Speaking frankly about guns & reddit

My parents left Brooklyn in the eighties to raise me in Columbia, MD—a charming Baltimore suburb. Two days ago, tragedy struck a mall there. In the town I grew up in, at a place I wandered regularly as a kid, someone shot two people then turned the gun on himself.

Seeing footage of people hurt and afraid at our mall was surreal and unsettling. Memories of this place—a childhood friend meeting his wife, camping out at Electronics Boutique, enjoying lazy afternoons with friends—were tarnished with images of innocent people fleeing for safety.

What happened in Columbia was shocking, saddening, and occurs all-too-frequently. Even more disturbing is the lack of coverage of prevalent gun violence in urban communities: there were 12 separate shootings just twenty minutes away in Baltimore last week alone. That these tragedies don’t get nearly the same attention is baffling.

While I do not own guns or particularly like them, I have shot them (even earning a rifle shooting merit badge in Boy Scouts). I also occasionally visit gun ranges with friends. That said, I firmly believe our right to bear arms is inseparable from responsible use and smart regulation. The shooting in Columbia is another sad example that we’re not there yet in terms of stemming senseless gun violence.

To get there, we need honest debate, civil discussion, and bi-partisan legislation. I hope healing and tangible action will come from the pain inflicted on my hometown, but what happened to me a day before was a step backward.

On Friday, while on my book tour for internet entrepreneurship, I sat down with FastCompany’s Adam Popescu, who requested an interview to “talk about Reddit's commerce market.” Since the only reddit marketplace is the reddit gifts marketplace, I interpreted Mr. Popescu's invitation as an opportunity to discuss that platform. Reinforcing my assumption was Mr. Popescu’s desire to connect with Dan McComas, the reddit marketplace’s founder. It turns out Mr. Popescu wanted to talk about guns.

Based on a video Mr. Popescu posted about our t-shirt cannon at a talk I gave prior to the interview, it's obvious to me he had an agenda. Mr. Popescu later admitted to "being vague" in order to get the interview, but I’m a guy who’s definitively refuted bogus allegations with loads of sunlight and spoken candidly about heated topics like “donglegate” and the tech community’s role in them. I’m OK talking about controversial issues, let’s just do it honestly.

Right now, people are using social media platforms to legally arrange gun sales to other people. These social platforms are not commerce sites—there is no actual purchasing happening on the platform. Last fall, the headlines were all about instagram being used for this. Now, it’s reddit.

During this interview, Mr. Popescu pointed to “more than 400 redditors” involved in gun sales.” Out of 100,744,653 monthly users, this is .0004% of the userbase. He also implied that Condé Nast allowed the reddit logo to be sold, which is false. The logo was not sold: people were given permission to use it (in a transaction the aforementioned Mother Jones article already addressed was a “not-for-profit-buy”). I pressed him for facts and he backtracked, saying he’d follow up later.

This simplification continued into a plea that I say something, mobilizing the masses like he claims I do for internet freedom issues. Sadly, I’m not an expert on guns or gun laws. I’m an expert on tech, which is why I speak as much and as often as I have on tech policy issues like SOPA, PIPA, CISPA, TPP, and net neutrality.

In my view, new technology platforms aren’t the problem -- it’s the law. If we turned the internet off tomorrow, these exchanges would still happen on corkboard bulletin boards. Legislation is the way to solve this. The law currently leaves private, in-state gun sales virtually unregulated. We had a chance to change that last April, but Senate Republicans blocked it.

I asked him to work toward convincing people to act by engaging their representatives to pass the stricter gun laws a majority of citizens demand instead of going after hyperbolic headlines. Let's drive honest discussion instead of pageviews. He rebuffed me, saying regular people can’t make a difference -- that it’s up to people with “followings” like me to rally everyone. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This was remarkably naive and simplistic.  

He went on to insist that regular people don’t have much of a voice or the time or inclination and if it isn’t easy they can’t do it to actually make a difference. It was so condescending. As I’ve always said, it was precisely these regular people who defeated SOPA and PIPA. I was one of millions of private citizens who accomplished this. It’s how movements happen online -- from the bottom up. We didn’t defeat SOPA and PIPA because I led the way, it’s because I followed millions of people.

I understand many people still associate me with running reddit, despite not being involved with daily operations since leaving the company in 2010 (I do sit on the board). I’m happy to share my personal views, but that’s what they are: my personal views. After addressing how disappointed I was that he misled me into this interview, he implied he got what he needed. I have no idea what his FastCompany piece will entail, but I wanted to take the time to put forth my own views in my own words.

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Finally, Mr. Popescu, I do own pink socks (and love them) but the ones I was wearing that day were actually orange. During our interview, you called my childhood friend and crew manager Asa Solomon a “little guy,” which was rather unprofessional (sure, he’s a little shorter than average, but why the petty putdown?). And lastly, there’s no reason to insult our bus driver, Bruce, for owning a bag that didn’t meet your high-fashion expectations.