On Gun Crime and Violent Video Games

I tend to avoid talking or writing about mass shootings or publicized crimes for a good amount of time after the fact, unlike the rest of the media, to let the dust settle so the facts reveal themselves. Yet, the tragic shooting spree at the Washington, DC Navy Yard on September 16 reignited the national conversation on gun control and the “culture of violence.” Twelve lives were lost after 34-year-old Aaron Alexis began his rampage, and he subsequently lost his own life after a shootout with police.

As details about Alexis’ background began to trickle out in reports, certain segments of the media turned their focus onto a recurring “warning sign” that, by their standard, revealed the true motive for the killings: an obsession with violent video games. Besides the calls for more gun control, this is the first red herring that many in the media latched on to. According to his friends, Alexis was known to have had mental health difficulties throughout his life. In turn, he spent a lot of his time playing video games like those in the Call of Duty series — sometimes in sessions of eighteen hours or more.

This, of course, means that it must be the games that caused Alexis to commit his crime. This sentiment became very clear as the days went by, exemplified by a bizarre segment on Fox & Friends on September 17. Elizabeth Hasselbeck, one of the morning show’s cohosts, declared that creating a “video game registry” ought to be a priority in mass shooting prevention efforts:

“One thing that happens often in a situation as tragic as this is we start to spread blame where it possibly doesn’t belong, right?” Hasselbeck remarked. “I think we all know where the blame truly belongs, and that would be right in Alexis’ hands.”

“Are more people susceptible to playing video games?” Hasselbeck wondered. “Is there a link between a certain age group or [demographic] in 20- to 34-year-old men, perhaps, that are playing these video games and their violent actions?”

“What about frequency testing?” she added. “How often has this game been played? I’m not one to get in there and say, monitor everything, but if this, indeed, is a strong link, right, to mass killings then why aren’t we looking at frequency of purchases per person? And also, how often they’re playing and maybe they time out after a certain hour.” 

Mrs. Hasselbeck herself demonstrates that she lacks knowledge on the matter, yet continues to make hasty generalizations and suggest ludicrous methods for violence prevention. Studies conducted on this topic over the last 25 years yield results that are often contradictory and thus do not provide a strong scientific basis for debate. As it turns out, studying the human psyche and behavior patterns is kind of hard. Like asking “Are we alone in the universe?” or “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” and expecting a definitive answer, asking deep-seated questions about the human mind — a baffling, miraculous specimen in and of itself — tends to produce unsatisfactory answers.

Beyond this conundrum, the vacuous comments on a video game registry are odd, especially for someone who claims that they’re “not one to get in there and say, monitor everything.” The Supreme Court has consistently upheld that free speech rights apply to the development of video games, as they convey ideas and often qualify as art. Such a registry would be akin to taking note of who’s reading Atlas Shrugged, 1984, Silent Spring, The Feminine Mystique, The Communist Manifesto, or any book that conveys socially- or politically-significant ideas.

As someone who has played far too many video games to count — violent ones included — I always approach these debates with a massive amount of skepticism. I bought Grand Theft Auto V  (the newest edition to the ever-so-violent game series) at midnight on release day, because it’s a part of one of the best series in all of video games. I’ve played the vast majority of shooters that are often cited by the uninformed as killing simulators that cause kids to shoot up schools and kill themselves. Despite all this, I have never thought about or plotted a mass murder using what I “learned” from the “violent actions” I took part in while playing these games. Not once.

None of us, especially those who frequent this site, should be surprised that this unfounded lambasting of an industry and an art form is happening. As they say, there is nothing new under the sun, and this aptly applies. News media is a business, so hysteria over anything and everything draws people in and raises revenue. This brilliant comic from Dorkly.com shows the media thought process and how ridiculous the argument is.

Dorkly.com video game violence comic strip

The realist in me says that outrage over the “culture of violence” will never cease, but I have hope that we can get past this misnomer and focus on the reality — the stigma that comes with seeking help with mental health problems. Until we have a shift in focus, expect more tragedies like the DC Navy Yard shooting in the future, and more rhetoric placing blame on the easy targets.

Content published on the Young Americans for Liberty blog is only representative of the opinions and research of the individual authors. It does not necessarily reflect the views, goals, or membership of YAL.

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