Politicians, eager to deflect scrutiny, are falling back on one of the oldest bogeymen in the book: Violent video games. These politicians, ranging from state governors to the president himself, have begun blaming violence in video games and movies in ...
U.S. President Trump suggests violent video games and movies are to blame for school shootings. (Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
In the wake of last week's horrifying school shooting in Parkland, Florida we've seen a renewed interest in the gun safety debate, and an even sharper focus on groups like the NRA and its allies in government.
Politicians, eager to deflect scrutiny, are falling back on one of the oldest bogeymen in the book: Violent video games. These politicians, ranging from state governors to the president himself, have begun blaming violence in video games and movies in a desperate gambit to change the conversation away from gun violence.
Speaking with lawmakers this Thursday, President Trump suggested that violent video games and movies are the real culprit when it comes to school shootings.
The president told Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi that "I’m hearing more and more people seeing the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.
"And then you go the further step, and that’s the movies. You see these movies, and they’re so violent a kid is able to see the movie if sex isn’t involved, but killing is involved, and maybe we need to put a rating system for that.
"The fact is that you are having movies come out, that are so violent, with the killing and everything else, that maybe that's another thing we need to discuss."
Interestingly, Trump seems to be suggesting a ratings system for movies despite one already being in place.
Perhaps more relevant, Trump received over $30 million from the NRA during his presidential campaign, an organization funded in large part by small arms manufacturers.
Of course, Trump isn't the first politician to plant the blame for the Florida shooting at the feet of violent video games in recent days.
On the Leland Conway show, Kentucky governor Matt Bevin said that “guns are not the problem. We have a cultural problem in America... You look at the ‘culture of death’ that is being celebrated. There are video games, that yes, are listed for mature audiences, but kids play them and everybody knows it and there’s nothing to prevent the child from playing them, that celebrate the slaughtering of people.
“These are quote-unquote video games, and they’re forced down our throats under the guise of protected speech,” Bevin added. “It’s garbage. It’s the same as pornography. They have desensitized people to the value of human life, to the dignity of women, to the dignity of human decency.”
Of course, Bevin fails to mention that there is no scientific data linking violence in video games to violence in the real world, whereas there is a treasure trove of readily accessible data showing that a stronger focus on gun safety and background checks (among other smart ideas that don't include banning all guns) would, in fact, reduce gun deaths in the United States.
'Guns Don't Kill People'
U.S. President Donald Trump and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
There are other problems with Bevin's claims.
For instance, the United States is the only country with this level of gun deaths and mass shootings, but it is not the only country in which people play video games. There are fewer mass shootings, fewer school shootings, fewer homicides and fewer suicides in every single other industrialized nation by an order of magnitude. Somehow these nations pull this off while their citizens engage in video gaming and pornography without also killing one another at unimaginably high rates.
And while there have been dozens and dozens of studies into the impact of violent video games on personality and behavior, none of these have concluded that games cause players to kill people in real life.
“We need to have an honest conversation as to what should and should not be allowed in the United States as it relates to the things being put in the hands of our young people,” Bevin said in another interview, though this discussion apparently does not involve whether or not guns should be put in the hands of young people.
Researcher Dr. Christopher J. Ferguson responded to Bevin's blame-shifting, noting that "speaking as a researcher who has studied violent video games for almost 15 years, I can state that there is no evidence to support these claims that violent media and real-world violence are connected." He also mentions a statement that was released by the the Media Psychology and Technology division of the American Psychological Association in 2017 "suggesting reporters and policymakers cease linking mass shootings to violent media, given the lack of evidence for a link." Doing so, the statement warns, distracts us from the real issues at hand.
Bevin isn't alone in this sentiment, despite the fact that most people gave up linking video games to gun violence years ago.
U.S. Representative Brian Mast, R-Palm City, another politician eager to sacrifice the First Amendment on the altar of the second, cited Call of Duty as the real culprit. "When you look at 'Call of Duty,' when you look at movies like 'John Wick,' the societal impacts of people being desensitized to killing in ways different than how somebody on the battlefield was desensitized is troubling," Mast said on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, again refusing to cite the non-existant data while ignoring the fact that people in France, Japan and Sweden all manage to play Call of Duty and watch John Wick without immediately going out on shooting sprees.
Japan is a great example of how vapid these claims truly are. Japan is a country of 127 million and yet there are rarely more than 10 gun deaths total per year in that country. That's an astonishingly low number. In 2015, 13,286 Americans (out of a total of over 320 million) were killed in homicides, suicides, mass shootings and accidental death by guns. That's 1300 times the number killed in Japan. The only possible response to this is "Well, video games would cause this level of gun violence if the Japanese people had more guns!" but that fundamentally undermines what extremists like the NRA have built their rhetoric around.
Speaking of the NRA, Bevin and Mast are merely parroting the group's talking points. NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre said, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting in which 20 six and seven year old children were murdered, that "Guns don’t kill people. Video games, the media and Obama’s budget kill people.” As he said those words a man in Pennsylvania gunned people down from his truck. Somehow, LaPierre made Sandy Hook about video games, the media, and Obama's budget.
Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, State Representative Robert Nardolillo III (R) has introduced legislation to tax violent video games. The revenue raised from this tax would go to schools to help with mental healthcare and other issues. Interestingly, Nardolillo---who ranks very highly with the NRA---has not proposed a similar tax on gun sales.
This Is A Settled Free Speech Issue
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia defended the free speech rights of video games. (Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Unfortunately for Trump, Bevin, Mast and Nardolillo, the Supreme Court has already granted video games the same free speech protections that movies enjoy. “Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively,” the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association [pdf], striking down an attempt in California to regulate violent video games in 2011.
