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The Gun Violence Debate: Are Video-games to Blame?

By Danny Contreras

When the news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings broke, many of us were preparing our holiday break plans. It happened during final’s week, a time when stress is at an all-time high. The CCSU reaction was of unanimous disgust at the notion that a human murdered 27 people-among them 20 children.

The sad truth is that while rare, events like this are becoming common place. In the United States alone, the past year witnessed three mass shootings, leaving a total of 45 people dead and many more wounded. For Connecticut, this was the second mass shooting in two years from 2010 when Omar Thornton killed eight people at a Manchester Beer Distributor.

As it has been the case in previous mass shootings, many blamed pop-culture as the cause. National Rifle Association CEO and Executive Vice-President, Wayne LaPierre pointed out in an NRA Press Conference following the shootings that:

“There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people. Through vicious, violent video games with names like ‘Bullet Storm,’ ‘Grand Theft Auto’, ‘Mortal Combat’ and ‘Splatterhouse’.”

LaPierre pointed out movies like “American Psycho” and music videos as propaganda tools for violence. Additionally, LaPierre explained that an American child will be witness to 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence by the time they’re 18. He proceeded to place the blame on the media and those involved in it: “corporate owners, and their stockholders act as silent enablers, if not complicit co-conspirators. Rather than face their own moral failings, the media demonize gun owners.”

Over the past three decades pop-culture has been blamed for many acts of violence. If one remembers the Columbine Shootings in 1999, many members of the media blamed rock musician, Marilyn Manson, for his violent imagery and lyrics.

In 1994, Senator Joe Lieberman led hearings on violence in software entertainment (video-games) and their effects on society. This hearing, along with others by a Wisconsin senator, led to the creation of the ESRB, a rating system for video-games. Even earlier, in 1985 the Parents Music Resource Center led a crusade against music when they forced Congress into hearings about possible detrimental material in the music of bands such as Twisted Sister. The outcome is a warning label on physical copies about explicit lyrics and content.

Are video-games really to blame for these mass shootings? Or are they being used as a scapegoat?

Before placing the blame on any material we must first look into the shootings and the shooters themselves. William Glaberson wrote in the New York Times that school shootings in America are extremely rare, citing a University at Buffalo study by Amanda B. Nickerson, director of a center that studies such events.

In the same article, Nickerson explains that these events triggers “fundamental fears” that sends the public into an unfounded panic: “everybody says it’s an epidemic, and that’s just not true.”

Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University also explained that these acts are random in nature and extremely unpredictable; citing these events as “not possible to entirely prevent.”

However, there are key characteristics that have come to the public eye following school shootings. In “Crisis Response” an article written for the education themed District Journal, Scott Poland mentions the findings by Peter Langman, a “renowned expert on school shootings,” about the state of mind of school shooters.

Langman lists 3 common state of minds for school shooters:

The shooters are not existing in reality.

Psychopathic school shooters lack conscience.

Traumatized school shooters have experienced significant traumatic events.

It is important to understand the mental health implications of this debate. It would be irresponsible to think that every sufferer of a mental health disease will be a killer. The National Institute of Mental Health reported in 2008 that about 5 percent of American Citizens suffer from a mental health disease and that 8 percent of those are between the ages of 18 and 25.

The mental health aspect of the debate is almost always avoided, however. Americans do not feel comfortable creating a national database of sufferers of mental health diseases for obvious reasons, among them the belief that it would infringe on the privacy of citizens.

Nevertheless, as the University of Missouri- Kansas City points out in an article that explains the Constitution titled “Exploring Constitutional Conflicts,” the right to privacy is not part of the Constitution or Bill of Rights, and were rather expressed by James Madison who was concerned about an individual’s privacy. Interestingly, however, the Supreme Court has interpreted in Meyer vs. Nebraska that if there is not enough proof that an individual’s right to privacy should be infringed upon then the law must not interfere in a person’s life. As Justice McReynolds wrote following the trial:

“Without doubt, it denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”

On another hand, Americans must now consider the effects of recent legislation, such as the Patriot Act, and their consequences on precedents set by the Court. Regardless, due to the constant avoidance of this topic, the blame is not shared among many topics and it is instead shifted on to one specific topic, in this case video-games.

Video-games and Violence

According to a study published in the “Journal of Youth and Adolescence” by Ashley Fraser and Laura Padilla-Walker et al. over 90 percent of American children and adolescents own a video-game console and over 60 percent of them play more than 30 minutes. They also noted that boys clock in one hour per day and girls just less than fifteen minutes. The study notes that gaming increases after age 18 and peaks in the 20s.

The study explained that if a person is only playing violent video-games then they become less emphatic towards others. In correlation, according to the Electronic Software Association, 80 percent of video-games released in 2010 were of violent nature. The study emphasizes that violent games does not lead to violent acts, “especially considering research that highlights the positive effects of video gaming on social interaction regardless of content.”

Fraser and Padilla-Walker express in the article that a person who is subjected to violent video-games becomes desensitized, but not to the extreme that they would commit an act of violence. They concluded that a combination of factors lead to mass shooting events and not a single one.

It is important to note here that LaPierre’s comment are in-line with the Fraser study. He mentioned video-games, films and other art forms as the main culprit for the shootings. The fallacy in his argument lies in the lack of acknowledgement that there are more aspects of society that can be attributed to mass shootings. Gun culture, violent art, violent rhetoric, traumatic events are some of the many factors that creates a killer.

Paying Attention

If there is one thing that can be learned from the past shootings is that they occurred due to lack of attention on the individual. The shooters at the most tragic events like Columbine, V-Tech and now Sandy Hook all presented warning signs. In a gut-wrenching three part essay, David Frum explains that he was Adam Lanza when he was growing up:

“What was wrong with me exactly is a complicated subject – I’ll leave that for the next installment of this story. For now, I just want to explain what goes through the head of a potentially dangerous teenager. […] We don’t take our rage out on you because we hate you, or because you’re bad parents, or even because we’re evil. We take it out on you because we know you’re a captive audience. Often, you’re the only audience we have.”

In the essay, Frum explains his bad childhood experiences, how others around him reacted, and the lack of attention he received from anyone but his mother. While it does not serve to justify the horrific events, it serves as a reminder of the society in which we live in. A hierarchical world in which attention does not trickle down; those who receive it most, won’t share it, and those who need it become desperate for it.

Ending it

We cannot sit down and come up with solutions on how to rid the world of violence. The human mind is far too complex for such campaigns. However, we must realize that there are violent people in the world, and some use it as means of communication. Unfortunately we live in a society that chooses spiritual guidance over rationality when we should be sitting down and come up with real world solutions to real problems we feel the need to tell everyone to pray. It’s a tactic that hasn’t worked and we need to start using our words as tools to prevent such events as Sandy Hook.