U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Dist. 10) has repeatedly stated his belief that violent video games are a major cause of gun violence and mass shootings. As per his website: “Common sense tells us that the level of violence on TV, in the movies and in many video games is a problem. While media violence is not the only factor of mass violence, it is one of the easiest factors to change and it needs to be addressed.” This position would not be objectionable, except for the fact that Rep. Wolf seems uninterested in any other subject relating to sensible firearm regulation reform.
That violent media content is offensive and objectionable is not disputed. That people drawn to violence may also be drawn to media with violent content is also not disputed. The Navy Yard shooter was reportedly obsessed with military style video games. The Newtown shooter reportedly spent most of his time in his basement playing violent shooter video games. Media reports included speculation that the Newtown shooter received virtual “tactical training” from playing shooter video games.
However, the Navy Yard shooter was able to come to Fairfax County and legally buy a real, not a virtual, shotgun, despite many red flags that would have raised concern about his access to firearms. He was able to kill 12 people in a spree he began with this legally purchased shotgun. The Newtown shooter had access to a legally purchased real-world arsenal: a Bushmaster XM15 semiautomatic rifle, two semiautomatic handguns, two additional rifles, a 12-gauge shotgun, and more than 1600 rounds of ammunition, including multiple high-capacity ammunition clips. With these weapons, he was able to murder 26 people with 154 bullets in less than 5 minutes.
We should recognize Rep. Wolf’s obsession with video games for what it is: a diversion from addressing the real issues in the public health crisis of gun violence. Despite overwhelming evidence that the root cause of the epidemic of gun violence in our country is the inadequately regulated prevalence of firearms, Mr. Wolf continues, so to speak, to stick to his guns about video games. Mr. Wolf, if these mass shooters only had violent video games, and not access to firearms at will or an arsenal of guns and ammunition, would the 12 families of the Navy Yard victims and 26 families of the Newtown victims be mourning the loss of their loved ones?
The assertion that violent video games are significant in mass shootings and gun violence in general ignores the evidence that gun violence is related to the availability of guns, not the availability of video games. People in many countries have access to the same video games as Americans, yet their rates of firearms deaths are far lower. Why? Because Americans own more firearms than people in any other country. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that in the U.S. there are 88.8 firearms per 100 people. In Canada, the rate is 30.8; in Australia, 1.5; and in Japan it is 0.6. CFR also reports that in the United States, there are 3.21 homicides per 100 people. In Canada, the rate is 0.51, and in Australia, 0.14. In Japan, video games are just as popular as they are in the U S. Japan’s rate of firearm homicide is the lowest in the world, 0.01 per 100 people - that is, 1 in 10 million.
Can lower rates of firearm ownership and lower rates of firearm homicide possibly be a coincidence? After a 1996 massacre in which 35 people were killed with a semi-automatic rifle, Australia passed strict gun control laws that, among other steps, all but prohibited automatic and semi-automatic assault rifles and toughened licensing and ownership regulations. The firearm homicide (and suicide) rates in Australia declined significantly, and there have been no mass killings in Australia since 1996. Australia made substantive life-saving changes without addressing video game or media violence.
The relationship of violence in the media, including video games, to aggressive behavior is a legitimate subject for social science research. But despite years of study, there is no evidence of a causal relationship between video violence and mass shootings. Even data supporting a causal relationship between video game violence and non-firearm violence is equivocal and unconvincing, as noted by a 2011 Supreme Court ruling when it decided a case against government regulation of violent video games. In short, Mr. Wolf, curtailing First Amendment rights to protect inadequate regulation of Second Amendment rights is a legal non-starter.
Arguments focusing on video games divert us from examining the factors involved in the overwhelming majority of gun fatalities, suicide, and criminal and domestic violence. The only effective approach to decreasing gun violence, of which mass shootings are a tragic but small percentage, requires a broad approach. Efforts must focus on improving regulations of firearms so as to decrease dangerous people’s access to lethal weapons and ammunition, especially assault weapons, making universal background checks actually universal, increasing mental health resources, and “deglorifying” the role of guns in our culture.
Congressman Wolf’s obsession with video games reminds me of the Congressional hearings on comic books and juvenile delinquency during the 1950’s, and similar discussions regarding the effects of violence on television on children during the 1960’s and 70’s. We should not pretend that doing away with violent, offensive, and distasteful video games will have any effect on the unacceptable number of gun fatalities in the United States.
Liza Gold is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and a member of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy. She also contributed to the Commission on Mental Health Law Reform in 2007 and 2008, following the Virginia Tech shootings.