I clutched a white card with black letters in my hand, wanting to rip it to shreds.
“It’s supposed to be offensive!” my friend said, trying to calm me.
“I need a marker,” I insisted to the half-giggling, half-confused group of college students. Belatedly recognizing that it was neither my card nor my game, I asked permission to black out some of the lettering.
The game: Cards Against Humanity. The offending card: “AR-15, assault rifle.”
For those unfamiliar, Cards Against Humanity is an adult version of the Apples to Apples card game. It is incredibly popular with teens and young adults due to its amusing and often-inappropriately themed cards. During each round, a player draws a card and asks the question on it, and the other players lay down what they consider their best—often funniest—possible answer card. Whoever’s card is selected by the questioner as the best answer wins the round.
So, what was wrong with such a card in a game designed to offend? It would have been fine had it read simply “AR-15.” AR-15 does not stand for assault rifle; it stands for Armalite rifle, as the original designer of the rifle was Armalite. There was no factual reason for the game creators to add “assault rifle,” and including those two words made it not only incorrect, but dangerous.
It’s just a silly card in a silly game, so why am I saying it’s dangerous? Today, an overwhelming number of people, especially young people, are misinformed when it comes to firearms. This card is just one example of how gun-control advocates’ disingenuous messages and falsehoods are perpetuated. The more you hear or see something, the more it’s ingrained into you. Think of the jingles that get stuck in your head or the ad slogans you can finish. You don’t try to commit these advertising ploys to memory; they’re subliminal. People also tend to believe the written word. When something is written, it feels more official, somehow truer.
Some of this comes down to education, but marketing and perception play a significant role. I graduated in May 2020 with a marketing major and English minor from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. My marketing classes and my experiences as a freelance writer in the outdoor industry have opened my eyes to just how easily views can be shifted through deliberately chosen messaging. Marketing revolves around public opinion and perception. It affects most peoples’ everyday thoughts, from what products they choose, to what words they say, and even to how they think. This mental training isn’t all bad. Programs that show the negative effects of illegal drugs, for example, are a form of positive marketing, as they use facts to show negative effects and consequences. But facts, and especially statistics, are subject to manipulation. And, on the topic of firearms, misinformation is often intentionally created.
Apparently, I was the last person my classmates expected to stand up in defense of AR-15s. I don’t fit the “look.”
You can see that happening everywhere, including in games. The video game “Call of Duty,” for example, has an entire display screen of “assault rifles.” These are generally fully automatic, so I might not object to the term, but when you combine that video-game experience with the widespread misuse of “assault rifle” to refer to semi-automatic arms with only a cosmetic resemblance to military arms, then you end up with young people who think they know what an AR-15 is like.
The Cards Against Humanity incident wasn’t the first time I’d argued this point. During a seminar class in college focused on the idea of safety, the professor began talking about “assault rifles.” I cut her off. She was very nice and listened to what I had to say, but it seemed that everyone else in the class was taken aback. Apparently, I was the last person my classmates expected to stand up in defense of AR-15s. I get that, since I never imagined I’d be a competitive shooter, and I’ve sometimes been told I don’t fit the “look.”
This imagined “look” is yet another skewed perception even I had to shake off. My first shooting experiences were with BB guns and watching my dad leave for deer season every fall. My sister and I were also part of a program designed to strengthen father-daughter relationships through outdoor activities, and BB gun target shooting and archery were both offered at that program’s annual campouts. My favorite part was keeping my BB-riddled target. I proudly showed it to my mom upon my return home. When I was seven, my parents bought my sister and me each our own BB gun. I took more of an interest than my sister, but I still hardly touched it because it was too difficult for me to pump. I also lost interest at camp when they stopped replacing targets between shooters. Shooting at an already perforated target with nothing to take home killed my enthusiasm.
This changed when my dad’s mentor, Chuck Malone, introduced then-14-year-old me to a .22 rimfire rifle. He brought an Uberti .22 to our house and asked if my sister or I would be interested in shooting it. I was, and that day I learned the basics of a proper standing position. My first shots from standing targeted a small chicken silhouette, about the size of a half-dollar, about 25 yards away, and I struck it with my first shot. I’ll never forget my father’s look of disbelief as he encouraged me to shoot again and again. I hit it each time. Standing is the most difficult position, and most new shooters start sitting at a bench or from the prone position. This unlikely start gave me an advantage when I transitioned to shooting a high-power service rifle—my standing scores far exceeded everyone’s expectations.
But the first night I ever fired an AR-15 was at a Thursday night junior practice. I had joined the South Cuyahoga Sportsmen’s Association’s junior high-power rifle team only a few short weeks before and had attended a few of their indoor smallbore practices. I jumped at the chance to shoot “high power,” though I had no idea what it was. I had only ever fired single rounds from break-open and bolt-action firearms. My coaches showed me the basics of the AR-15 and had me fire a slow-fire prone string, rapid-fire prone string, rapid-fire sitting string and a slow-fire offhand string—all at 200 yards. The controls baffled me. I couldn’t figure out whether to pull the charging handle or insert the magazine first, what the button people kept hitting on the side of my gun was (it was the bolt release) or how to keep the bolt locked back. So, I relied on my teammates and coaches heavily that first night.
