A History of Guns on Instagram

The social network had a thriving gun culture even before the alleged NYPD shooter used it to post threats.

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Dec 22 2014, 6:30pm

​Image: Instagram via ​New York Post

The man who shot and kille​d two New York City police officers in their patrol car on Saturday afternoon broadcast his violent intentions ahead of time in several posts on Instagram. 

"I'm Putting Wings On Pigs Today," reads a caption on a photo of a silver handgun posted on an account thought to be that of alleged shooter Ismaayil Brinsley, who took his own life after the murders. "They Take 1 Of Ours......Let's Take 2 of Theirs #ShootThePolice #RIPErivGardner [sic] #RIPMikeBrown."

Screenshots taken by jo​urnalists show the photo posted to the account, @dontrunup, closely matches the Taurus handgun police recovered near Brinsley's body, the alleged murder weapon.

Similarly disturbingly, witnesses report Brinsley asked them to follo​w him on Instagram just moments before opening fire on the patrol car. He also reportedly posted threatening messages before shooting and seriously wounding his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore on Saturday.

Police say Brinsley threatened violence for weeks beforehand in posts on In​stagram.

Instagram quickly removed the account, saying in a statement to Motherboard: "our deepest thoughts and sympathies go out to the family and friends of the two police officers who were shot and killed in New York. There is no place for this content within our community. It was a violation of our terms and was quickly removed." 

However, Instagram is certainly home to a lot of gun photos. Many are from seemingly legal owners, as well as criminals flaunting their wares and private gun dealers conducting legal, but largely unregulated, person-to-p​erson firearms sales sans background checks.

Police around the country have taken notice. The NYPD has had ​a task force in place dedicated to monitoring social media for threats of violence in place since early 2012. The largest gun​ bust in New York City history to date (some 254 firearms) took place in August 2013 after police saw self-styled Brooklyn rapper Matthew "Neno" Best's Instagram posts advertising illegal guns for sale. A few months later, police in Palm Beach County, Florida arrested a 19​-year-old suspected burglar after he posted photos of guns and cash on his Instagram account, the unfortunately spelled @duce22ceritfied [sic].

Even photos that just look like real guns have landed some posters in hot water: two teenage boys in C​onnecticut received visits from police earlier this month for posting images on their Instagram accounts of pellet guns and a gun photo from the internet, respectively (the pellet gun-owner was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct).

Instagram and its parent company Facebook have attempted to crack down on some of the gun sales activity at least, announcing new guidel​ines last March that limit access to posts advertising gun sales to users over age 18, and prohibit dealers from using language flouting regulations (such as "no background check required").

Instagram also introduced a new warning specifically targeted at would-be gun buyers. Searching for #buyguns on Instagram today produces the following pop-up notice: "Content Advisory: the private sale of firearms is regulated in many locations, and may even be prohibited. Background checks may be obtained for safety purposes before completing private sales. Please ensure that you are following the laws that apply to you."

At the same time, Instagram hosts millions of photos and videos of guns, and people posing with them and firing them. 

The majority of these appear to be from totally law-abiding gun owners and hobbyists, and can be found under hashtags like #guns (1.5 million+ posts), #gunporn (334,000+ posts), #comeandtakeit (55,800 posts), #gunstagram (24,000+ posts), #2amendment (20,000 posts), and #opencarry (11,000+ posts). With the holiday season in swing, people receiving guns as gifts will soon be eager to show off their new hard​ware to their followers.

Many gun owners, like collectors of all stripes, clearly enjoy sharing their hobby with their friends and the wider public. Some police officers and law enforcement agencies use Instagram to post gun photos, perhaps most notably the Trans​portation Security Administration (@TSA), which regularly posts photos of the ​weapons it's seized from travelers' luggage. All of which makes it harder to tell from social media alone which guns are legal and being operated safely, and which are cause for alarm.

So far, the ​facts point to Brinsley being a violently troubled individual who acted alone: he was previously arrested for armed robbery and other offenses, and reportedly attempted suicide before. Just as it would be inappropriate to tie his actions to the broader protest movement over the police shootings of Eric Gardner and Michael Brown, who were alluded in his Instagram account's hashtags, using Brinsley as the primary example of Instagram's thriving subculture of gun photos would be equally remiss.

Indeed, Instagram is hardly unique in being a major platform for gun photos. People have been posting pictures of their firearms online since the earliest days of the internet, at first largely on topic-specific forums and websites. Thousands of gun-specific websites exist today. But those all have niche audiences, while Instagram and its parent company are some of the biggest social networks in the world, giving gun owners a much larger potential audience with which to share their wares. As with any social media or publishing service, it's not exactly easy to tell which photos come from law-abiding users and which don't, making it especially challenging to stop violent offenders before they act.