Facebook has been slowly tightening its rules and practices for the kinds of gun-related advertising it allows, and gun range owners are caught in the squeeze.
According to Facebook’s policy, it does not allow ads promoting sales of firearms, silencers, other weapons like knives and fireworks, and ads promoting the brandishing of firearms. It does allow things like ads promoting blogs, safety courses and accessories – the latter with limits.
Three gun-range businesses, in Okeechobee, Fla., Davenport, Iowa, and East Earl, Pa., reported that when they try to boost posts that seem to fall into those “safe” categories, they’re blocked. Many gun ranges sell guns on the side as dealers, and offer training classes to go along with their ranges.
Since the murder of Molly Tibbits, Jeanelle Westrom who owns Davenport Shooting Club, said she has increased her range’s training programs to include non-gun self-defense classes, primarily for women. “I am not allowed to to advertise those classes since I cannot boost any of our posts,” she said.
The three-year old range expects $2 million in revenue this year and has about 15 employees, including part-timers.
Westrom called Facebook a necessary evil these days.
“My favorite was when we attempted to boost a post that said nothing more than ‘we support our troops.’
“It’s impossible to reach an actual human to discuss these issues with, leaving myself and Ian, my marketing guru frustrated,” she said by email.
I reached out to Facebook’s small business executives, sending a spokesman a copy of a blocked ad that a range owner had sent me, and forwarding Westrom’s story, but didn’t hear back by deadline after an initial response. I also reached out to Google.
The range owners point out that they serve a legal market – in many cases, private gun ranges serve as the training grounds for police, military and security officers.
“It is unfair that incidents of breaking the law result in a professional and legal industry being penalized,” said Jessica Keffer, marketing manager of the Sportsman’s Shop in East Earl, Pa., by email. “Their policies are not fairly applied or consistent and that is why this is incredibly frustrating. Facebook is a huge marketplace and not being able to advertise to that market does our business and industry a huge disservice.”
And Jeff Wait, who owns Okeechobee Shooting Sports, finds it particularly galling that “companies like Facebook and Google deny us the ability to advertise because it "could" lead to the sale or use of a firearm but gladly take the millions of dollars in ad revenues from companies like Walmart and Basspro, which are some of the largest firearms retailers in the world. Their moral high ground seems to not be so high if you spend enough money with them.”
Gun range owners are worried about the business impact. But there are deeper questions, based on Facebook's size in the small business advertising market and the position it's assumed for itself as a public square.
The rights of gun range owners aren't a popular cause, but if Facebook is blocking some of their ads, it might be a free speech issue, said Betsy Page Sigman, professor at the McDonough School of Business.
"Facebook, as a private company, can certainly make these types of decisions," she said by email. "But, by being censorious, Facebook is expanding the definition of who determines speech in the public square. And we know that around 2/3 of Americans report getting at least some of their news on social media, and much of that is from Facebook. (Source: Pew Research, August 2017)."
Sigman added that Facebook's action may not annoy many users, and have the effect o goading Congress into trying to regulate social media. "As we saw when Mark Zuckerberg went before Congress, this would be burdensome and difficult for our legislators, as well as damaging to free speech and the open exchange of ideas," she said. "History shows that even under the best of circumstances, it is difficult for Congress to regulate a rapidly-changing industry."