Apple stops Unicode from releasing a rifle emoji, gun advocates get mad

Apple and Microsoft are being accused of getting political by pressuring Unicode into dropping two new gun emojis.

Tech giant accused of pressuring Unicode into dropping a new gun emoji

Two emojis were dropped at the last minute from Unicode's original list of 74 new characters: Modern pentathalon, which features a man shooting a gun, and a stand-alone rifle emoji. (Emojipedia)

After months of anticipation and (apparently) some debate, 72 new emoji characters are officially on their way to smartphones everywhere as part of Unicode 9.0.

The emoji keyboard update, released to developers on Tuesday, includes pictographic representations of breakfast foods, mostly, like bacon and pancakes and eggs. It also includes a "vomit" face, a male version of the popular "red dress dancing lady," and an outstretched arm meant to represent the word "selfie."

What the new batch of characters doesn't include — contrary to earlier documents showing what many thought was a finalized list — is a rifle emoji.

Emojipedia reported late last month that the Unicode Consortium, which regulates and standardizes the emoji keyboard, had scrapped two characters from the update in question, taking the total number of glyphs from 74 down to 72.

"Modern pentathlon," which in some iterations shows a man pointing a gun, was one of 10 new sports characters thought to be created in preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

"Sporting rifle," while described with the terms "marksmanship, sport shooting, hunting," on Unicode's website, was filed under the "objects" category — the same category that holds dagger, bomb, cigarette, coffin and pistol emojis right now.

Shown are some of the 'objects' on Apple's emoji keyboard before the rollout of Unicode 9.0. (Apple iMessage)

Both of these gun emojis can be seen in an archived version of Unicode's original list, as it appeared on May 14, but neither rifle nor pentathlon appeared in the Unicode 9.0 emoji chart on the day of its release, or for about a month previous to it.

This means that they were "not recommended for emoji presentation by vendors," and that they likely won't appear on emoji keyboards when smartphone manufacturers like Apple and Google incorporate Unicode's new update into their operating systems.

The scrapping of these characters didn't raise much public concern when it happened, but at least a few journalists noticed that they were pulled atypically late in the game – so late that they'd already been encoded, according to the Guardian.

A screenshot shows Unicode's emoji candidates chart in May 2016. A block of text at the top of the page states that 'the Unicode Technical Committee (UTC) has accepted the following 79 characters as candidates for emoji.' ( via

Given the state of gun politics in the U.S., where the Unicode Consortium is based, curiosities were piqued over whether events like the recent mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, in which a lone gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others, had influenced the decision.

It couldn't have, of course, as the massacre took place weeks after the rifle emoji was nixed.

But Orlando was only the latest of many stateside mass shootings carried out with high-powered rifles in recent years, and this is far from the first time smartphone makers, particularly Apple, have come up in the context of guns.

Did Apple pressure Unicode to shoot down the rifle emoji?

BuzzFeed News reported on Friday that "a somewhat unusual decision" was made during Unicode's quarterly technical meeting in May.

Citing an unnamed member of the consortium and "multiple persons who attended" the meeting, BuzzFeed reporter Charlie Warzel wrote that Apple had started the discussion that led to the debate over the inclusion of the rifle emoji in Unicode 9.0.

"Apple is one of Unicode's largest member companies and not only has voting rights, but also holds considerable influence," reads Warzel's report. "According to sources in the room, Apple started the discussion to remove the rifle emoji, which had already passed into the encoding process for the Unicode 9.0 release this June. Apple told the consortium it would not support a rifle on its platforms and asked for it not to be made into an emoji."

While Microsoft is also said to have spoken up in support of removing the rifle emoji, Apple's representative to Unicode, Peter Edberg, is listed alongside Unicode Consortium president Mark Davis on the Open Action items list for removing both the rifle and modern pentathalon.

Davis confirmed to BBC News on Monday that "there was consensus to remove" the emojis, but that he couldn't comment on the details.

Outrage over an emoji that never came to be

As news spreads that Apple had a role in blocking the rifle emoji from being released through Unicode 9.0., many are celebrating the efforts of all companies who voted to nix it on behalf of "those who have been traumatized by gun threats and gun violence."

Advocates for gun rights, on the other hand, are accusing the iPhone manufacturer of selective censorship, while others are calling out both Apple and Microsoft for not removing the pistol that has already been present on their emoji keyboards for years.

The irony in restricting Americans from accessing tiny, digital rifles on their smartphones while many can still pick up actual rifles at their local big box store has been noted.

One of the most interesting threads sparked by the rifle emoji, however, relates to the increasing power of tech companies when it comes to how we communicate — and thus the potential influence of tech giants like Apple on politics and policy.

"We're talking about engineers that are concerned about standards and internationalization issues who now have to do something more in line with Apple or Google's marketing teams," said one Unicode member to Warzel in BuzzFeed's piece. 

"It is a bizarre and unusual situation."

About the Author

Lauren O'Neil covers internet culture, digital trends and the social media beat for CBC News. You can get in touch with her on Twitter at @laurenonizzle.


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