Gun Enthusiasts Are Waging a War of Attrition on Wikipedia, and It Looks Like They're Winning

An investigation by a tech magazine reveals how gun enthusiasts fight for their right to bear arms through Wikipedia. Even Dirty Harry gets pulled into the fray

Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob
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Clint Eastwood in 'Dirty Harry.'
Clint Eastwood in 'Dirty Harry.'Credit: Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shuttersto
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

The online technology magazine The Verge published the results of its investigation last week regarding the Wikipedia article on the AR-15 rifle, a current focus of the gun-control debate in the United States. The story, by Russel Brandom, showed how a small and dedicated group of gun enthusiasts managed to shape the article to fit their agenda, in a case that sheds light on how political interests groups can easily coalesce on Wikipedia.

The semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle, of which there are several makes, all roughly based on the Colt AR-15, was developed for military use, but has been used in a number of mass shootings – most recently, of course, in Parkland, Florida where it killed some 17 people on February 19, most of them high-school teens. However, according to The Verge and a review of the edit history of the Wikipedia article entitled Colt AR-15, the hundreds of thousands of people who flocked to read the entry following the school shooting did not get to read about the weapon’s bloody history, but were instead offered a plethora of techs and specs about its different makes.

According to the The Verge report and an independent follow-up by Haaretz, the top editors of the Colt page are pro-gun enthusiasts who skewed the information presented on it and are also involved in editing other articles on Wikipedia – for example, the much more general article, titled AR 15 – to push their worldview. For instance, they left out the fact that the rifle was originally developed for the police and the army.

There’s a difference between what is factually true – like the fact that the rifle can fire up to 90 rounds a minute – and what should be included in a Wikipedia article – like the fact that since 2007 some 170 Americans died from those rounds in a growing number of mass shootings that include those in Las Vegas and San Bernardino.

Wikipedia's Colt AR-15 page saw a major spike following the Parkland, Florida shooting.

Through countless exhausting debates, this small group of pro-gun Wikipedia editors – linked together through Wikipedia’s Firearms project (or “WikiProject: Firearms,” mentioned below) – has managed to control almost completely the discourse around the rifle, predominantly by making sure any potentially negative details about it be excluded from the original Colt AR-15 article.

One tactic revealed by the edit history of the two articles in question was relentless arguments over technicalities: for example, the Colt AR-15 piece was kept separate from the one about AR-15 assault rifles writ large, allowing editors to shift blame – and public attention – from the popular Colt version to the generic one.

Anytime an attempt was made to pin gun violence on the Colt, its fans made sure to clear any specifics from the text by arguing the violence could not be linked to any one specific version of the rifle. The more general AR-15 article, however, does include a handful of lines about mass shootings, most buried deep at the bottom under a “criminal use” section. Details about the rifle – Colt or otherwise – were, however, gladly accepted in the article.

These editors even codified stringent criteria for when certain "criminal acts" should be noted on articles relating to firearms: "In order for a criminal use to be notable enough for inclusion in the article on the gun used, it must meet some criteria. For instance, legislation being passed as a result of the gun's usage (ex. ban on mail-order of firearms after use of the Carcano in JFK's assassination would qualify). Similarly, if its notoriety greatly increased (ex. the Intratec TEC-DC9 became infamous as a direct result of Columbine)." Anything else can be noted at the end of such articles in the "See Also" section.

The editors' policy sparked heated debate in the weeks after the Florida shooting, with the wider Wikipedia community failing to reach a consensus at the end of a vote on changing it.

Colt AR-15 Sporter SP1 Carbine.Credit: M62

The follow-up on the work conducted by The Verge revealed that these editors were not focused solely on the articles about the AR-15, but also worked across a web of entries pertaining to guns and rifles in general, and even cultural staples of the gung-ho gun culture.

For example, one of the most prominent editors of the AR-15 page was also involved in editing key parts of the Wikipedia articles on “handgun” and “assault rifle.” In one telling example, they edited out lines saying the two were developed at the beginning of the previous century for policing and military purposes, and not personal use. Others edited the page for the NRA and participated in debates on the articles about rare and antique firearms.

In one instance, another prominent editor of the Colt AR-15 article also contributed to the article for the 1971 movie “Dirty Harry,” correcting a factual error about the iconic gun (a .44 Magnum revolver) used by Clint Eastwood in the cop thriller. The edit shows how expert knowledge – in this case, of guns – can take on different forms within different contexts of Wikipedia’s web of articles, not all of them political or disingenuous.

Communities of so-called “amateur experts” linked together by shared interests are the bread and butter of Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia actively encourages editors to congregate in “projects” and “portals” covering hundreds of articles that all fall under a single broad topic. With millions of articles on Wikipedia, it hard to keep track of them all – and portals help do just that, allowing groups of editors to work together and harness their collective knowledge to improve large swaths of inter-related articles.

The Verge successfully showed how the “Wikipedia: Firearms” portal served as the focal point for the group of pro-gun editors involved with the Colt AR-15 and AR-15 articles, allowing them to work in unison across a number of fronts in a way that mirrors a political-interest group.

Wikipedia has thousands of other projects and portals: “Wikipedia: Medicine” has been instrumental in bringing more health professionals to the site to improve medical-related content and fight New Age quacks; “Wikipedia: Israel” and “Wikipedia: Palestine” have served as launching pads for countless editing wars between the two competing political narratives; and, of course, there is “Wikipedia: Beyonce,” which allows experts in the lofty field to contribute to Queen Bey’s representation in the online encyclopedia.

So while it’s easy to lament the dangers of the Wikipedia gun lobby, it is important to remember that groups with competing worldviews are what fuel the crowdsourced encyclopedia – where the question of what is true is always secondary to the question of what the community of different users can agree on as being true.