Apple Should Not Censor The NRA's "Practice Range" App

When the National Rifle Association released its “Practice Range” app earlier this week, the media had a field day with the lobbying group. Insensitive, pandering, shameful and other like adjectives were used to skewer the NRA’s decision to release the app so soon after the awful shooting in Newtown, Conn. in December. 

Practice Range allows people to shoot at practice targets with various guns, including assault rifles, all while trying to teach users safe gun practices. It is a clever ploy from the NRA, releasing a relatively docile app ostensibly targeted towards gun safety. The NRA can turn the conversation away from gun control and back towards society and the NRA's own stance that violent video games and media are more to blame for violence in the United States than the actual weapons themselves. 

Gaming A Political Message

The Courage Campaign, an online activist group, does not quite share the NRA’s so-called altruistic opinion of the Practice Range app. It has started a petition on SignOn.org to urging Apple’s CEO Tim Cook to reject the NRA app. 

"This is a classic example of everything that is wrong with the NRA. Instead of coming to the table with constructive ideas to reduce gun violence, the NRA is instead developing a video game that glorifies guns and gun violence. It is yet another shameful example, in a long list of shameful examples, of the destructive role the NRA plays in reducing gun violence and making our schools, communities and streets safer. We are calling on Apple to reject this app. It has no business being in the hands of kids across this country,” Adam Bink, director of online programs at Courage Campaign said in a statement. 

Do not get me wrong, I do not like guns. Most of the staff at ReadWrite are not particularly fond of them either. We like smartphones and tablets, big data and open Web standards and free access to information. But, this petition is a misguided in its direct assault on the NRA’s app…  just because the NRA is the app's sponsor. 

Fundamentally, this is a conversation about censorship. 

The C-Word

Part of the argument against the app is that when it was originally released, it was approved for “ages four and up.” As of Tuesday, that had been changed to ages 12 and up and warns of intense and realistic violence, so that part of the argument is moot.

The game, developed by MEDL Media, is essentially a mailer for the NRA’s political message in app form. As shameful or manipulative as that may be, it is not the job of Apple to censor the NRA and its relatively innocuous app. Many other companies, lobbying groups and organizations use Apple’s App Store for marketing and branding purposes and to deny one because some people may not like its message would set a bad precedent for how Apple approves apps going forward.

Apple does not have a particularly good record on censorship. The company’s App Store reviewers are supposed to make judgment calls on what Apple views as “too objectionable” for its users on an app-by-app basis. Plenty of violent video games (including ultra-graphic first-person-shooter games) make it in to the App Store. Courage Campaign does not seem to mind those. Yet, when an app that highlights data about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Apple shoots it down for objectionable content. Apple has also censored apps in the past, like the unofficial Wikileaks app, Playboy and anti-homosexual apps such as Exodus International and Manhattan Declaration. Pro-Nazi apps have been banned, as well as a pro-Dalai Lama app in China. Depending on who you are, you are either happy or enraged by Apple’s decisions to censor these apps. 

Apple is a private company and, really, can do whatever it likes when it comes to content on its App Store. That does not necessarily mean that it should. It frequently will bow to the wishes of governments and large organizations. The NRA has every right to get its message out to the public through the App Store as the Dalai Lama does in China. 

What we end up with is a case of the blind leading the blind, following the blind.

Courage Campaign is blind for calling for censorship of the NRA Practice Range app. The NRA is blind for commissioning the app in the first place, being manipulative and shameful in its stance on gun control and emphasis on media-induced violence. Apple is blind for its arbitrary and consistently inconsistent App Store censorship practices.