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How gun buffs took over Wikipedia’s AR-15 page

How gun buffs took over Wikipedia’s AR-15 page

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After Parkland, gun control information was strangely hard to find

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AR-15 Assault Rifles Sold At Utah Gun Shop
Photo by George Frey / Getty Images

In the days after the Parkland shooting, users flocked to Wikipedia to learn about guns. When users searched for “AR-15” — the style of gun used during the shooting — they were directed to the page for the “Colt AR-15.” The page was viewed more than 200,000 times on the day after Parkland, a hundred times its usual traffic. But those users didn’t find much information about mass shootings or political efforts. In fact, the Colt AR-15 page made no mention of gun control at all, instead spending over a thousand words describing the technical details of the gun’s various parts.

That focus on hardware was by design. For months, the “Colt AR-15” page has been largely edited by a group of gun enthusiast editors. They joined together under the name “Wikipedia Project: Firearms,” or “WP:Firearms” for short. Expertise groups are common on Wikipedia, and in some ways, WP:Firearms fits the mold perfectly: a collection of users with detailed knowledge of a specific topic, keeping a close eye on all the pages where that knowledge might be relevant. But on Wikipedia, as in the real world, the users with the deepest technical knowledge of firearms are also the most fervent gun owners and the most hostile to gun control. For critics, that’s led to a persistent pro-gun bias on the web’s leading source of neutral information at a time when the gun control debate is more heated than ever.

“This is the usual gun confiscator garbage.”

Much of the alleged bias comes from how the articles are structured. For months before Parkland, information on generic AR-15 models was relegated to the Modern Sporting Rifles entry, which detailed various models and after-market additions, but made no mention of mass shootings or other gun control efforts. When some editors tried to include those topics, the backlash from WP:Firearms was immediate.

“Mass-shootings already have their own articles, all relevant info is, or should be, in that page and not needlessly duplicated on other articles,” one editor wrote. “If we start adding info about just one shooting incident to one tenuously-connected article, we’ll be opening a literal Pandora’s box (figuratively speaking).”

Fighting a similarly proposed edit on the Smith & Wesson page, user Trekphiler went further. “There are millions of weapons in civilian hands, including thousands of AR-15s,” he wrote, “and none of them have harmed anyone. This is the usual gun confiscator garbage.”

When users tried to detail the gun control concerns in the Colt AR-15 page, where most “AR-15” searches were still being directed, they ran into another technicality. “Sorry, this is an article about Colt’s AR-15 (tm) rifle,” one WP:Firearms editor responded. “This is not the correct article for information that is about AR-15’s in general. That section of the article should be edited to remove the references to crimes that were not committed with Colt AR-15 rifles.”

Heated, arcane, and tautological debates

The fight over gun nomenclature goes far beyond Wikipedia. Gun enthusiasts see terms like “assault weapon” as imprecise, while concrete terms like “semi-automatic” are overly broad. Even the term “AR-15” is difficult to pin down: what was a once-specific trademark has metastasized into a trans-corporate branding tool. “Modern sporting rifle,” the term preferred by WP:Firearms, is seen by many as a public relations gambit by the gun industry to downplay how deadly the weapons really are. There’s no perfect term, but as long as the two sides are fighting over nomenclature, any proposed measures will get lost in a maze of conflicting terms. And on crowdsourced and managed Wikipedia, that means heated, arcane, and tautological debates, often driven by political and cultural biases.

WP:Firearms is also active on the page for the National Rifle Association, mobilizing against a number of critical edits in recent months. In December, a user called “Snooganssnoogans” proposed a new section on racial criticisms of the NRA, focusing on the organization’s silence in the wake of the Philando Castile shooting and subsequent outcry from Black Lives Matter leaders.

When a WP:Firearms member spotted the effort, an alarm went out to the larger group. “There seem to be a move to call the NRA a racist organization because they didn’t immediately condemn a police shooting to satisfaction of anti-police, anti-gun, anti-NRA writers,” an editor wrote on the WP:Firearms hub. “I encourage everyone to comment.”

The group’s users rushed to weigh in so quickly that some raised concerns the message had violated Wikipedia’s rules against canvassing. “The fact that they give the police the benefit of the doubt until all the facts are in does not make the NRA racist,” a user called RAF910 wrote. “It makes the NRA cautious. Unlike most of the so-called news organizations that automatically attack white police officers for shooting black suspects.”

“So, you don’t have any policy-based reason for excluding this content,” Snoogans responded. “You just personally disagree with the criticism?” The section was tabled amid harsh criticism, although Snoogans has resubmitted a shortened form that remains under debate.

More recently, WP:Firearms members rallied to defend language on the page calling the NRA “the oldest continuously operating civil rights organization,” a claim often made by the NRA and recently repeated on Fox & Friends. Some users saw it as “a distortion of the facts,” but the most detailed criticism came from a Media Matters post, which was dismissed as a non-neutral source. As of press time, the claim remains in the second paragraph of the NRA’s page.

Reached by The Verge, Wikimedia emphasized that Wikipedia’s distributed model is designed to limit bias, and WikiProject groups do not inherently have more influence over content than unaffiliated editors.

“Both articles you mention are actively being discussed and edited by volunteer editors, and will likely continue to change,” a representative said in an email. “While it will always be a work in progress, Wikipedia is constantly improving as more editors engage and contribute to its articles, leading to a more balanced representation of the facts over time.”

Update 3/6 1:35PM ET: Updated with comment from the Wikimedia Project.