It's not often that a piece of software becomes a flashpoint in a national political debate. But that's what happened this week, when the National Rifle Association, one month to the day since the Dec. 14 gun massacre of more than two dozen children and teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., released a mobile first-person shooting game for users aged 4 and older.
NRA: Practice Range, for iOS devices, allows users to employ a variety of guns, including assault weapons. The guns are fired at targets, some of which the New York Daily News described in its cover story as "coffin-like" in appearance. Between firing sessions, gun safety tips are offered.
The game is free, and offers the choice of a pistol and an M16. For 99 cents, the player can upgrade the available firearms to such weapons as an MK11 sniper rifle or an AK-47. Players score points based on accuracy.
On his popular morning show on MSNBC on Tuesday, conservative host and former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough held up the cover of the Daily News.
"How sick are these people?" he asked, adding that they have "commandeered the NRA into an extremist organization." Scarborough also asked, "How many millions of dollars have people made over the slaughter of innocents?"
The NRA's purpose in releasing such an app near the anniversary, designed for children near the age of those killed in Connecticut, is not clear, especially since NRA President Wayne LaPierre, at a press conference following the tragedy, specifically named violent video games as one of the key causes of Sandy Hook and other gun massacres.
"There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people, through vicious, violent video games," LaPierre said at the press event.
'Official' NRA Game
Joel Faxon, a member of Newtown's Police Commission and a self-described gun owner, called the release of the game "outrageous." While noting that the NRA can "espouse safe, effective, appropriate gun usage," he asked why such a game had to be released now, "when the nerves and emotions are so raw in Sandy Hook?"
The NRA declined to comment.
It's not clear if the exact timing on the first Sandy Hook anniversary was planned or a coincidence, given that its appearance on Apple's iTunes needed to go through Apple's approval process, which can vary in length from ten days to three weeks.
Some observers have suggested that, from the gun organization's point of view, Practice Range is not in the "violent" category, and it teaches responsible gun use. Others have noted that even such "responsible" gun use includes sniper rifles and assault weapons.
The game is described on iTunes as "an official NRA-licensed product," developed in collaboration with mobile developer MEDL Mobile. The organization has previously lent its name to other video games, including NRA Gun Club, NRA Varmint Hunter, NRA High Power Competition, and NRA Xtreme Accuracy Shooting.