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The hired guns of Instagram

Vox.com logo Vox.com 6/19/2019 Kaitlyn Tiffany
a person standing next to a tree: Instagram influencer Lauren Young with her Seekins Precision SP10 6.5 Creedmoor in Savannah, Georgia.© Melissa Golden/Redux for Vox Instagram influencer Lauren Young with her Seekins Precision SP10 6.5 Creedmoor in Savannah, Georgia.


When Kimberly Matte captions an Instagram post “suns out, guns out, buns out,” she mostly means it. The sun may be out, but she’s inside. Her buns are definitely out, because she’s wearing a lime-green thong. Technically, there’s only one gun out, but it’s an AR-10 battle rifle, so she’s still overdelivering.

Matte has more than 84,000 followers on Instagram and recently founded her own social media marketing and modeling agency. She grew up in Windsor, Ontario, one of seven children — a fan of skateboarding, dirt-biking, four-wheeling, soccer, and tree forts, and not of guns. The first time she held a shotgun, she was a kid, “65 pounds soaking wet.” Her dad and brothers thought it would be funny to let her shoot it. “They didn’t tell me it was going to basically rip my shoulder off,” she says. “I was like, I’m never touching a gun again.”

But then three years ago, she moved to Michigan to be with her American husband, who’d recently retired from the military. Now they shoot guns together, and arrange assault-weapon-centric lingerie photo sessions for Matte and her clients. She makes good money for her part, doing sponsored posts for brands both firearm-related and not — assault rifles one day, teeth-whitening treatments the next. For $100 and some free products, Matte will post a “selfie and shoutout” on her Instagram grid; she gets paid thousands of dollars per month for recurring endorsements.

Matte’s feed is a mix of guns and rough-cut firewood and laser-cut underwear. She doesn’t let anyone shoot guns on her property because her yard is an unofficial foster home for wild deer, several of which she personally nurtured through infancy when their mother was hit by a car. She loves the president, hates the “free-for-all negativity” around him. She is extremely charming. Her platform, she tells me, is a place to preach love.

And because Facebook, and by extension the Facebook-owned Instagram, forbids retailers to run ads that promote the sale or use of firearms, her platform is also a place to market guns that can’t be easily marketed online.

Kyle Clouse, head of marketing at the gun safe company Liberty Safe, refers to influencers as “the goose laying the golden egg” for the firearms industry. Influencers skirt the rules and restrictions platforms impose on official businesses that want to advertise guns or gun-related services and accessories. This makes gun influencers more directly, tangibly important to the businesses they partner with than perhaps any other type of influencer in the bloated influencer economy. They may, in fact, be the only influencers who have proof of their reason to exist.

There are dozens of women (it is mostly women who are gun influencers) making partial or complete livings off Instagram grids full of guns and perfect smiles. Some of them are hunters, some of them are veterans, some participate in professional shooting sports, some also swing-dance, some play soccer. Some look really good in a pair of camouflage overalls or a red, white, and blue onesie or wearing almost nothing, and all of them have come up with their own rules about how best to monetize these physical realities.

They’ve done something that the companies in the firearm industry cannot do on their own: make the gun lifestyle as attractive and aspirational as all the others on Instagram.

a person posing for the camera: Paralegal and Instagram influencer Liberte Austin, holds up a STI International .45 caliber pistol called Shadow, while being photographed in her home outside Houston, TX.© Ilana Panich-Linsman for Vox Paralegal and Instagram influencer Liberte Austin, holds up a STI International .45 caliber pistol called Shadow, while being photographed in her home outside Houston, TX.
Paralegal and Instagram influencer Liberte Austin holds up an STI International .45 caliber pistol she has named Shadow in her home outside Houston, Texas.
a person standing in front of a gun: Former military officer Lauren Young poses with a Seekins Precision SP10 6.5 Creedmoor, a $2,650 rifle.© Melissa Golden/Redux for Vox Former military officer Lauren Young poses with a Seekins Precision SP10 6.5 Creedmoor, a $2,650 rifle.

Former military officer Lauren Young poses with a Seekins Precision SP10 6.5 Creedmoor, a $2,650 rifle. 

When DeeAnna Waddell started working at the Las Vegas helicopter-and-shooting range Gunship Helicopters — a place where you can fire guns from a helicopter — in the spring of 2018, she had to completely overhaul its brand strategy. The Vegas attractions business is notoriously competitive, and Gunship wasn’t standing out online.