Writing the majority opinion for the court, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia noted that California's attempt to regulate violent video games was largely based on research by Dr. Craig Anderson.
However, much of that research is not only inconclusive, it shows that whatever aggression spikes children experience after playing a violent game are almost indistinguishable from other types of media, including Saturday morning cartoons.
"Even taking for granted Dr. Anderson’s conclusions that violent video games produce some effect on children’s feelings of aggression, those effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media," Scalia wrote. "In his testimony in a similar lawsuit, Dr. Anderson admitted that the “effect sizes” of children’s exposure to violent video games are “about the same” as that produced by their exposure to violence on television. And he admits that the same effects have been found when children watch cartoons starring Bugs Bunny or the Road Runner, or when they play video games like Sonic the Hedgehog that are rated “E” (appropriate for all ages), or even when they “view a picture of a gun.”"
In other words, one of the most conservative Supreme Court Justices found California's attempt to regulate violent video games not only a waste of time but a clear First Amendment violation.
Scalia and the court's decision is based not just on first principles, but on the available data. Since the 2011 decision, many studies have been released that continue to back Scalia's opinion on the issue.
One recent study shows that even prolonged exposure to a violent video game has no effect on players' empathy to pain, with the study's authors concluding that "our study is the first longitudinal long-term intervention study investigating potential desensitization effects in empathy for pain caused by long-term violent video game play. The present evidence argues against the desensitization account proposed by the General Aggression Model and clearly stands against the recent conclusions of a task force by the American Psychological Association that violent videogames increase desensitization and therefore pose a risk factor for adverse outcomes."
Blaming video games for real-world violence is an antiquated argument that's already been settled by the highest court of the land and proven baseless by countless studies. It's also a way for the NRA and its supporters to constantly shift the conversation away from guns.
The problem here is that many moderates on both sides of the political aisle would gladly discuss common sense solutions to gun violence, but extremists make that conversation next to impossible. Shifting the focus to violent video games is just one of many strategies used to divide and distract rather than unite and problem solve.
Gun Safety Measures Have Worked Elsewhere
PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 21: Haleigh Grose, a 9th grader at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, holds a sign that reads, 'You are Killing Us,' as she visits the memorial setup in front of the school where 17 people that were killed on February 14, on February 21, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Police arrested 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz for killing 17 people at the high school. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Few issues are as divisive in American politics as gun control. This is one reason why politicians like Trump try to change the conversation to video games and movies. Gun rights activists believe that gun control activists want to ban all guns. And while that's true of some gun control advocates, many more moderates believe in more conservative measures. These include banning bump stocks, more thorough background checks, and various measures to make guns less modifiable and limit the rounds in magazines.
But the fact remains that in other countries, gun control has in fact been successful. Look no further than Australia. While I find Australia's censorship laws with regards to video games and other media downright reprehensible, their approach to gun violence has been a huge success.
In 1996, after a man gunned down 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania, the Australian government banned rapid-fire guns. They bought back guns already owned by the public and instituted much stricter gun control laws. While many Australians still own firearms, it's much more difficult than it was prior to 1996 to attain these weapons. In the 22 years since the massacre there hasn't been a single mass shooting in the country. While gun rights advocates argue that this could never work in America, data suggests otherwise.
While high-crime cities with tough gun control laws still have high rates of murder in the US, this is not proof positive that gun control doesn't work. It merely suggests that lawmakers in these cities are doing whatever they can to lower crime rates. Chicago is often cited due to its high rate of homicide, but overall gun deaths in the state of Illinois is much lower than that of states like Alabama, Mississippi or Alaska.
Indeed, states with tougher gun laws and lower rate of gun ownership have far fewer gun deaths per capita---including both suicides and homicides. Massachusetts had the fewest gun deaths per capita with 3.4 gun deaths per 100,000 citizens in 2016. Alaska fell on the opposite side of the spectrum, with 23 gun deaths per 100,000 citizens.
The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranks Massachusetts at the top of the list of states with sensible gun safety laws, giving the state an "A" rating. Alaska receives an "F" rating. And while some states with "A" ratings do have higher gun deaths, these are invariably skewed by high-crime cities. Maryland's "A" rating is offset by the high rates of violent crime in Baltimore; California's by high-crime areas of Los Angeles, Oakland and so forth. Even with gang violence, California's gun deaths fall far short of much smaller states like Arizona, Oklahoma and Montana.
Across all these states, gamers play video games. There is nothing to suggest that Alaskans, with the highest per capita gun death in the country, play more violent video games than Californians, or that Mississippians play more violent video games than New Yorkers. Indeed, New York has a far, far lower per capita rate of gun violence than much smaller states like Kentucky or Wyoming.
In other words, all available data suggests that while a variety of factors are certainly at play, from education to mental illness to rates of poverty, smart gun safety laws actually do make a difference in the rate of gun violence across the country and across the world. On the other hand, there is quite literally no data proving that violent video games or movies have any effect whatsoever on school shootings, rates of suicide and homicide, or even long-term aggression. Violent video games don't kill people. Lax gun laws that make dangerous firearms far too easily accessible kill people.
President Trump and other NRA-backed politicians are trying to shift the conversation. They're moving the needle away from any sensible discussion over gun safety and gun violence (not banning all guns!) toward a free speech debate that's already been settled by the highest court in the land.
Don't let them get away with it. Even if you're an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment, at the very least don't sacrifice the First Amendment in the process. There's no reason why cooler heads can't prevail even over such a controversial and divisive topic. Thousands and thousands of lives are at stake.
GalleryDeath By Firearms Around The World
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