Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard several hours of testimony on gun violence, from luminaries up and down the spectrum of opinion on reducing gun violence. Today's hearings precede the larger debate to come on what action, if any, Congress will take in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Measures that are said to be "on the table" include some heavy lifts -- a proposed assault weapons ban, limiting the availability of high-capacity magazines -- and some things that could get passed with relative ease, such as strengthening the current background check regime.
Or maybe it could get passed with relative ease, anyway? I have some doubts now that Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who's generally thought to be in the Senate's "reasonable caucus," was asked a direct question about the matter, and he opted to change the subject to ...video games? Yes, video games, for some reason.
CHUCK TODD (MSNBC): Can you envision a way of supporting the universal background checks bill?
LAMAR ALEXANDER: Chuck, I'm going to wait and see on all of these bills. I think video games is [sic] a bigger problem than guns, because video games affect people. But the First Amendment limits what we can do about video games, and the Second Amendment to the Constitution limits what we can do about guns.
Concerns about video game violence have been twinned to concerns about gun violence from as far back as the Columbine shooting, when pundits fussed and fretted over how Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold enjoyed yesteryear's most popular first-person shooter, "Doom." (Also, they were vaguely "goth," according to observers, which for a time made life hard for Bauhaus fans who just wanted to be alone and sad and misunderstood.) I was never too convinced by the argument: Video games, unlike the act of shooting up an entire school of children, were and remain popular, with
hundreds of thousands millions of people partaking in the escape. That some mass-murderers occasionally participated in that culture seems to be incidental at best -- a tiny bit of statistical effluvia that should be written off as insignificant at the outset.
"Video games affect people," of course, is not actually an argument. Monet paintings affect people. Long waits at the DMV affect people. If there's anything that diminishes my worry about whether or not Alexander will seriously consider the prospect of beefing up background checks, it would be the way that this thought sort of floated out of him like flatulence, unattached to anything serious. If I could assure Alexander of anything, however, I would point out that we have spared no expense in trying to ascertain the ways in which video games affect people, up to and including whether they can be connected to violent tendencies in real life.
Historically, it's been a hard case to make. I can point you immediately to this article from the Washington Post's Max Fischer, in which he runs down the statistics on the 10 largest global markets for video games and finds "no evident, statistical correlation between video game consumption and gun-related killings."
It's true that Americans spend billions of dollars on video games every year and that the United States has the highest firearm murder rate in the developed world. But other countries where video games are popular have much lower firearm-related murder rates. In fact, countries where video game consumption is highest tend to be some of the safest countries in the world, likely a product of the fact that developed or rich countries, where consumers can afford expensive games, have on average much less violent crime.
But there's no reason to stop there. Over at Kotaku, Jason Schreier has a lengthy piece about the past quarter century of research into video games and their connection to violence or, as it's more popularly termed, "aggression." Schreier gives the matter a thorough going-over, presenting the case for concern alongside the case against. It's absolutely fair to say that some studies have ended with the conclusion that a correlation between violence and video games exists. But it's also fair to say that many have not. Nevertheless Schreier gives serious, scholarly consideration to the matter, and so I'd urge people to go read the whole thing.
For the time being, however, here's the key data point: "The first major violent video game study took place in 1984." Yes, that's right, we are approaching the 30th anniversary of considering the impact of a globally popular entertainment medium on mass shootings in the U.S. And as Schreier points out, a sizable infrastructure has grown to support this never-ending research.
One factor worth considering: who funds all of these studies?
"Some scholars have taken research funding from advocacy groups, which is just as bad as taking research funding from the video game industry, as far as I'm concerned," said Ferguson, pointing to groups like the now-defunct National Institute on Media and the Family and the Center For Successful Parenting, a family-values group that sets out to find the negative effects in violent media.
"It's something we need to stop on both sides."
And what of the video game industry? I reached out to Dan Hewitt, a representative for the Entertainment Software Association (the group that helps regulate and represent gaming companies), to ask.
"ESA hasn't funded any research in any way," Hewitt told me in an e-mail. "Everything that's out there and that we talk about is completely free from any ESA influence or financing."
Ultimately, I reach a different conclusion than Scheier: I find this all to be a bit boondoggle-y, while he contends that "it's hard to argue with Obama's assertion that we need more research into the effects of violent video games."
Oh, that's right. We're going to spend another bag of ducats re-studying this anyway. So in the end, Alexander is getting his wish.
Speaking for myself, I believe that law-abiding citizens are law-abiding citizens, and I'm unaccustomed to demonizing them. Moreover, I think we're not as far ahead on solving this problem as we could be, because the well has long been poisoned by people who have demonized gun owners who have done nothing wrong. I'm very amenable to the argument that we should not pick on the lowest common denominator in this debate, and I hope that my antipathy to high-capacity magazines and my worry about military-style arms being in public circulation can stand alongside these sentiments. I think that the fact that 75 percent of NRA members agree that strengthening the background check system is a worthwhile policy to pursue goes a long way to proving that it doesn't go after the lowest common denominator, and I certainly think that it doesn't.