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Waddell’s first critique: The owners weren’t doing anything with the beautiful women of Instagram who already love guns, and who know how to pose with them in a way that makes a shooting range look like the sexiest place in the world. Now she arranges for women with significant Instagram followings to come out to the range and do photo sessions, sometimes video sessions too. Currently, nearly every post on the Gunship Instagram looks like a poster you could hang in a dorm room, featuring women who are more stunning when jumping out of a moving aircraft in a tank top and Kim Possible low-waist cargo pants than most of us would be in our wedding photos.

Waddell is friendly and enthusiastic, and is corralling a kid in the back seat of her car while we talk, which means she also ends up near-screaming at me, “On the value scale, content is a 10! You obviously have to have content!”

Waddell insists that digital advertising in the gun industry is nearly impossible without influencers — “The platforms shut it down. They don’t care for that information” — and that “everyone tries to work together” to counteract the limitations imposed by Facebook and Instagram and, to a lesser degree, YouTube. (To get a leg up on the dozens of gun ranges in the region, Gunship organizes explosions specifically for YouTubers who visit Las Vegas and require a spectacle to post on their channels.)

“They can promote our product better than we can,” she says of influencers. “That’s the sad part, because they’re not a gun company. We can pay them to promote our product, but we can’t promote our own. In regards to Facebook and Instagram, it really is the only way for gun companies to grow.” Big gun companies, local shooting ranges, and gun-adjacent lifestyle brands share this reality.

Both Instagram and Facebook have convoluted histories with the presence of guns in their feeds. The platforms’ shared policies around buying ads to promote guns are broad and rigid. (They struggled for years — largely because of their own sloppy product launches — to stop users from selling guns to one another as casually as they would used sofas. The current policy, written in 2016 and updated in 2018, was designed to put an end to gun marketing as well.)

Ads can’t promote direct sales of weapons, ammunition, explosives, or “weapon modification accessories.” The definition of weapon is expansive, and includes not just actual guns but also paintball guns, pepper spray, “non-culinary” knives, Tasers, batons, and the broad category “weapons intended for self-defense.” But if the targeted audience for an advertisement is set to 18 and older, brands can promote things like scopes, sights, gun safes, mounted flashlights, holsters, and other gun-related accessories.

“When an ad is submitted, it goes through a pretty extensive review process before it’s approved,” a spokesperson for Instagram explains. That includes a review of the ad itself, the landing page the ad redirects to, and links to outside websites. Even if the ad doesn’t promote the sale of guns, leading to a page that does will result in rejection. And the caption is just as important as the image. “If the image was a firearm safe — this is purely hypothetical — and then the caption was ‘I love using guns, you should all use guns, here’s a safe,’ that would be disapproved.”

(I contacted a dozen of the largest firearm manufacturers in the country, which are most affected by these policies, multiple times throughout the reporting of this article. Of those, only a public relations manager for Glock promised to call back, though she did not. A representative for Winchester Repeating Arms declined to comment.)

Advertisers on Facebook and Instagram are also prohibited from promoting “the brandishing of firearms.” (The word “brandishing” does not have an official definition in the policies — it’s deliberately vague to give moderators ample room for judgment calls — but pointing a gun at a person or at the camera are given as examples.) If an Instagram or Facebook advertisement seen in a feed leads people back to a page that promotes the sale or “brandishing” of firearms, that’s a no-go too. That’s sort of the kicker, the one that means you cannot pay to promote a post at all if you are a gun company. This is where influencers — who have personal accounts that aren’t subject to the rules of a business account — come in.

Liberty Safe sells gun storage safes and handgun vaults, which you would not know if you looked at the company’s Instagram. There are no guns to be seen there, as every safe’s door is shut. The guns go into the hands of influencers, who are compensated with a free safe of their choice. (The Presidential Series safe pictured in a recent post from Liberte Austin, a paralegal in Texas who has more than 200,000 Instagram followers, starts at $4,399.)

a person standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: The Liberty safe in Liberte Austin’s home is worth over $4,000, but it was free in exchange for a series of Instagram posts.© Ilana Panich-Linsman for Vox The Liberty safe in Liberte Austin’s home is worth over $4,000, but it was free in exchange for a series of Instagram posts.
Austin’s gun safe sits in her living room, next to the head of a deer she killed. The gun safe in Austin’s home is worth more than $4,000, but she received it for free in exchange for a series of Instagram posts.

