In the wake of the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, gun control groups moved quickly to press Americans to support new restrictions on firearm ownership.
Facebook was immediately awash with ads from activist groups for and against gun control—but also ads from sites marketing concealed carry permit packages looking to make a quick buck off a freshly horrified public.
Organizations such as Sandy Hook Promise and Everytown for Gun Safety dropped hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook ads alone in the wake of the massacres, which together took 32 lives.
If observers expected prominent gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association to mount equally vigorous advertising campaigns, they were surprised. The other side of the gun policy divide on the world’s largest social media platform was dominated not by Second Amendment advocacy groups, but by companies seeking to sell gun-themed merchandise and concealed carry certificates.
A half-dozen of those Facebook advertisers offer semi-official “courses” that its customers can use for applications in some states to carry concealed weapons. Together, those six pages spent about $170,000 on Facebook ads from Aug. 4, the day after the El Paso shooting and the day of the shooting in Dayton.
“SURGE!” declared one of those advertisers, dubbed Concealed Online, in a recent post on its public-facing page. “Concealed Carry is going through the roof in Washington State, especially in the wake of El Paso & Ohio!” The page’s ads direct to a sign-up website that urges visitors to get their concealed carry certificates “before new waiting period laws,” citing federal legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases.
The site includes a clock that’s counting down to Sept. 1, 2019, though it’s not clear what it claims is happening on that date. The website’s source code indicates that the clock previously counted down until election day and warned that “Democrats lead by 17 points and laws may change soon!”
Concealed Online is one of the biggest advertisers on Facebook, regularly eclipsing even prominent politicians and interest groups in its weekly spending on the platform even when mass shootings drop off of the evening news. In that sense, its spending in the week after the shootings was not out of the ordinary, but the language in the appeals themselves was tailored to hype a supposedly imminent post-massacre rush.
More notable, though, was the imbalance. Spending by Concealed Online and similar pages dwarfed that of pro-gun policy groups. Another six Facebook advertisers, including pages with names like the American Gun Association and 2A4LIFE, dropped about $50,000 in that time on ads promoting their retail businesses, where customers can buy gun safes, holsters, and Second Amendment-themed apparel.
Those pages’ spending was a fraction of the sum spent by gun control groups in the aftermath of this month’s shootings—Everytown, Sandy Hook Promise, Giffords, and a page called Ban Assault Weapons NOW together spent more than $700,000 on ads in that same time period. But gun-friendly businesses advertising on the platform spent far more on those ads than groups such as the NRA, the National Association for Gun Rights, and the Firearms Policy Coalition, which together dropped just over $16,000 in the week after the shootings.
Unlike those policy groups, Facebook’s commercially oriented Second Amendment advertisers generally aren’t concerned with changes in the law, as long as people keep buying their products. “The point of the ad is to effect a purchase, not influence policy,” Concealed Online’s attorney told Wired last year.
Or, as Perry Belcher, the marketing executive behind the American Gun Association, told his Instagram followers last week, “Stop trying to save the effing world. We are OK. Go make some damn money.”
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