Another day, another mass shooting in the United States. This is, unfortunately, the reality that we, as a country, are faced with in 2018. In the aftermath of these shootings, a pattern has begun to emerge in how we respond. Politicians, psychologists, and other individuals take to the internet to discuss the core question behind these acts of violence: “What is to blame for violence in America?” One of the most common scapegoats listed is video games and other violent media. The Columbine massacre and Virginia Tech shooting quickly linked video games and violence, regardless of how flimsy the evidence may have been.
This trend has only continued in the wake of recent mass shootings.
Less than a day after a gunman rampaged across a high school Parkland, Florida, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin spoke out against violent video games, saying that they are contributing to the mass shootings that are commonplace in the United States. However, twisting the narrative to focus on media—instead of say, guns—does a disservice to victims and does nothing to prevent these tragedies from happening again.
Video Games and Violence in Research and Rulings
If video games really caused violence in children to the point that they were compelled to kill classmates, friends, families, and strangers then we would see a link between video game consumption and mass shootings at a global level. However, this couldn’t be farther from the case. North America doesn’t even rank in the top three spots when it comes to the number of video gamers per continent, and we spend less on video games than other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
However, when you compare this data to international research on mass shootings, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the United States is completely alone when it comes to these acts of violence. No other nation has the same rate, or severity, of gun violence as we do. Research has also shown that we have some of the most relaxed gun control laws as well, and when you are looking at the sheer number of guns per person in the United States, we continue to outpace our international peers.
Video games have been challenged at a judiciary level after concerned parents, and other parties wanted to see stricter regulations surrounding violent media. But even in the court of law, ruling after ruling has come down in video games’ favor.
In 2006, Judge Rosenbaum of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota stated that “…there is no showing whatsoever that video games, in the absence of other violent media, cause even the slightest injury to children.”
In 2005, Judge Kennelly of Illinois stated that the state has “failed to present substantial evidence showing that playing violent video games cause minors to have aggressive feelings or engage in aggressive behavior.”
Another similar ruling was delivered in 2009 when Judge Callahan of California stated that “the State has not produced substantial evidence that…violent video games cause psychological or neurological harm to minors.”
Time after time, judges have found no link between video games and violence.
If Not Video Games, Then What?
If video games and violence are linked then what is the cause of these deadly shootings? How can we explain away these tragedies that occur in the United States? The next scapegoat usually discussed is “mental illness.”
Frequently, after details of perpetrators of violence come to light, another pattern emerges. The shooter will be described as mentally unhinged, a loner—and politicians and the media alike will focus on this narrative as an explanation for violence. While it’s certainly possible that some of the shooters had struggled with mental health, when you start to dive deeper into the correlation between mental illness and violence the facts simply don’t add up.
Mental illness happens on a global scale, it’s not limited to the United States, and yet somehow we are the only country that faces gun violence on an epidemic level. In fact, adults with severe mental illnesses are actually more likely to have crimes committed against them than they are to commit crimes.
While I am certainly an advocate for increased spending on mental health, and I don’t discount the fact that mental illness plays a part in some violent crimes, to say that disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar, are responsible for gun violence is as disingenuous as blaming video games for these attacks.
In an interview with ProPublica, Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, had this to say about the link between mental health and gun violence. “Even if we had a perfect mental health care system, that is not going to solve our gun violence problem. If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, that would be wonderful, but overall violence would go down by only about 4 percent.”
Our Violence Problem is a Gun Problem
Instead of performing mental gymnastics to try and link video games and violence, or painting every crime as the product of mental illness, the United States needs to wake up and realize that our problem is a gun problem.
In the wake of the Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School shooting, survivors of the attack and families of the victims have come forward to support stricter gun control. In a teary speech during an anti-gun rally, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez had this to say about the deadly attack that ravaged her school, “We need to pay attention to the fact that this isn’t just a mental health issue. He wouldn’t have harmed that many students with a knife.”
After violent attacks took place on American soil, the United States was willing to regulate fertilizer, make us take off our shoes at the airport, and prevent people from standing near the front of planes when waiting for the bathroom, and yet when it comes to the issue of gun violence legislators have been silent. In fact, a measure signed by President Trump in early 2017 actually rolled back restrictions on guns for people with mental illness.
While there’s no reason to know, or believe, this would have prevented any of the mass shootings in the United States, it does raise an important question. Why aren’t we regulating guns more strictly? Gun ownership is our right under the second amendment, but that doesn’t mean we can’t more closely monitor and control the flow of weapons than we do now.
Even if you hunt or shoot recreationally, the United States could follow in the footsteps of other countries to help limit access to these weapons. After Australia enacted stricter gun control, the rate of firearm-related crimes dropped as well. Homicides plunged 59 percent. Suicides dropped by 65 percent. Yet guns are not banned completely: they must be individually registered to owners and purchases require a legitimate reason outside of “self-defense.”
Japan has similar, strict regulations. To own a firearm, you must attend classes, pass a written test, pass a shooting range test, pass mental health and drug screenings, and pass a background check. After that, you must provide police with documentation about where and how you store your weapons and ammo. Police also inspect your weapons yearly, and gun owners are required to pass the exam and retake the class every three years.
While this seems extreme compared to the United States, these measures are working in Japan; the country saw only 13 firearm-related homicides in 2013 (While the United States had 11,208.)
Gun Violence Victims Deserve Better
2018 is the year we need to undergo a national wake-up call. It’s a gross miscarriage of justice to continually blame video games and mental illness for crimes that happen in the United States at disproportionate rates. Video games and violence are not linked, and the link between mental health and mass shootings is tenuous at best. The victims and survivors of gun violence deserve better than to have us repeat the same pattern of blaming everything but guns for these attacks.
It’s time to break the cycle.