Clouse says the company’s marketing team members used to post photos of open safes with guns inside, but if they tried to promote them through Instagram’s advertising tool, they were blocked. Now they promote photos of safes with their doors shut and use “a large pool” of influencers who can post photos of the safes being used as intended. Influencers can’t use Facebook or Instagram ad platforms to boost posts where a gun is being “brandished” either, but they widen a brand’s audience each time they work an automatic rifle into lifestyle imagery being served to a highly engaged group of followers. And they never forget to tag.

Brad Lunt, the owner of Goat Guns, a company that makes toy replicas of popular rifles, has similar problems. The algorithm sees his products as real guns, best as he can surmise. His account is sometimes set to private — a popular Instagram growth hack, manipulating the curiosity gap — but has more than 120,000 followers. Those followers come via influencers, he says. He puts the toy guns in their hands, and people click through the tag.

When he realized how crucial influencers would be, he signed up with the marketing platform Revfluence (now called AspireIQ) and entered into a year-long contract in which he would pay $1,500 a month to have the company pair his product with influencers. “I signed the agreement, and once their internal team saw that I was promoting toy guns, all of a sudden their software wouldn’t work for me,” he says with a laugh. “I found that kind of shocking.” Even third-party Instagram advertising services are leery of companies with a firearm connotation, he says.

Another service, Ader, was a bust because it paired him with influencers who just turned him down, not wanting to be associated with guns. “Most astonishing was being told no by dozens of Twitch influencers who play and promote first-person shooter games for a living,” Lunt says. “They are toy guns.”

Today, he just direct-messages influencers who openly love real weapons. And that works fine.

a woman sitting on a bed: Young has nearly 200,000 followers on her artillery-heavy Instagram account.© Melissa Golden/Redux for Vox Young has nearly 200,000 followers on her artillery-heavy Instagram account.
Young has nearly 200,000 followers on her artillery-heavy Instagram account.
a woman holding a gun: Liberte Austin poses for a photograph in her living room holding a Camo Shotgun Beretta A400 Max in 12 gauge.© Ilana Panich-Linsman for Vox Liberte Austin poses for a photograph in her living room holding a Camo Shotgun Beretta A400 Max in 12 gauge.
Austin does sponsored posts for patriotic apparel companies and tactical gear subscription boxes, in addition to typical influencer fare like teeth-whitening kits and protein supplements.

Most gun influencers exist within the tactical community, which overlaps to some degree with hunting and shooting sports communities, and a bit more with the Second Amendment activism community. This group is interested in a little bit of everything: supplements and bodybuilding, general outdoorsiness that can easily involve guns, preparing for disaster with military techniques, accruing weapons for protection and for fun, hanging out together at gun shows and photo sessions, sustaining each other’s followings by making guest appearances on one another’s feeds. Falling in love and having babies together. Welcoming followers into their Christmas mornings and their afternoons at the range.

Kimberly Matte calls herself an open book, and gamely answers questions about how she picks out protein powders and patriotic pajamas for sponsored content on her page, as well as what it’s like to have Instagram hide your photos because of a glimpse of nipple or something less obvious — maybe just spam reports from people who don’t like semi-nude women playing with weapons. She is like a lot of the other women who operate in this space on Instagram, in that she says her following just grew on its own, became more of her identity than she intended, and brought her a lot of joy. Plus money.

Liberte Austin (pronounced “exactly like the word ‘liberty’”) became interested in guns after she was the victim of a violent home break-in. “That set the course for me for the next few years, to live in fear,” she says. “When I started hunting, that’s when I gained a sense of power back in my life.” She says Instagram was just a good avenue to express herself, and 200,000 people were interested in what she was saying.

a person standing in a field: Liberte Austin takes a selfie with a Silver pistol STI International DVC Limited 2011 double stack in 9mm tucked into her shorts.© Ilana Panich-Linsman for Vox Liberte Austin takes a selfie with a Silver pistol STI International DVC Limited 2011 double stack in 9mm tucked into her shorts.
Austin started buying guns after she was the victim of a violent home break-in. Now they’re a huge part of her life.

