New York's newest gun control law sure to be tested after Buffalo shooting

New York's newest gun control law sure to be tested after Buffalo shooting
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

In the wake of Saturday’s shooting in Buffalo, we’ve seen no shortage of anti-gun politicians from Joe Biden on down issue calls for more “commonsense” gun controls, though most of them have been vague at best in terms of what, specific policies they believe would have prevented the attack. Many of these same folks have also been calling for new restrictions on social media, given the fact that the shooter live-streamed his attack on Twitch and published his manifesto on at least one message board site.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said social media companies bear some responsibility when crimes like the Buffalo shooting happen.

“The social media platforms that profit from their existence need to be responsible for monitoring and having surveillance, knowing that they can be, in a sense, an accomplice to a crime like this, perhaps not legally but morally,” Hochul said.

Hochul (along with former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a majority of Democrats in the state legislature) also thinks that firearms companies should bear responsibility for attacks like this, and the New York law signed by Cuomo last year empowering citizens to sue gunmakers over the criminal misuse of their products through the state’s public nuisance law is undoubtably going to get a test in court as a result of this past weekend’s shooting. The state law seeks to circumvent the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act by using a company’s marketing materials, rather than the firearm itself, as the basis for a public nuisance suit, and I would imagine that New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is also empowered by the law to file suit, and gun control groups are already in the opening stages of drafting a complaint against every company in the firearms industry they can possibly connect to the gun used in the shooting.

Would Hochul support a New York law that allowed social media companies to be sued under the same public nuisance statute? It sounds like it, though it appears she at least understands that would require changing the law at the very least. And who knows, Democrats in New York may very well approve something like this in the coming weeks. But we’ve been hearing that information wants to be free for nearly 40 years now, and is there really any to effectively police the live-streaming of a mass murder or to suppress the distribution of a killer’s self-proclaimed “eco-fascism” manifesto without simply stopping livestreaming altogether? Doesn’t sound like it to me.

Experts say platforms could be doing more to prevent livestreams of atrocities from gaining an audience online.

Other white-supremacists have also used social media to publicize gruesome attacks, including the mass shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019.

Since the Christchurch shooting, social media companies have gotten better in some ways at combating videos of atrocities online, including stopping livestreams of attacks faster.

But violent videos like those of mass shootings are saved by some users and then reappear across the internet on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and other platforms. Those reuploaded videos are harder for companies to take down, says NPR’s Bobby Allyn.

On the site Streamable, the video of the Buffalo shooting was viewed more than 3 million times before it was removed, says Allyn.

… Social media companies used to take a mostly hands-off approach to moderating content on their sites, but now more than ever sites are trying to manage the societal problems their sites create, reports Allyn. Facebook, Twitter and other sites like them have teams of thousands working to moderate content and block violent media from reaching people.

For example Twitch, the site the Buffalo shooter livestreamed on, could make it harder for people to open accounts and instantly upload live videos. Other video-streaming sites like TikTok and YouTube require users to have a certain number of followers before they’re able to stream live, reports Allyn.

All those efforts kind of nibble around the edge, don’t they? I mean, you could put those policies in place, but if someone is willing to put in the time and preparation to plan out a mass murder, they’re probably willing to wait a week in order to be able to stream it live if that’s part of their plan. And I’d hardly hold up either TikTok or YouTube as examples of online companies that have successfully purged their platforms of all problematic content, live streamed or not.

Even if you could get every major platform to magically prevent streams like this from ever starting, there are always going to be sites like 4Chan that are going to take a mostly hands-off approach to content moderation. But the issue goes deeper than a company’s tolerance for the most outrageous and disturbing speech. Even authoritarian regimes like China haven’t been able to suppress every video the government finds objectionable, so the idea that our largely dysfunctional government is somehow going to do the same thing in cooperation with (or over the objections of) social media companies is just a little too ridiculous for me to seriously consider.

I’m not saying, by the way, that these companies shouldn’t have a policy against live streaming mass murder or any other crime; only that these policies can and will continue to be circumvented by individuals with the motivation to do so. And ultimately, it’s the person who live-streams the crime they’re committing who is responsible, not the streaming service. I can buy into the idea that the streaming site may have a moral duty to try to stop the stream as soon possible once its become clear what is happening, but events like these are so rare it’s really hard to argue that there’s some way for sites like Twitch to prevent streams like this from starting in the first place.

The issue is even more cut and dried (or at least it should be) when it comes to suing gun and ammo makers for the actions of a violent criminal. There are somewhere between 80- and 100-million gun owners in the United States, and 99% of them will never commit a violent crime. Yet we’re supposed to believe that firearms advertisements are so effective that they’re actually making people buy a gun specifically to commit a crime? It doesn’t even matter if the criminal has seen the advertising in question, by the way, only that the advertising exists.

It’s an awful law that never should have beens signed, but then, Andrew Cuomo was an awful governor and this is fully in line with his views on accountability. Regardless of the fact that it shouldn’t be on the books, it is, and in order for it to go away it’s going to have to be challenged in court. I have a feeling that day’s not long away, but in the meantime expect Democrats to double down on trying to ban their way to safety. Gov. Hochul is expected to unveil several new gun control proposals tomorrow, though maybe she’ll surprise us and include a public nuisance law targeting streaming sites as well.