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Anti-Trans Rhetoric Helps the Right Pivot to Gun Violence Myths, Sell Guns

America is in the grip of a gun violence epidemic. On average, American young people know at least one person who has been injured or killed by a gun, according to a 2024 report from SPLC, Everytown for Gun Safety, and the Polarization & Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL). Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows “firearm injuries were the leading cause of death among children and teens” in the U.S. in 2020 and 2021. Research also shows gun violence in the United States disproportionately affects LGBTQ+ people.

Transgender people are more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of gun violence. Despite the data, the increasing number of mass shootings and gun violence in the United States has been accompanied by an uptick in anti-trans narratives blaming trans and non-binary people for gun violence. In the wake of several prominent mass shootings, anti-trans narratives are used to promote common myths about gun violence that are designed to promote gun buying, block policy change and reinforce divisive far-right ideologies.

On Feb. 11, a cisgender woman allegedly opened fire at the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, and was subsequently killed in an exchange of gunfire with off-duty police officers. Her 7-year-old child was critically injured in the shooting. Seizing on reports of mental health issues and a masculine alias, anti-trans and gun apologist media machines went into overdrive, attempting to construct a false narrative of trans people as inherently violent and LGBTQ+ affirmation as a form of indoctrination into a violent cult.

False accusations of trans terror fed by multiple extremist tropes

A Hatewatch review of data from 20 alt-tech social media sites between Jan. 1 and Feb. 16 shows a surge in posts that blame two incidents on either a “trans shooter” or on transgender people, collectively. The first surge in posts came Jan. 4-5 after a shooting at Perry High School in Iowa. Far-right social media accounts like LibsofTikTok speculated the alleged shooter was “part of the LGBTQ+ community” because a Pride flag appeared in the biography section of a social media account purported to be the perpetrator’s.

Among alt-tech sites, the content was especially prevalent on Truth Social, where a search for “trans shooter” returned two posts on Jan. 3, but returned 240 on Jan. 5 – an 11900% increase. On that site, most of the content was generated by reposts of two accounts: Donald Trump Jr., who said on Jan. 4, “Another day another trans shooter,” and asked, “Per capita is there a more violent group of people anywhere in the world than radicalized trans activists?” On Jan. 5, a far-right account known as “caturd2” accused “the left” of ignoring gun control arguments “when it’s another trans shooter.”

A similar spike occurred between Feb. 10-12, after the Lakewood shooting. On Truth Social, the rhetoric concentrated on accusations the alleged shooter was trans, the immigration status of the alleged shooter, and allegations of antisemitism and anti-Christian animus derived from a reductionist argument common to the far right that support for Palestinians is antisemitic. Along with “trans shooter,” phrases like “Free Palestine” and “illegal immigrant”/“illegal invader” were common.

Along with anti-trans, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, a framework for understanding the incident’s policy implications based on the myth that “guns don’t kill people,” also trended. In a now-deleted post that represents almost 10% of the total number of shares on the platform following the Lakewood shooting (14/160), one Truth Social user said, “Men w/ guns stopped the trans shooter before it could become a massacre...we all know it is the person using the firearm & his or her mental state.”

Despite these posts, there is no evidence that suggests trans people or immigrants are more likely to commit mass shootings or crime, respectively. “Trans people are significantly more likely to be a victim of gun violence than the perpetrator,” Angela Ferrell-Zabala, the executive director of Moms Demand Action, told Hatewatch. “Messages that villainize already marginalized groups – like trans people, whom the far right have targeted for years – are just attempts to distract from the fact that it’s weak gun safety laws that drive our uniquely American gun violence crisis,” she said.

Good Guys Shoot Back’ – Not Just Alt-Right Social Media

Along with individual accounts, far right websites like ZeroHedge, Red Pill News and Townhall were frequently cited as sources of information featuring the “trans shooter” narrative on alt-right social media platforms. However, anti-trans disinformation is spread not only on alt-tech sites or far-right social media accounts. For example, The Advocate reported prominent politicians and the conservative media outlet Fox News initially identified the alleged Lakewood shooter as trans before later updating its headline.