Lauren Young, a veteran living in Georgia and currently prepping for the LSAT, has 192,000 followers on Instagram and also says she never meant for it to happen. She doesn’t call herself an influencer. She joined the Army just out of high school and thought shooting was the least fun thing in the world. It was the confluence of a bunch of random factors — her boyfriend taking up portrait photography, a group of her friends dogging her to go with them to the shooting range, some guy in Reno asking her to be in a photo session based on the third-person shooter video game The Division — that got her to where she is now, posting mostly about guns and gun brands.

“It just kind of blew up,” Young says of her account. “I think I fell into [the tactical] niche at the right time before it got oversaturated like it has with the fitness industry, or the Fashion Nova-type industry. I was getting reached out to by companies whose guns I’d shot. I think organically it became a bigger part of my life — more than I expected, for sure.”

a person holding a microphone: Young stands at a workbench with a semi-automatic combat rifle as she and her fiancé Bobby Hill demonstrate how they produce an Instagram photo session.© Melissa Golden/Redux for Vox Young stands at a workbench with a semi-automatic combat rifle as she and her fiancé Bobby Hill demonstrate how they produce an Instagram photo session.

Young stands at a workbench with a semiautomatic combat rifle as she and her fiancé, Bobby Hill, demonstrate how they produce an Instagram photo session. 

These three are considered mid-tier influencers, with followings between 50,000 and 500,000. Many of the other women with brand deals like theirs are technically micro-influencers, with followings between 10,000 and 50,000. They have that elusive quality that advertisers crave in 2019: authenticity. Smaller audiences tend to be more engaged audiences, and a lifestyle feels more real and accessible when the people promoting it are both of those things.

If the first wave of Instagram influencers were hired to promote things with obvious visual allure — fashion, beauty products, high-end travel, home decor — this community is being hired for a more complicated task. They’re taking the inherently ugly, seemingly undesigned world of weaponry and making it beautiful. What they’re selling, as is the case with all influencers, is their own taste; their purchasing choices are evidence of a charming and enviable lifestyle. They’re liberating guns from a dogmatic and fanatic reputation. Beautiful people love guns too.

A few weeks before the birth of her son, Charissa Littlejohn (388,000 followers) posted a photo of the baby sneakers she would give him when he was born. They were sitting on the ground between her husband’s feet (in a pair of the same shoes) and her own (also classic black Converse).

It would not be so different from any other Instagram influencer’s prenatal post — down to the tagging of a profile belonging to a baby who could not yet secure his own username but needed one all the same — were it not for the fact that surrounding the soon-to-be-filled kicks was a circle of FN 509 handguns. “Even got one for @babyyygat when he gets here …” Littlejohn wrote, thanking the company with a heart-eyes emoji, to the response of nearly 5,000 likes. Yes, her baby’s Instagram handle is a gun reference too. This is called a consistent brand.

However disorienting, when broken down to its component parts, the post is an example of coloring inside the lines, following a template long since standardized across Instagram. There are ways in which all types of Instagram influencer are the same.

Their days are the same: Matte does traditional modeling jobs every day, works in marketing, and has to “squeeze in influencing.” She comes home to packages from protein supplement and novelty sock companies, and does unboxing videos whenever she can. When we speak, she’s about to leave for an event in Las Vegas and is packing a teeth-whitening kit she just received so she can try it out on the road.

Like all influencers, they love their morning coffee, and turn it into a ritual that can be photographed to show them in a moment of soft, relatable vulnerability. The only difference is the brand. When these women drink their first cup of coffee of the day, be it in their underwear or on the back of a truck, it comes from the veteran-owned, Utah-based Black Rifle Coffee Company, which has, naturally, a rifle in its logo. Lauren Young posts about Black Rifle all the time, sometimes just sipping a cup in solitude, sometimes holding an M249 light machine gun.

Gun influencers have the same professional frustrations as any other influencer. Practically everyone who pursues a livelihood on the platform expresses regular disdain for the opacity of the timeline’s mechanics. And the more successful an influencer becomes, the more it matters. The platform undergirds their livelihood and their lives, and the demands on time and effort grow.

Liberte Austin does a mix of sponsored posts for things like super-right-wing or screamingly patriotic apparel companies, protein supplements, trauma kits, a tactical gear subscription box, Second Amendment-related home decor, and, of course, teeth-whitening kits.