I quickly learned the “big scary black gun” wasn’t so scary after all. In reality, AR-15s are semi-automatic, firing one shot for each trigger pull, as a revolver does. They are low recoil and nearly endlessly adjustable, so they are well suited for everyone, including women and younger shooters. So, sure, the “look” of an AR-15 shooter could be that tactical guy you often see in ads, but a young woman would be just as appropriate.
Hold up a bolt-action rifle with a wood stock chambered in .308 and, next to it, hold a Smith & Wesson M&P 15-22. The average non-gun person would claim the .22 is more dangerous. Why? They have been conditioned to associate black synthetic stocks, long magazines, flash hiders and picatinny rails with something “bad” or “scary.” Society’s perception is based entirely on propaganda and cosmetic features.
Let’s look at another popular game: Clue. Most of the potential murder weapons in this game are items likely found in a household: a candlestick, lead pipe, knife, rope and wrench. It’s just a game, but as we see in FBI statistics, it reflects reality. FBI crime statistics from 2020 reveal that only 454 murders were committed with a rifle of any kind in the United States. Murders committed with an AR-15 style rifle are even fewer. Meanwhile, 657 murders were committed with “personal weapons,” meaning fists, shoving, kicking and so on, and knives and cutting instruments accounted for 1,732.
If knives, hands and feet accounted for more murders than rifles of any kind, why is the AR-15 treated like more of a threat? It’s a politically calculated move. The definition of an “assault weapon” is deliberately nebulous and changes based on who you talk to. The vilifying verbiage around the AR-15 began long after its invention in the 1950s. Writing in the Stanford Law and Policy Review in 1997, law professors Bruce H. Kobayashi and Joseph E. Olsen discussed the origins of the recent re-definitions: “Assault-weapon bans are symbolic measures designed to get politicians into the media to promote the image that they are doing something. Prior to 1989, the term ‘assault weapon’ did not exist. It’s a political term, developed by anti-gun publicists to expand the category of ‘assault rifles’ to allow an attack on as many additional firearms as possible based on an undefined ‘evil’ appearance.”
A brief history of the AR-15 and similar guns by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) quotes anti-gun activist Josh Sugarmann. In 1988, the National Coalition to Ban Handguns’ communication director wrote “Assault weapons … are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons … . Efforts to restrict assault weapons are more likely to succeed than those to restrict handguns.”
Unfortunately, Sugarmann did have a point about preying on public ignorance. If you’re against the Second Amendment and see that many people fear anything that looks like a machine gun, it’s very useful to blur the lines and confuse the issue; after all, if you fear spiders because a very few are dangerous, are you going to take the time to evaluate the species of one you encounter, or are you just going to smash it? Most spiders are helpful and not harmful, but people often act on emotion instead of reality.
Firearms, including AR-15s, offer significant overall benefits to society. There are an estimated 1.5 to 2 million estimated annual defensive uses of firearms, according to the NSSF. Some, including the CDC, have even estimated annual defensive uses as high as 2.5 million. And firearms enhance lives in another way as well, in that the shooting sports and learning marksmanship develop character. You must learn discipline, respect, patience and many other positive traits necessary for the sport, all of which, of course, also help young people turn into productive citizens. I myself have been incredibly fortunate to have had my parents, coaches, fellow competitors and other supporters helping me learn and improve. From my experience, the shooting community jumps hurdles to help anyone, especially young people, and that cycle repeats itself as young shooters grow more competent and start coaching newer shooters, as I have. Many shooting coaches have watched kids from broken homes who’ve made bad choices transform over time into stable and productive citizens instead of taking dangerous and unfortunate paths. The structure of the program and the community surrounding it can help people find their way. (If only we could get more troubled youth into the shooting sports!)
So I still think back on that day, and my issue with that card in the game Cards Against Humanity. My friend still laughs at my reaction. He says it was “funny” I got “so worked up” over a simple playing card.
But I believe I see the bigger game being played. I call upon all gun owners to correct misperceptions. Educate others on what an “assault rifle” really is and how the terms “firearm” and “weapon” are not synonymous. We also need to practice what we preach. I once entered a firearms museum gift shop selling mugs and t-shirts reading “AR-15 assault rifle.” Posters, stickers, patches—all these are not only forms of personal expression but also serve as essential advertising boards. Let’s not further the gun-controllers’ agenda by using their language. Once misconceptions and political agendas are accepted as facts, our opportunity to change the minds of the misled may slip away. Game or no game, let’s black out all the misleading words.
You can follow Serena Juchnowski at www.serenajuchnowski.com.