Content disputes on Wikipedia can sometimes seem to drag on forever. The debate about including material on the criminal use of guns in articles on the guns themselves has lasted a decade. Much of the debate has centered on an essay in WikiProject Firearms and the weight that it should be given.
Pro: Criminal use was inappropriately excluded from firearms articles
—The Verge, 6 March 2018
Weapons used in mass shootings often make headlines, and readers flock to Wikipedia to learn more about them. Despite this interest, many of our articles about guns excluded negative information such as "criminal use" due to an extremely restrictive WikiProject Firearms advice page that was enforced as policy for many years. Editors resisted change by corralling all discussion to the project page, citing "long-standing consensus" as if it were infallible and, when concerns were raised at community venues, dismissing the project advice as a harmless, unenforceable essay. The effort stretches back to 2007 and was finally curtailed in 2018 when an RfC established community consensus to decide mass shooting coverage on a case-by-case basis.
While editing US current events articles in early 2018, I became curious about "The AR-15", a weapon that had received extensive media coverage for its prevalence in shootings in the United States. I was surprised to find that our AR-15 article, which at the time was titled with the "modern sporting rifle" euphemism, did not make any mention of mass shootings. As I dug deeper, I found talk page archives filled with comments from editors similarly surprised by the lack of "criminal use" coverage across numerous firearms articles. These concerns were almost always rebutted by a small group of WikiProject Firearms members who made accusations of POV-pushing and cited the "WP:GUNS guideline". Editors who challenged the validity of this were directed to the WikiProject Firearms talk page, where any proposal to change the criminal use advice was quickly shot down by project members.
A typical example occurred when an editor tried to add mentions of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to Bushmaster Firearms International: "Sorry, that dog won't hunt. WP:GUNS#Criminal use is quite clear on this issue; this incident, unfortunate as it was, does not meet the criteria for inclusion."
A 2011 challenge to the criminal use advice received a fair number of responses pointing out that WP:GUNS is non-binding, and one editor helpfully added an "Essay" template to the advice page. Paradoxically, the advisory status of the page gave it a certain level of immunity: uninvolved editors felt that the advice was not problematic because it was clearly labelled as "just a recommendation." This consensus was ignored by project members who continued their strict enforcement.
In February 2018, I opened an RfC which proved to be a turning point: "Should articles about firearms include information about mass shootings?" The discussion was well-attended and reached clear consensus to decide inclusion of criminal use on a case-by-case basis.
Despite strong resistance at WikiProject Firearms, I added this is determined on a case-by-case basis in accordance with WP:WEIGHT to the essay, and removed Therefore, the addition of said information should be limited to a simple link in the "See also" section.
Although the changes seem fairly minor, they made the project advice far less prescriptive. Combined with the outcome of the RfC, this means that any editor who tries to enforce a blanket ban on Criminal Use inclusion is acting against community consensus and is subject to Discretionary Sanctions under the Gun Control ARBCOM case. Recent article-level discussions have focused on the relationship between the weapon and the crime: There is often consensus for inclusion when the weapon's specific characteristics have received extensive media coverage, such as AR-15 style rifle, while passing mentions usually do not merit inclusion. However, criminal use is often held to a higher standard than other sections of the article: At the Smith & Wesson M&P15 talk page, there have been numerous discussions about criminal use and current consensus is to exclude this content, while there seems to be little concern that the official users section (a list of police departments and agencies that use the weapon) is similarly sourced and arguably trivial.
Although the situation has improved significantly over the past year, our normal processes failed to swiftly address the disruption at WikiProject Firearms and allowed it to continue for years even after it was brought to the attention of the community through noticeboards and RfCs. This phenomenon can happen anywhere on Wikipedia, particularly when a small group of editors stakes claim to a relatively obscure topic that attracts little outside attention. There are a few ways to ensure that these articles are written to reflect broader community consensus:
- Talk page conduct matters. Consensus determines article content and talk pages are where consensus is built. Problematic article-space edits often trigger admin action by crossing a hard line such as WP:3RR, but false consensus achieved through filibustering and misapplication of policy tends to receive far less scrutiny even though it has the same effect. Walls of text and personal attacks are not part of our consensus-building process; they are behavioral issues which should be addressed promptly.
- Project space content matters. Concerns about Wikiproject Firearms guidance were often dismissed because it was "just an essay" with no formal standing. The fact is that advice which goes against our policies and guidelines does not serve a valid purpose and should not be tolerated. A project's interpretation of a guideline should reflect community consensus, not prescribe it, and project pages should never be used to host the opinions of project participants.
- Consensus should not be based on a majority vote. When closing a discussion, editors almost always announce that it is not a vote before proceeding to count up the !votes and declare the side with the most !votes the winner. In Project space, project members can easily win the vote due to higher turnout. We need to do a better job of assessing policy-based arguments even if they come from the "losing" side. In the few cases where a closer actually evaluated the arguments made in a criminal use discussion, it turned out that many of the !votes on the majority "do not include" side were counter to policy.
- Diversity is important. Often, the folks who are the most interested in and knowledgeable about a topic are also be the ones who push a certain POV. Firearms articles in particular are full of descriptions and statistics that are boring and bewildering to the average editor, and the few outsiders who dared to dip their toes in the water were often asked not to edit in this area due to their lack of specialized knowledge. However, experienced editors can usually recognize and call out policy and guideline violations in any area without having an in-depth knowledge of the topic. Long-term ownership behavior should have been obvious to anyone who gave these articles more than a cursory look.