“It’s quite time-consuming,” she tells me. “You’re not only developing your following by interacting on Instagram, but there’s also an algorithm you have to deal with. You have to be active. When I’m full-time active on Instagram, I would say it takes six to eight hours a day.”

Influencer rates are still far from standardized, but she’s comfortable charging about $175 per post. Mixed in with these brand deals and portraits of her hunting is a lot of what you might call lifestyle imagery: bathroom selfies with friends. Wine and home-cooked venison. A pair of guns amid a bunch of miniature cupcakes and candy hearts on Valentine’s Day. A widely circulated meme of Austin that she did not make but did repost several times. (It is a photo of her lifting up her shirt to show off the gun in the front of her jeans with the caption, “The bulge in conservative girls pants is a gun. The bulge in liberal girls pants is a penis.”)

Almost none of the sponsored posts shared by any of these women have Federal Trade Commission-mandated ad disclosures, but that doesn’t make them so different from other influencers either.

a person wearing a black shirt: Liberte Austin poses for a portrait with a Silver pistol STI International DVC Limited 2011 double stack in 9mm tucked into her shorts.© Ilana Panich-Linsman for Vox Liberte Austin poses for a portrait with a Silver pistol STI International DVC Limited 2011 double stack in 9mm tucked into her shorts.
Austin tucks an STI International pistol into her shorts for a photo session in a field near her Texas home.
a person in a green field: Liberte Austin poses for a portrait with a a Silver pistol STI International DVC Limited 2011 double stack in 9mm tucked into her shorts.© Ilana Panich-Linsman for Vox Liberte Austin poses for a portrait with a a Silver pistol STI International DVC Limited 2011 double stack in 9mm tucked into her shorts.
“I will be someone who takes 50 selfies to get it the right way,” Austin says. She spends six to eight hours a day working on her Instagram.

Instagram’s exuberant portrayals of women in cocktail dresses playing with assault rifles are not particularly representative of the bigger-picture relationship between American women and guns, which are primarily owned by America’s men. Per data collected in 2017, 62 percent of gun owners in this country were men, and about three-quarters of those men owned more than one gun. On average, a woman is shot and killed in a domestic violence dispute every 16 hours in the US. In 2013, a New York Times investigation focused on women and their male ex-partners found that the federal law requiring the surrender of firearms by people who are the subject of protective restraining orders was hardly ever enforced in most states.

The reasons a woman would want to own a gun, then, are both murky and somewhat obvious. According to recent Pew research, men and women cite protection as a reason to own a firearm at roughly equal rates, but women are more than three times as likely to say it’s the only reason they own one. Only 22 percent of American women do in fact own one, and they typically buy them later in life (at age 27 on average, as opposed to 19 for men).

The body that has spent the most time thinking about why a woman would want to own a gun is, of course, the National Rifle Association. In the late 1980s, the general decline in gun sales was attributed to “saturation in the primary market of white males,” which led to a pivot in consumer focus. Some studies found a link between fear and gun ownership. Some, such as a series conducted in 1989 and 1990 at Louisiana State University, found no such link. Nevertheless, the NRA dedicated millions to marketing campaigns that emphasized a woman’s need to protect herself from violence and victimization, released in tandem with an informational campaign highlighting rates of sexual assault.

Today, the “defend yourself” marketing strategy has not gone out of style. It’s only mutated slightly: In May 2018, a report in the Guardian unpacked “how feminism is being used to sell guns,” citing “girl power”-infused responses to a viral photo of a young woman named Brenna Spencer, who tweeted a college graduation photo in a “Women for Trump” shirt with a gun in the waistband of her jeans.

On-campus concealed carry activist and conservative influencer Antonia Okafor is capitalizing on the phrase “Gun rights are women’s rights.” She sells it on racerback tank tops that also say “Empowered” with a bull’s-eye target in place of the “O,” alongside iPhone cases, yoga leggings, and camouflage snapbacks. NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch insists that calls to ban AR-15 assault rifles — the rifle with the largest female ownership — were tantamount to a “war on women” and should be considered a sexist effort to disarm them.

