HBO’s ‘Real Sports’ Trolls Public About America’s Most Popular Rifle

HBO’s ‘Real Sports’ Trolls Public About America’s Most Popular Rifle

To argue that the ‘Real Sports’ report on the AR-15 is a broadcast version of anti-gun trolling would be an understatement.
Christian Lowe
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Coming on the heels of former “Today” show host Katie Couric’s now-debunked “documentary” on criminal gun violence in America, HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” contributed a one-two punch, taking aim at the most popular rifle in America, the AR-15.

The segment, titled “AR15: Modern Sporting Rifle,” which airs this week, takes a sharp — and perplexing — departure from the series’ typical mix of hard-hitting reportage on corruption in the major sports leagues, inspiring stories of adversity, and profiles of sports celebrities, and instead focuses on the development of a specific firearm and its alleged unique lethality.

“I’m talking about a gun now known as the AR-15, a weapon designed for wartime, but one that has somehow morphed into one of the most popular pieces of so-called sports equipment,” Gumbel says in his intro with clear disdain. “Under that guise, millions of AR-15s have been sold in recent years, primarily for people who claim to want them to hunt or compete in target shooting. But AR-15s have also played an ugly role in the mass shootings that have become all too commonplace throughout this country.”

The report, he says, will expose “how America’s gun industry has marketed its deadliest product.”

AR-15 Ammo Is Not Super-Lethal

To argue that the “Real Sports” report on the AR-15 is a broadcast version of anti-gun trolling would be an understatement. In the 20-minute segment, reporter David Scott resurrects tired arguments against the AR and the companies that manufacture it, painting it as a weapon somehow outside the norm of common firearms and one that’s been the focus of a diabolical industry scheme to “normalize” it with faux sporting events and deceptive marketing.

It’s not surprising that Gumbel, who’s had a long and public anti-gun track record, would focus on these arguments, as they are the same ones being raised in a civil lawsuit against Remington Outdoor Company by some parents of the shooting victims at Sandy Hook Elementary School who allege the gunmaker illegally marketed a military weapon to civilians.

The “Real Sports “segment buttresses its claims in an interview with Jim Sullivan, one of the original designers of the M-16 (which fires in both semi-automatic and full-auto modes) and its civilian counterpart, the AR-15 (which fires in semi-automatic only). Sullivan claims in his interview that the bullet the AR-15 fires is somehow uniquely deadly — that it causes such catastrophic wounds that hits “almost anywhere” were fatal.

“It’s more lethal than any cartridge that was fired by any army in history,” Sullivan says. Clearly the non-shooting public — or even casual shooters who might own an AR but not know that much about it — would be shocked to hear that from one of the original designers of the rifle. But Sullivan’s claim is perplexing, even to many of his fans, because it’s just so demonstrably false.

The AR-15 fires a 5.56mm round — a comparatively small bullet for almost any rifle made today. It fires the bullet at a very high velocity, which generally makes it accurate out to 300 yards, but the small bullet and velocity comes at a cost. The round typically shoots straight through its target.

In fact, most states bar hunters from shooting “big game” like deer with a rifle chambered in 5.56 because of its lack of lethality. Also, as recently as the war in Afghanistan, soldiers who use the M-4 rifle — a more modern version of the M-16 — complain that the 5.56 round simply passes through the enemy, forcing them to fire more shots at bad guys who keep fighting.

There are literally a dozen calibers that fire from a host of different rifle designs that do far more damage than the AR-15. The AR-10, which Sullivan played a large role in developing as well, fires a .308 rifle round that can penetrate a brick wall and still kill someone standing behind it — something an AR-15 could never do.

The False Military Versus Civilian Distinction

Another claim highlighted in the “Real Sports” segment — and one that parrots the arguments made in the Sandy Hook family’s lawsuit against Remington Outdoor Company — is that the AR-15 is a rifle designed specifically for the military and is therefore unsuited to civilian use.

“This is really about where we as a society choose to draw the line between civilian arms and military arms,” Scott says in his after-segment walkoff with Gumbel.

Sure, the original design of the AR-15 became the military M-16, but so did a vast majority of America’s most popular firearms. The ubiquitous Glock 17 pistol was designed to replace the Austrian government’s military handgun, the popular Mini-14 (which Sullivan also designed) is a civilian adaptation of the M-14, not to mention that the Remington 700 bolt-action rifle has been for decades the top choice of U.S. military snipers (and hunters). All of these common firearms were designed for military use but are also uncontroversially popular with civilian shooters.

In fact, it’s hard to trace any firearm’s development without seeing at least some influence from military requirements simply because the need for durability, ease of use, and reliability for a wide range of troops also applies to civilian shooters.

Yes, Competitive Shooting Is a Real Sport

Diving into the mud, the “Real Sports” segment takes a swipe at the growing popularity of shooting sports like three-gun, two-gun, and other multi-gun sports that favor the AR-15 and its variants, by dismissing them as a fringe outliers concocted by a gun industry to justify its lethal wares. Gumbel’s intro, laced with condescension toward the “so-called” shooting sports and AR owners “who claim to want them to compete,” is a pretty fair indication that we’re being lectured to, not informed.

The growing popularity of shooting sports of all kinds has mostly been fueled by a public who wants to put their $1,200 AR-15 to some use other than a little plinking at a range.

While he dismisses competitive shooting as a “guise” to sell more guns, although the firearms industry plays a helpful role in sponsoring major matches and promoting athletes, the growing popularity of shooting sports of all kinds has mostly been fueled by a public who wants to put their $1,200 AR-15 to some use other than a little plinking at a range. We’re talking about a sport where competitive shooters can make a living doing well at matches, and it’s as much about grassroots appeal as it is a creature of industry.

In a shallow swipe, the show uses the growth of competitive shooting sports as a pivot to the argument that gun companies are “marketing these AR-15s to children,” using cigarette company logic to create an image of kids walking into gun stores with a fake IDs to buy semi-automatic rifles colored in pink and zombie green.

Splashing images of young competitive shooters holding AR-15s in magazine ads and cover spreads, Scott asks the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s Larry Keane whether it’s “appropriate” to market the AR to kids.

“I wouldn’t say it’s being marketed to children. I see it as marketing to the parents,” Keane says.

Sure, the NSSF, whose duty is to promote the firearms industry, is trying to get more youths into the market. But “that’s a decision for the parent, to decide whether they want to have their child participate in adult-supervised recreational target shooting, which is as all-American as apple pie,” Keane adds.

There’s more that’s wrong with the “Real Sports” hit job on the AR-15, for sure. But by now most of the public should be used to this kind of overt anti-gun campaigning.

It may scare Gumbel that an estimated 12 million ARs were sold in the last decade, yet despite that number only 2 percent of firearms crime is committed with a rifle of any kind — much less an AR-15. Notwithstanding the relentless campaigning from shows like “Real Sports” and Couric’s “Under The Gun,” most recent polls show a majority of Americans aren’t buying into “assault rifle” bans anyway.

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