The internet, like all technologies, is a double-edged sword. It can be used to edify, educate, and unite people. Of course, it can also be used to corrupt, misinform, and divide people. It is undoubtedly the most powerful communication and teaching tool since the printing press, but it also has incredible power to create emotionally-driven, uneducated mobs screaming for immediate action.
A perfect example of this is the furor that surrounded the SALT Gun campaign that was posted on the crowd-funding website Indiegogo. Last week, Chicago-based entrepreneur Adam Kennedy and his friends claimed that they had invented a brand new kind of gun, the world’s first safe gun. Instead of deadly bullets fired by violently exploding gunpowder, it shot harmless capsules of pepper powder propelled by silent compressed air. They marketed their product as the perfect, child-proof, safe home-defense device that could instantly stop any threat and, for the first time ever, offer a “a fear-free user experience.” However, these claims have a few problems.
The first problem is that they haven’t really invented anything. They are selling a completely unmodified Tippman TiPX paintball pistol; something that’s been sold in sporting goods stores for years at a fraction of the price. The projectile, which they claimed to have developed by “completely rethinking the bullet,” is also an off-the-shelf OC-filled paintball that has clearly been bought from Rap4. This combination of standard paintball marker and pepperball ammunition has actually seen real-world use, usually by law enforcement or corrections officers doing minor riot control outside.
Which brings us the second problem: this is just a terrible way to defend the inside of your home. If I wanted to use a pepper-based villain-deterrent indoors, I would pick a pack of foam or gel based pepper spray, something that would stick to the bad guy and not create clouds of floating pepper dust that will settle into my upholstery, books, and baby toys. If a small child has ever fired a dry chemical fire extinguisher inside your home, you will know how quickly that powder gets everywhere. Furthermore, not even the sting of inhaled oleoresin papsicum will disable every bad guy, and it certainly won’t prevent him from pulling the trigger of the real gun that, if you live in Chicago, he has almost certainly brought with him.
Thirdly, Adam Kennedy and Co. are completely ignorant about everything that they talk about. They continually refer to pepper as a “powerful toxin,” as opposed to what it really is, a non-toxic irritant. They claim that the compressed air (actually CO2) makes the gun recoil-free, thus violating Newton’s third law, and then they get the range, velocity, and projectile energy claims wildly wrong. They also copy and paste random data from PepperBall.com about OC being non-toxic when used outdoors by the military, and then claim that the problem with real guns is that they were “never designed for a home.”
In short, it’s a hilariously bad, slapped-together campaign that could just as easily been a spoof of hipster crowdfunding. I was pretty sure that an internet mob would show up to mock them, either paintballers laughing at the ridiculously inflated price and capability of a plastic toy, or gun owners debunking SALT’s dusty old anti-gun rhetoric. What I didn’t expect was a mob of anti-gun activists excoriating Adam Kennedy for making a gun. You can’t find the SALT gun campaign on Indiegogo anymore, and it’s because a bunch of unreasonable anti-gunners complained and Indiegogo wimped out.
The Social Justice Warrior who claims single-handed credit for this great victory is Mike Monteiro, a San Francisco-based designer who makes anti-gun t-shirts (I guess he’s like me only the opposite). When Mike heard about the SALT Gun, he took his irrational rage to Twitter. “The only safe gun is a non-existent gun. We will NOT tolerate gun design,” he posted, and asked all of his 50 thousand followers to barrage Indiegogo with baseless complaints. You can read more of Monteiro’s side of the story in this extremely irritating Inverse interview.
When his own friends on Twitter tried to explain that the SALT gun isn’t actually a gun – and its “inventors” were ideological allies – he refused to listen, replying, “If it’s shaped like a gun, and shoots things like a gun, and feels like a gun — it’s a ****ing gun!” Mike has clearly never felt a paintball marker, or read anything about firearms. All his responses were fueled with the white-hot fire of pure emotion: “I can’t take another school shooting… Everyone’s in the NRA’s pocket. Right now the NRA’s a domestic terrorist organization…” And on and on and on.