Con: Criminal use content has not been improperly excluded
Politically charged topics on Wikipedia are ripe for content disagreements where each side will use claims of WP:WEIGHT and where some will see the other side as engaging in unjust conspiracies to keep content in or out of articles. In most cases, including this one, we are simply dealing the gray area within WP:WEIGHT. In this gray area two editors, acting in good faith, can disagree and both believe they are following policy.
The pro thesis above is that over a decade, a group of editors excluded due material on mass shootings from articles about specific firearms such as the AR-15. It doesn't say why this information was excluded. The excluded information was almost always part of other articles about particular crimes and crime in general. The exclusion, it is argued, was accomplished by using a single paragraph located on the WikiProject Firearms page as a talisman to ward off all objections. Only the 2018 "turning point" Village Pump RfC broke the spell thus allowing WP:DUE content to flow, according to the pro view.
Like any good conspiracy theory there is some truth here. Some editors strive to add criminal use content to firearms articles, others see it as only tangentially related or as a coatrack for gun politics. This difference of views results in content disputes, but not the systematic, gross violations of WP:WEIGHT the pro view alleges. In virtually all cases content was decided by local consensus, not by a paragraph on the WikiProject Firearms page. Without discussing the question, the pro opinion highlights the real issue, WP:WEIGHT is simply not clear in such situations. Editors who are acting in good faith and in compliance with WP:WEIGHT may not come up with the same results.
The pro view is a stool that stands on three legs. The first is the "turning point" RfC. The need for an RfC was discussed by many editors on both sides. A pro side editor took the initiative but didn't get enough input from involved editors. The resulting RfC question was convoluted, resulting in a lost opportunity to get sound guidance on the issue. The result was an insignificant change to the project recommendation which had remained little changed for about a decade.
The pro view of the essay's content change - one phrase was added and another removed - is misleading. It starts with a version of the text that lasted less than a year. It ignores the largely stable version of the text that had been around for almost a decade. When compared to other versions of the text over a decade, the difference is almost exclusively in one sentence reminding that local consensus is the ultimate decider.
The net result was an understanding, which had already been in place, that local consensus was ultimately going to decide these issues. It's too bad that the question didn't help editors understand the broader question of WP:WEIGHT.
The stool's next leg is the idea that the RfC broke a logjam and now WP:DUE material will no longer be held out against policy. The pro view implies that prior to the 2018 RfC, criminal information never made it into a firearms article. Earlier article level RfCs disagree. Sometimes content was kept out by consensus such as in the 2017 Smith & Wesson M&P15 RfC. The pro view sees these outcomes as the result of editors citing the project firearms paragraph. In fact, in 2018 a small local consensus used that exact argument to ignore the 2017 RfC and a new RfC was the result. The conclusion? Same as before. Many previous examples of exclusion were just consensus working as it is meant to.
The last leg of the stool supporting the pro is the assumption that all the excluded material should have been included per WP:NPOV's subsection on WP:WEIGHT. Is that a valid assumption? WP:WEIGHT says that we should treat aspects of a topic in proportion, "to its treatment in the body of reliable, published material on the subject." Note that last part, published material on the subject. In almost all cases the subject of the cited source is the crime and that source mentions the gun. Rarely do articles about the firearm mention crimes committed with that firearm. So, if we follow WP:WEIGHT, according to this argument, we have to assume a reciprocal relation. We have to assume that weight to include mention of the crime in an article about the gun is established because articles about the crime mention the gun. Is that following WP:WEIGHT?
Some editors will intuitively say that is correct and follows WP:WEIGHT. But how do editors feel about the same relationship in a different context, automobiles? A 2016 RfC with over two dozen participants offers an idea. That RfC asked if the Ford F-650 and Chevrolet Caprice articles should include discussions of the Oklahoma City bombing and D.C. sniper attacks respectively. In both cases the automobiles played a very significant part in the conduct of the crimes and reliable sources clearly established weight to include discussions of the vehicles in the articles about the crimes. The outcome of that RfC was overwhelmingly a consensus to exclude. So, when the subject was "automobiles", not "guns", there was a clear consensus that a reliable source about the crime does not establish WP:WEIGHT to include the crime in an article about the automobile.
Some editors argue that when the topic is firearms, rather than automobiles, WP:WEIGHT should be viewed differently. That view can be debated. That's my point. If WP:WEIGHT was clear on this matter, we wouldn't have a debate and cases like the Smith & Wesson M&P15 would include (or exclude) gun crimes every time. The pro view just doesn't acknowledge the possibility that local consensus and WP:WEIGHT might not support inclusion of material on gun crimes.
The pro view has a bit of the smell of sour grapes.
- Examples don't prove the rule. Yes, there may be examples of material improperly excluded, just as there are examples of material properly excluded.
- Consensus changes. Local consensus can change and is unpredictable.
- Don't ignore advice from a Wiki project. Yes, people have cited the Project Firearms style guide improperly but that doesn't prove the guide's intent is wrong or that the guide should be ignored.
- A lost opportunity. The landmark RfC was little more than a lost opportunity to get better community consensus on how to handle WP:WEIGHT in these cases.
- Content disputes and WP:WEIGHT. Ultimately this was and likely will continue to be a content dispute, due in part to the question of reciprocity in WP:WEIGHT, mixed with the ebbs and flows of article content, and promoted to into a grand conspiracy... but not much more.