In addition, similar rhetoric proliferated on more popular platforms like X/Twitter and Facebook. On Facebook, right-wing media personality Dan Bongino shared a post falsely characterizing the Lakewood shooter as a “trans shooter” on Feb. 13. The post received about 3.7 times more interaction, measured by likes, comments and shares, than a typical post by Bongino’s account, according to metrics reviewed by Hatewatch. The post reflects another common myth in the gun control debate – that “good guys with guns always stop bad guys with guns.” Namely, Bongino’s post suggested the response to mass shootings is to “shoot back.”

On X/Twitter, LibsofTikTok, administered by Chaya Raichik, falsely claimed on the morning of Feb. 12, “The modern LGBTQ+ movement is radicalizing our youth into becoming violent extremists.” That afternoon, the “DC_Draino” X/Twitter account, with 1.4 million followers, claimed, “We are witnessing the rise of a domestic terror movement” after “a trans mass shooter ... stormed into a Christian church.” Far-right commentator Chris Rufo of the Manhattan Institute also suggested violence was the logical result of transgender affirmation adding, “Psychopathology + pharmacology + ideology = violence” to Raichik’s tweet that afternoon.

Far right propagandists also criticized law enforcement’s concern with the gender identity of the alleged shooter, suggesting police took too much care in using appropriate pronouns to describe the attacker. Ben Shapiro, for example, claimed in a Feb. 13 video that “the first question” Houston law enforcement had to ask was “How can we treat this mass shooter’s gender delusions with respect?” On Facebook, Shapiro’s video post was viewed over 100,000 times in two days.

An environment that glamorizes gun use by “good guys” is a troubling trend that impacts how young people view gun violence, according to social scientists and activists. According to the report on gun attitudes produced in part by SPLC, “A young person’s access to guns, identification with gun culture and exposure to media relating to guns correlated with concerning beliefs like support for male supremacy, belief that the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to overthrow the government, higher levels of racial resentment and post-traumatic stress disorders.”

“For many,” the report continues, “guns and gun ownership have come to symbolize the preservation of a certain type of Americanness: one based on the primacy of the white, cisgender and heteronormative nuclear family to the detriment of Black, Indigenous, Asian and Asian American, Latinx/a/o, Pacific Islander people and LGBTQ people.”

“Obviously not all gun owners are prejudiced,” Ferrell- Zabala said, but results like those demonstrated in the SPLC report “show there is an alarming problem with American gun culture that is only aggravated by harmful rhetoric from the gun lobby.”

A subgenre of the anti-trans narrative often perpetuated in the wake of mass shootings comes from the religious right and suggests that trans people – often falsely characterized as under demonic influence – are increasingly responsible for violent attacks on American Christians.

Conservative commentator Eric Metaxas – who allegedly punched a protester outside the White House in 2020 and emceed the Jericho March, a Dec. 12, 2020, rally that amplified election conspiracies in the lead-up to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection – shared an article on Feb. 14 that falsely claims, “Violence is an intrinsic part of the transgender movement” and that the Texas shooting is clear evidence that “our nation isn’t confused but in fact possessed” by demons.

In a Feb. 13 article on its Washington Stand site, the anti-LGBTQ hate group Family Research Council (FRC) quickly tied the Lakewood shooting to “increasing incidents of violence perpetrated by LGBT-identifying people.” FRC also views the Lakewood shooting within an “increasing trend of attacks on churches,” a pattern the group attributes to “Black Lives Matter riots” and “individuals who identify as transgender” who are focusing “their rage on Christian facilities,” despite issuing a report documenting numerous attacks on LGBTQ+ Christians.

On Feb. 15, FRC published an article about mass shootings in which the group’s president, Tony Perkins, mimicked Rufo’s analysis, saying, “There is a convergence of transgenderism [a phrase, like “transgender ideology” used by anti-LGBTQ+ groups to dehumanize trans people], drug treatments, and violence.” Perkins has previously characterized LGBTQ+ rights advocates as controlled by “demonic spirits.”