I’m guessing that only a few dozen of Monteiro’s followers began pestering Indiegogo, because that’s usually all it takes. The campaign vanished overnight, leaving behind only a note that SALT had violated Indiegogo’s ban on “weapons, ammunition and related accessories.” If Indiegogo consistently applied that standard to pepper spray and toys, it would have to pull several ongoing self-defense, paintball, and airsoft campaigns. And if Mike Monteiro consistently applied his own standards, he would be trying to shut down the production of Nerf rifles, Super Soakers, rubber band pistols, and all other things that are “shaped like a gun.”
And maybe someday he will, but at the moment he is too busy gloating about his tremendous victory over America’s sinister arms industry. “Hey gun nuts, remember when I said I was gonna take your guns and you said “Try!” Well I did. **** you,” he crowed on Twitter, “I am going to build a middle finger to God with all your molten guns.” Unfortunately, this is only a minor setback for the SALT crew, who have set up their own website, and this has dampened Mike’s glee. “I have no reason to talk to them,” he complained to Inverse, “You can’t convince gun nuts that they’re wrong. All I wanted to do was take away their money. I’m sure there’s some rich gun nut funding them now because they’re playing the victim card somewhere.”
I’m sure that this is not the case. Adam Kennedy and his pals are not gun nuts, or trying to get in on NRA turf. They aren’t selling a firearm, and they haven’t made guns safer. They have just made toys more dangerous – not by making them shoot pepper powder, of course, but by telling people that a ridiculously overpriced paintball gun loaded with seven tiny pepperballs will certainly stop a violent threat and cannot possibly hurt a small child. Telling buyers than they can completely trust this toy for perfect safety and security is a lie, as much of a lie as claiming they invented something that they actually found on the shelf of a sport shop. It’s as bad as the lie that civilians can’t defend themselves with real firearms, or that guns in homes always cause child death.
The $25,000 of pre-orders they have collected so far have come from an anti-gun mob, a group of people that dislike firearms, are ignorant about paintball, and want “a fear-free user experience” that promises perfect protection. Apparently it’s not hipster satire, but legitimate liberal snake-oil salesmanship. Mike Monteiro’s Twitter army is actually part of this target market, the mob that SALT was trying to mobilize. Their advertising video features a homosexual couple holding hands in slow-motion as the narrator says, “No matter who your family is, we all want to keep the people we love safe.” San Francisco hoplophobes should have been totally on board, and Mike Monterio probably was, right up until he saw something that was shaped like a gun. That was when he demanded that his anti-gun mob start attacking the other anti-gun mob for being NRA shills.
This particular mob war was tiny, a tempest in a teapot. A far bigger example was when neo-Nazi Dylan Roof murdered nine people in a South Carolina church, and a picture of Roof with a Confederate Battle flag spread across the internet like wildfire. An irascible mob followed, far angrier about the flag than the deaths. Within days, Confederate flag-related merchandise was banned from Ebay and Amazon. TV Land pulled re-runs of The Dukes of Hazzard off the air, and Apple removed all Civil War games from iTunes. Personally, I have mixed feelings about the flag (and Dukes of Hazzard), but not about the mob. The freedom to talk about American history is vanishing, but murders and racism have remained.
And that’s how mobs have always worked, in every time, and every culture. They rally around a single issue, rely heavily on mass emotion, and are terrible at listening to anything not being chanted by their own mob. They are convinced that one simple action will somehow solve a whole bunch of big problems, and it usually involves getting rid of something. Ban this gun; tear down that flag; remove President Mubarak; guillotine Louis XIV; kill those Jews… it’s always the same. And, of course, capitulating to the mob never solves any of the mob’s problems, real or imagined, it just makes the mob stronger. Internet mobs are no different.