This message is also championed by young, right-wing celebrities with a knack for self-presentation and a familiarity with the language of empowerment. Fox News’s Tomi Lahren, for one, has more than 1.5 million followers on Instagram. Last March, she posted a photo endorsing the fledgling brand Alexo Athletica — a line of trendy-looking athletic wear with reinforced pockets for firearms — in which she wore a smoky eye and a handgun down the front of her pants, writing, “Live. Speak. Stand. Run. Carry with Confidence.” Alexo founder Amy Robbins says her company gained 6,000 followers from this one post.

Andrew Patrick, media director at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, an umbrella organization for several dozen political action groups, sees these messages as the opposite of empowering. Carrying a gun doesn’t make you safer, and in fact puts you and the people around you at greater risk, he argues (and decades of research does back him up). Gun control is often framed as a “slippery slope” by lobbyists on the side of the firearm industry, but Patrick says the lifestyle imagery these influencers post to Instagram is the real issue.

“The real slippery slope is normalizing this idea of guns — a tool designed to kill and practice killing — into our coffee shops and our bars and on our streets and in our schools and carried in purses with special pockets to conceal weapons,” he says.

But Patrick also references what’s been called “the Trump slump” — a steep decline in firearm sales associated with an administration that seems uninterested in “taking your guns away.” Gun sales typically go up after mass shootings and were particularly high at various points during the Obama administration; whenever new gun control legislation seems most likely to win favor, sales follow.

“It’s a very difficult time for the gun industry right now. I think they’re looking for any way to make an impact,” Patrick says. “Instagram and social media looks like a good way to do that, but I don’t believe it’s going to be particularly effective. I think the truth is what will make its final impression on the public.”

Many of Young’s photos are taken by her fiancé Bobby, who specializes in portrait photography. He bought her this FN America rifle for Christmas.© Melissa Golden/Redux for Vox Many of Young’s photos are taken by her fiancé Bobby, who specializes in portrait photography. He bought her this FN America rifle for Christmas.
Many of Young’s photos are taken by her fiancé Bobby, who specializes in portrait photography. He bought her this FN America rifle for Christmas.
a person holding a baseball bat on a field: Liberte poses for a photograph holding a AR-15 F1 firearm 7.62 called Old Glory.© Ilana Panich-Linsman for Vox Liberte poses for a photograph holding a AR-15 F1 firearm 7.62 called Old Glory.

Austin’s rate for a single sponsored post is $1 per every 10,000 followers she has — she currently has more than 200,000 — but free guns are another common form of payment.

“We have a lot of hunters, a lot of tactical people, and we have a lot of competitive shooters,” Liberty Safe’s Kyle Clouse says. “We stay away from gun bunnies as much as we can, simply because we see the women’s audience for gun ownership growing and we don’t want to do anything that would offend that audience or turn that audience off.”

Gun bunnies. That’s the buzzword that flits through every conversation about women on Instagram who love guns. Onlookers, even if they enjoy the photos, often suspect that a woman who poses in lingerie, or naked, with a firearm is just doing it to bait followers and thirst-trap men. These women are seen as hypersexual and out to exploit their own bodies, and they’re not often an affiliation mainstream gun companies want to have.

The gun bunny is a loaded piece of dated slang that still causes real conflict in the online tactical community. Matte says most of the women she’s met through Instagram have been friendly, but there are some who have been “catty” and don’t appreciate her provocative poses or conversation starters about indelicate topics like breast augmentation and aging.

“I think that women should all band together in this life,” she says. “I don’t know why people are ashamed to say, hey, I get Botox, or hey, I get fillers, or hey, I had my boobs done. It’s part of you, right? I think. I have no problem telling people about it.” She has her own limits, and doesn’t pose topless, but she knows there are people who report her images over and over for nudity. “I have an open profile; they feel like they can go on and complain about my pictures. I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong. To each his own.”

There is some degree to which women can sell guns by selling sex, but almost everyone I spoke to for this article agreed that there is more money in coming up with a brand based on something else. As with the broader influencer industry, that something else is uncomfortable to name. There has always been a quiet tension in the largely female influencer population on Instagram and the platform’s commodification of domestic aesthetics.

The gun space on Instagram is as heteronormative as the “lifestyle” space, which deals in simple narratives of domesticity and products purchased with the shared funds and divergent interests of heterosexual marriage. A recent Washington Post Magazine feature about Instagram’s tactical community spent significant time with Black Rifle Coffee company owner Mat Best, who has established his brand not just by brewing coffee and firing big guns but by writing himself into YouTube sketches that paint a picture of an affable but hapless husband, engaged in a goofy domestic tug-of-war over whether and when he can get some.

