A new state law requires everyone who applies for a gun license in New York to turn over their social media handles for a background check. The goal is to find signs of potential violence before people have the chance to pull a trigger.
But as law enforcement agencies adjust their policies to comply with the additional requirements, some worry the legislation could have unintended consequences. A researcher who studies the intersection of social media and gun violence argues the measure could disproportionately affect people of color, while civil rights advocates call it “invasive” and say it could violate First Amendment rights.
The new law includes several measures to minimize the chances of irresponsible or dangerous gun use. Applicants will be required to go through safety training and submit four character references. They will also need to hand over a list of every social media account they’ve used in the past three years.
The purpose of the background checks, according to the bill language, is to ensure that applicants have “good moral character” and are unlikely to hurt themselves or someone else.
“If there's things that we can find out by looking at their social media, we should at least look at it,” said State Sen. Kevin Parker, a Democrat representing Brooklyn who helped to draft the legislation. Parker proposed a similar bill in 2018, after a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. He and then-Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams advocated for the legislation together.
At the time, proponents for privacy rights raised concerns. A petition to quash the legislation garnered nearly 5,000 signatures, and the bill failed in committee.
This year, back-to-back shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, followed by a Supreme Court decision striking down the state’s strict permit law, renewed discussions about social media reviews. In both cases, the alleged shooters had shared violent messages on social media beforehand. Parker said the string of events increased the sense of urgency around gun control in New York.
“We know that as a state government, we have to go further in order to protect our citizens if the Supreme Court is not going to protect us,” he told Gothamist.
But some researchers warn these social media checks could disproportionately affect people of color.
“We do not deploy these tools ethically and equally across groups,” said Desmond Patton, who studies the intersection of social media and gun violence at the University of Pennsylvania.
“What we read consistently, pervasively is, kind of, the surveillance of Black and brown communities using these [artificial intelligence] and social media tools to catch people involved in criminal behavior before it even happens,” he said.
But when it comes to white males who commit mass murders, Patton said, authorities often miss the racist manifestos and other warning signs on social media.
“For some reason, we're never able to find those platforms or surveil those platforms before these mass murders happen,” he said.
Patton calls social media background checks a form of “digital stop and frisk.” While working at Columbia University’s SAFElab in 2017, his team published a paper about the risks of racial profiling seeping into social media surveillance, just like it has with pat downs on the street. The paper details several cases in which people of color were arrested based, at least in part, on social media snooping. It warns of the potential for racial bias when police interpret someone's social media posts or decide whether to surveil them. When Parker filed his bill the next year, the researchers cautioned against it in a Medium post.
Parker doesn’t think his legislation is a “complete cure” for gun violence. For one thing, it was written in response to mass shootings, which account for a tiny fraction of firearm deaths – not to address what he calls the “slow-motion mass shootings” that affect communities in New York and other other cities every day.
As a Black state senator who drafted the legislation establishing racism as a public health crisis, Parker said he also understands the criticism of the social media requirement.
“There's probably some things that we could have done in terms of the process to make sure that it's more equitable and fairer,” he said. “But striking down the law and just allowing a number of concealed carry permits is just not going to be, I think, safe for New Yorkers of any race, religion, creed or sexual orientation.”
Local law enforcement agencies will be responsible for creating their own policies to conduct social media checks. It will be up to the police to judge applicants’ “moral character” and decide who poses a danger.
The NYPD said in an email that its licensing process will balance constitutional rights with public safety. But Daniel Lambright, a senior staff attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, fears widespread police surveillance of social media could make people more hesitant to express their views, join political movements or share personal aspects of their identities online.
“All of those things are really important, I think, for our functioning democracy, and all of those things happen online,” he said. “If people have to give up their social media accounts, I think there's a realistic fear that that will kind of chill and kind of put a damper on a lot of those activities.”