The article also questioned whether gender-affirming care like hormone therapies are causing “rage” that both creates and exacerbates mental illness among women resulting in violence like mass shootings. FRC falsely suggests that the trigger for mass shootings by trans people is ideological, warning of “the influence of Marxist ideology that encourages a person with gender dysphoria to adopt an identity of victimhood as a member of an oppressed minority.” This transgender “belief system,” FRC argues, views “Christians [as] the problem.”

A second article published on Feb. 15 by FRC characterized the alleged Lakewood shooter as “a mentally ill former Muslim who is sometimes identified in official records by a man’s name ... and could have been deported due to her immigration status” and quoted Perkins saying the Texas shooting “may be a harbinger of things to come under the Left’s transgender, immigration, and anti-biblical policies.”

Scholars of the right have expressed concern over the rhetorical linkage between marginalized groups and demons, suggesting the potential for political violence increases as the far right increasingly views their political opponents as literally inhuman. The same framing often provides justification for inaction on gun control reforms in the wake of mass shootings and voice to a common myth that criminals will always find access to guns. Namely, demons – or people controlled by them – will always find a way to do evil, no matter what the law says.

On Perkins’ Feb. 14 “Washington Watch” streaming show, Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, seemed to refer to the alleged Lakewood church shooter as “he - she,” a derogatory term for trans people, and repeated a common myth about gun access. “This is a person who’s not going to obey the law, they’re going to get a gun, they’re here illegally,” Weber said. “Right,” Perkins interjected.

According to Ferrell- Zabala, “toxic and dangerous messages that villainize marginalized groups” are part of an “effort to tap into extremists' obsession with firearms.” Research shows, in the end, the primary beneficiary of those messages is the gun industry.

Distraction to increase sales

When combined with myths about gun violence prevention, anti-trans, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim narratives stoke fear and distrust that feed into broader conspiracy theories about gun control that stymie gun violence prevention efforts. For example, misconceptions about mental illness and mental health, as well as the idea that gun ownership is only intended for a cis masculine “protector figure,” help construct gun violence as an individual problem largely solvable by white men having more guns, rather than a systemic problem that affects everyone, according to the SPLC report on gun attitudes.

In addition, the number of weapons in circulation often increases after mass shootings, as concern over hypothetical regulations to combat gun-related deaths motivate some people to stock up on weapons and ammunition. Fears of mass violence from new groups of supposed perpetrators, too, can provoke additional gun sales in the wake of shootings. Each of these frames, however, have been constructed as part of a mythic “armed individualism” claiming that individuals are responsible for protecting themselves from gun violence – which helps feed gun sales, especially in the past 20 years, according to scholars of gun-related attitudes.

In a statement to The Advocate, GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis noted the pattern in far-right narratives about gun violence following mass shootings: “Smearing transgender people is inaccurate and harmful, and it distracts from what should be the focus in every mass shooting: the pain in shattered communities, how gun violence is the number one killer of children, and how easy access to weapons of war continues to endanger every community.”

Ferrell-Zabala added, “Right now, too many states have weak gun laws that make it easy for dangerous people to get their hands on firearms.” “These policies,” she said, “are propped up by a gun industry which seeks to make as much money as possible by making guns as available as possible.”

The demonization of trans people as inherently dangerous and LGBTQ+ people as indoctrinating others into a violent “ideology” provides excuses for some people to arm themselves against this new threat. At the same time, some research since 2020 has shown, the insecurity marginalized people experience due to the operationalization of far-right conspiracies can also feed gun purchases among some marginalized groups. In both cases, the response fits the narrative long pushed by the gun industry that the only way to assuage fear is to arm oneself.

“Many LGBTQ+ people live in fear of becoming the next headline,” Ferrell-Zabala says. Even then, “Studies show that people in the LGBTQ+ community support strong gun safety measures like background checks on all gun sales and an assault weapons ban.”

In the end, far-right propagandists have helped create the myth of a “trans shooter” phenomenon that will again proliferate in the aftermath of the next near-inevitable instance of gun violence. The propaganda has the dual effect of making trans and nonbinary people less safe and creating ever more reasons to buy guns.

Photo illustration by SPLC

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