“In his brand-ambassadorial capacity, he posts photos and videos of himself, often performing skits, to market an aspirational lifestyle that revolves around firearms, red meat and his hot wife, Noelle,” reporter Simon van Zuylen-Wood writes. “His most popular videos are at once satires and endorsements of macho culture.”

After all, gun companies don’t need any help being seen next to girls in bikinis. (They’ve been notorious for that kind of imagery since the days of pinup calendars.) They need help being seen as a reasonable addition to a diaper bag or coffee run. Glock has 1.8 million followers, but its average post gets fewer than 50,000 likes. A photo of a gun is very boring to look at. These are not beautiful objects.

FN America, a favored gun maker among the Instagram set, has a particularly terrible page, full of ugly forest-green coupons and handguns lying on tables or duffle bags. But each of Lauren Young’s beautifully shot photos with her FN rifles has tens of thousands of likes and dozens to hundreds of comments. Gun makers have paid Charissa Littlejohn to show their guns next to her infant son’s stuffed animals or camouflage Crocs, with captions about how she “can’t wait” to teach him to shoot. Part of what they’re paying for is a woman’s touch: the opportunity to offload to someone who might have some aesthetic sensibilities, in addition to a nice smile.

DC-area influencer Emily Valentine runs the account Style Me Tactical and recommends carrying Tarte liquid lipstick, a Glock, some Chanel perfume, a spare magazine of bullets, and Purell hand sanitizer at all times. She sells coffee mugs that say “Gun Snob” in bouncy gold cursive. She recommends a pair of glittery Manolo Blahniks, and she also recommends a white marbled holster, which looks almost exactly like Kim Kardashian’s line of LuMee phone cases, except it’s for a gun. She offers a different, woman-friendly context for guns that isn’t about boobs or fear.

Young explains that the “gun bunny” idea has been around for a long time but Instagram has blown it up. She says sponsors have complimented her on her choice not to dress that way, but she gets called a gun bunny anyway, even by well-meaning fans. She has mixed feelings about it. She was a military police officer and was paid to carry a gun for eight years.

“I’ve never posed in a bikini or some sexy lingerie or body armor with no shirt underneath, just because I personally don’t want to, really no other reason than that,” she says, “If you’re a woman with a gun, there’s always going to be someone who calls you a gun bunny.” She cycles through several possible opinions, trying to riddle out what she thinks. Does nudity make you unserious? Does quibbling with it cause rifts that the “Second Amendment community” can ill afford? Is having the choice to wear lingerie on the internet as important as having the choice to own an assault rifle? Exposed skin: good or bad?

“I don’t know if that’s empowering women or doing the exact opposite,” she winds down, giving up. “I don’t know for sure.”

a person that is standing in the grass: Liberte Austin poses for a photograph holding a AR-15 F1 firearm 7.62 called Old Glory.© Ilana Panich-Linsman for Vox Liberte Austin poses for a photograph holding a AR-15 F1 firearm 7.62 called Old Glory.

“I don’t dress any differently on Instagram than I do in person. That’s just the way I like to dress in general,” Austin says when asked about criticisms of “gun bunnies” on Instagram. “To be successful, you have to really ignore that.”

Alexo Athletica founder Amy Robbins, best known as a host of NRATV’s Noir, says Tomi Lahren’s post about her concealed carry leggings is what convinced her that influencers were vital to a growing business. “That was one of the first a-ha moments when we knew how important brand ambassadors were.”

The company’s Instagram account, glanced at too quickly, could belong to any athletic wear startup. (Robbins collaborated with a designer who worked on Khloé Kardashian’s activewear line.) It features pretty young women smiling, cheers-ing with cappuccinos, walking puppies, stretching underneath a beach boardwalk.

Only about one in every 10 photos actually features a gun, typically the Smith & Wesson handguns common in police departments; Robbins says she’s never tried to promote those posts. There are far more images of the leggings with Mace or a Taser or just an iPhone tucked into the signature pocket, and some posts don’t have people or clothes or weapons in them at all; there’s also a blue spirulina acai bowl, a morning inspo board, a fake pink forest.

