsurge in the national debate about guns, with columns in the New York Times and the New York Daily News both referencing it.
Here is the Hyper Rationalist—who did not want to share his identity, though he said another outlet has discovered it—describing how all that happened:
It came out of a joke. I was watching a Republican debate—it was a particularly contentious one, and the talk of a contested convention was getting more heated, and I thought, Wow, I wonder how they'd feel about having open carry there? That seed germinated into something a little more concrete, which was the petition. It was intended to be another cute, satirical thing that I would share with people, a couple other people would share it, and it would dwindle and die a slow social media death.
I considered the petition an offshoot of what I normally do, which is write tweets or Facebook posts for my little social circle that I entertain sometimes and annoy other times. This was one step beyond that, I guess; it became something closer to performance art—in hindsight, that's what it looks like now.
The goal was to write something earnestly in the words of somebody on the pro-gun side of the debate. Not the furthest right person on that side, not the most easily caricatured—I imagined someone who could easily get a guest spot on Fox News. I tried to use that sort of language, for the most part, with little tweaks, like the capitalization of "HUSSEIN" in "Barack Hussein Obama," as clues for people who might be in on the joke. I wrote what I think Republicans should have written without me, in order to not be in contradiction of their own stated principles about guns.
Gun ownership is a uniquely irrational aspect of our life in America that we've lost the ability to talk about in a way that makes sense. What really confounds me is when a Donald Trump or Ted Cruz rails endlessly about the San Bernardino attack, where 14 people were killed—a tragedy, no doubt, but in the end, I don't care who shoots me. It could be a Muslim, it could be a white supremacist, it could be a depressed guy, it could be a kid who got a gun from his mom's purse. I don't want to see anyone getting shot, regardless of the reasons behind it. Republicans like Trump and Cruz only seem to care about mass shootings when people they don't like commit them.
Anyway, when I shared the petition around it was like wildfire. I think the first big push was from Brave New Films, who grabbed it somehow, and I forget how it spread from there but the shares just started piling up. By the time the petition got to 5,000 signatures, I sort of panicked a little bit.
I was also a little disappointed with how the media just propagated the petition as if it were real, as if it would have the force of law behind it if it reached X number of signatures. On the one hand, I was thrilled that they saw the point, and they were asking questions, but on the other hand, I saw a lot of outlets that were just glomming on and reposting other site's information like, "This is happening, and this seems kind of hot at the moment." I think a lot of them got distracted by the whodunit aspect of the thing and failed to address the underlying question it sought to ask.
My sense was that the vast majority of support was from people who knew that it was satire. But I don't know. That's very unscientific; I'm not going to comb through 50,000 comments and try to figure that out. I don't necessarily think it took off because Republicans supported it—but I think it's absurd that most Republicans were silent on it.
Now that the right knows a liberal was behind the petition I've been called a "Clinton activist." I don't know why. I'm pretty neutral about the primary—I like Bernie Sanders. I've donated to him, but I've also donated a little bit to Hillary Clinton. Republicans want to say, "Look who started it!" but who cares who started it? Do you agree with it or not?
Either guns make you safe or they don't. If they make you safer—and Republicans say they do, they always rail against "gun-free zones" and want to make it possible for gun owners to carry them everywhere—they would make the convention safer. So why not have guns there? Is that an admission on their part that a lot of armed people getting together would be unsafe?
For 95 percent of people, guns at a convention seems like a bad idea, this year in particular with the atmosphere of violence that's in the air. Could we maybe look at that across other contexts and see if there are lessons to be drawn?
I wish we could have a conversation about guns where the two perceived options weren't "Take all the guns," or "Everyone can have all the guns they want." Generally, I like the idea of lower-capacity magazines, I like the idea of "smart guns"—but I don't have a specific piece of legislation in mind that I want to see passed. I just want to be able to talk about guns in a rational way. That was what I was trying to do.