(CNN) — A month after the deadly school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, the National Rifle Association is taking heat again — this time for releasing a mobile video game that lets players learn how to shoot at targets.
The game, “NRA: Practice Range,” puts the user in a gun range, where they fire a variety of handguns and rifles at stationary targets and earn points for accuracy. Critics are questioning the timing of the game’s release Monday — a month to the day after the December 14 shootings — and accusing the NRA of hypocrisy because one of its leaders recently blamed video games for stoking gun violence.
“It’s outrageous. The NRA never seems to be able to amaze me,” said Joel Faxon, a member of Newtown’s Police Commission, who described himself as a longtime gun owner.
“There’s no reason that they can’t espouse safe, effective, appropriate gun usage,” he said. “Why do they have to come out with something like this at a time when the nerves and emotions are so raw in Sandy Hook?”
“It strikes me that this is totally inappropriate,” George Ferguson, a member of the Newtown Legislative Council, said Tuesday. Ferguson said he had not seen the game, and added that he was speaking for himself, not the council. “I think video games should be part of the dialogue” about gun violence in the U.S., he added.
Requests for comment from the NRA were not immediately returned Tuesday.
The NRA’s membership has spiked by 250,000 people since the Newtown shootings, the group said. That brings its membership to more than 4.2 million.
Most criticism of the app, which is available for the iPhone and the iPad, focused not on the content of the game but on the timing of its release. In nationally televised comments a week after the slayings, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said, “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.”
Gene Grabowski, a longtime crisis-management expert who has advised gun manufacturers, called the timing of the app “startling.”
“But the NRA has long ignored what anyone but its base cares about,” he said. “They are not worried in any way about what the general public or the chattering class thinks. That’s why this looks cynical, because it is cynical.
“I’m not so sure it’s a bad strategy from where the NRA sits,” Grabowski added. “If the goal is to firm up the base of the organization and to accelerate the influx of dues and support money, then the strategy is successful.”
Victims of other mass shootings also were upset about the app.
“How two-faced of the NRA to introduce a violent video game on the heels of their blame game,” said Lori Haas, whose daughter survived a mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007.
“NRA: Practice Range” is listed on iTunes as an “official NRA licensed product,” created in conjunction with MEDL Mobile, a mobile-tech startup. The game is free, although for 99 cents, players can upgrade their firearms and “unlock” an MK11 sniper rifle. The game includes a handful of tips on gun safety.
On iTunes, the only current marketplace for the game, the game was initially rated as appropriate for children 4 and up. On Tuesday afternoon, the rating was updated to age 12+. CNN didn’t hear back from the developer when it inquired what led to the change.
The game’s release date may have been an unfortunate coincidence. Apps must be approved by Apple before they appear in its App Store, and the minimum time frame for Apple to review and approve an app is about 10 days, said videogame designer and theorist Ian Bogost, professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
In some cases, Apple has taken three weeks to approve apps.
“We’re both speculating if we try to guess whether NRA and the developer had this in their back pocket, waiting for the right time, or whether the release date is mere accident,” Bogost said. “It’s also not clear exactly how involved the NRA was in its release. The game seems to have been an officially licensed NRA product, but that might just mean that the developer had the rights to use the NRA name.”
At least one left-leaning group, the California-based Courage Campaign, launched an online petition Tuesday urging Apple to pull the NRA game from its App Store.
Apple did not immediately respond Tuesday to requests for comment.
Former House Speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich defended the app Tuesday on “CBS This Morning.”
“My understanding is that it’s a gun safety app, and it’s for young hunters to learn gun safety,” he said. “But I would just recommend that people watch the entire app before they render judgment.”
Bogost, the videogame theorist, believes the debate about the NRA’s new game boils down to perspective.
NRA opponents will reflexively see the game as inappropriate, but to gun-rights supporters, “a firing-range game that embraces the NRA’s overall position on safety and gun rights probably seems like a welcome alternative to public discourse about gun control,” he said.
“In its post-Sandy Hook press conference, the NRA blamed violent media instead of gun ownership for the tragedy, singling out video games in particular. But from the NRA’s perspective, the practice range game is not a violent game. The player only discharges firearms at paper and clay targets. For the NRA, it offers a model of responsible gun use,” Bogost said in an e-mail.
It’s not the first time the NRA has been involved with a video game. In 2006, it endorsed a shooting game called “NRA Gun Club” for the PlayStation 2 console. And in 2008, the NRA lent its name to three shooting games: “NRA Varmit Hunter, ” “NRA High Power Competition” and “NRA Xtreme Accuracy Shooting.”
Politicians and conservative groups have long condemned video games that challenge players to gun down enemies, saying that the games glorify and instigate real life violence. But scientific research on the topic has been inconclusive.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that video games deserve the same First Amendment protections as books, comics, plays and other entertainment.
Most such games, called “first-person shooters,” are rated M for Mature by the rating board indicating content is generally suitable for ages 17 and older. Though, of course, many younger teens play them.