“We promote women defending themselves however they want to,” Robbins says, “so we have pictures of women with pepper blasters, Tasers, Yellow Jacket stun gun cases. We don’t only promote firearms.” Plus, it seemed like engagement went down whenever the account featured guns, she adds, like the algorithm was punishing it, though “I don’t have any data to back that up.”

This is where the National Shooting Sports Foundation comes in. The trade association represents more than 8,000 gun manufacturers, retailers, ranges, and media outlets, and Larry Keane, senior vice president for government and public affairs, says this is a First Amendment issue.

“Advertising is a form of protected speech,” he says. (True, but Facebook isn’t the US government.) “We don’t think it’s appropriate for these social media organizations to muzzle speech.” He refers to guns, consistently, as “constitutionally protected products.” (But they’re not totally unregulated.) He would like to see legislation that explicitly prohibits Instagram and Facebook from “discriminating based on content,” and says the organization has met with members of Congress who are interested in such an effort.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation has an ongoing conversation with Facebook, he says, but it’s kind of a boring and repetitive one. Business owners and individual influencers who have posts taken down or advertisements rejected contact the organization not understanding why; it then goes to Facebook and asks why. (A representative for Facebook confirmed this line of communication.) “And often it’s an internal problem of their own staff not understanding their own rules,” Keane says. “Or it’s the algorithm. It’s an inconsistent application of their own policies.”

The truth is a little less dramatic. Though Keane is broadly wrong that private companies are not allowed under the Constitution to police speech on their platforms, he is not wrong to suspect that they are doing so unevenly. Former Facebook engineering director Chuck Rossi, who coordinated conversations between the National Shooting Sports Foundation and Facebook’s policy team for years, ending in November 2018, tells me he found his job frustrating. “The rules were in no way clear, and for quite a while, they were very vague and applied very inconsistently,” he says. “The complaints from the industry were completely valid in my opinion, and even now, enforcement is very, very inconsistent and frequently incorrect.”

According to Instagram, many of Liberty Safe’s ads were also removed for promoting the sale of firearms, but revisiting them for this story, Instagram found that a small number of them were rejected in error and so were restored. Liberte Austin’s account actually had been placed in something of an algorithmic timeout and removed from the Explore section after one of her posts was reported as violating community guidelines and removed by the platform. This was also an error, and the punitive actions had already been lifted prior to the reporting of this story.

a person standing in front of a window: Liberte Austin poses for a photograph in her living room holding a Camo Shotgun Beretta A400 Max in 12 gauge.© Ilana Panich-Linsman for Vox Liberte Austin poses for a photograph in her living room holding a Camo Shotgun Beretta A400 Max in 12 gauge.
Austin in her living room, holding a Camo Shotgun Beretta A400 Max in 12-gauge.

Alexo Athletica has run 10 ads on Instagram so far, and of those, two were removed for promoting the sale or use of firearms, exactly as the policy states. If Robbins suspects that the algorithm is punishing her brand, it’s because that’s the way the algorithm is set up — to deprioritize accounts that have established a likelihood to break the rules.

Style Me Tactical signal-boosted the problem, writing in an Instagram caption under a photo of Alexo leggings, a gun, a knife, and a pair of Miu Miu slides:

Instagram is a place where I have met amazing women and friends that believe in and support our second amendment and support our right to defend ourselves. Instagram has brought us together and allowed us to share our stories and our lessons learned. Each of us help build this community. But how can we continue to do that if they continue to censor us?

Lucky for Alexo, Brenna Spencer, the Nashville-based activist who posed in the “Women for Trump” shirt at her graduation and advocates for causes like “All Guns Matter,” was happy to wear a pair of the brand’s leggings on “Sunday-Gunday” and show them off to her 29,000 followers. As was Bree M. Warner, a New York City-based blogger who goes by tactigalnyc and uses Instagram to sell her line of T-shirts and homewares, including a coffee mug that reads “Sundays Are Made For Faith, French Toast & Firearms.” “It’s always been a passion of mine to encourage women to exercise their 2nd amendment right & to look good doing it,” Tennessee makeup artist Taylor Towsley captioned her Alexo support post. “Guns are rad & so are women⁣⁣⁣⁣.”

If you pop out a noun here and there, it all sounds — and looks — just like everything else on Instagram.

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