But let's not trade the pointless demonization of law-abiding gun owners for the pointless demonization of law-abiding video game enthusiasts. Gamers are not saints, and there are certainly aspects to gamer culture that disturb me. (Just ask Anita Sarkeesian.) But the simple fact of the matter is that nobody becomes more materially dangerous to society by dint of owning a Playstation. And I'd rather face down someone armed with a copy of "Call Of Duty" than someone armed with a Sig Sauer any day of the week.
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Also on HuffPost:
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas)
"I wish to God she had had an m-4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out ... and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids," Gohmert said of slain principal Dawn Hochsprung on <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/16/louie-gohmert-guns_n_2311379.html"><em>Fox News Sunday</em></a>. He argued that shooters often choose schools because they know people will be unarmed.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R)
"If people were armed, not just a police officer, but other school officials that were trained and chose to have a weapon, certainly there would be an opportunity to stop an individual trying to get into the school," he <a href="http://www.wtop.com/610/3162096/Gov-Is-it-time-to-arm-school-officials">told WTOP's "Ask the Governor" show</a> Tuesday, warning that Washington may respond to such a policy with a "knee-jerk reaction."
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) & State Sen. Frank Niceley (R)
Gov. Haslam says he will consider a Tennessee plan to secretly arm and train some teachers, <a href="http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2012/12/tennessee-armed-teachers.php">TPM reports</a>. The legislation will be introduced by State Sen. Frank Niceley (R) next month. "Say some madman comes in. The first person he would probably try to take out was the resource officer. But if he doesn’t know which teacher has training, then he wouldn’t know which one had [a gun]," Niceley told TPM. "These guys are obviously cowards anyway and if someone starts shooting back, they’re going to take cover, maybe go ahead and commit suicide like most of them have."
Oklahoma State Rep. Mark McCullough (R) & State Sen. Ralph Shortey (R)
State Rep. Mark McCullough (R) <a href="http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/article.aspx?subjectid=336&articleid=20121217_336_0_OKLAHO168827">told the Tulsa World</a> he plans to file legislation that would bring guns into schools, calling their absence "irresponsible." “It is incredibly irresponsible to leave our schools undefended – to allow mad men to kill dozens of innocents when we have a very simple solution available to us to prevent it," he said. "I’ve been considering this proposal for a long time. In light of the savagery on display in Connecticut, I believe it’s an idea whose time has come." Sen. Ralph Shortey (R) told the Tulsa World that teachers should carry concealed weapons at school events. "Allowing teachers and administrators with concealed-carry permits the ability to have weapons at school events would provide both a measure of security for students and a deterrent against attackers," he said.
Florida State Rep. Dennis Baxley (R)
Baxley, who once sponsored Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law, <a href="http://politics.heraldtribune.com/2012/12/17/florida-legislator-allow-guns-in-schools/">told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune </a>that keeping guns out of schools makes them a target for attacks. “We need to be more realistic at looking at this policy," he said. "In our zealousness to protect people from harm we’ve created all these gun-free zones and what we’ve inadvertently done is we’ve made them a target. A helpless target is exactly what a deranged person is looking for where they cannot be stopped.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R)
At a Tea Party event Monday night, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/18/rick-perry-guns-in-schools_n_2322185.html">Perry praised a Texas school system that allows some staff to carry concealed weapons to work</a> and encouraged local school districts to make their own policies.
Minnesota State Rep. Tony Cornish (R)
Cornish <a href="http://www.kdlt.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=22736&Itemid=57">plans to introduce legislation that would allow teachers to arm themselves</a>, according to the AP.
Oregon State Rep. Dennis Richardson (R)
In an email <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/17/oregon-state-rep-dennis-richardson-teacher-guns-stopped-connecticut-shooting_n_2317444.html?ir=Education">obtained by Gawker</a> and excerpted below, Richardson tells three superintendents that he could have saved lives had he been armed and in Sandy Hook on Friday: <blockquote>If I had been a teacher or the principal at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and if the school district did not preclude me from having access to a firearm, either by concealed carry or locked in my desk, most of the murdered children would still be alive, and the gunman would still be dead, and not by suicide. ... [O]ur children's safety depends on having a number of well-trained school employees on every campus who are prepared to defend our children and save their lives?</blockquote>
Former Education Secretary Bill Bennett
"And I'm not so sure -- and I'm sure I'll get mail for this -- I'm not so sure I wouldn't want one person in a school armed, ready for this kind of thing," Bennett, who served as education secretary under Ronald Reagan, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/16/bill-bennett-education-secretary-connecticut-shooting_n_2311774.html">told <em>Meet the Press</em> Sunday</a>. "The principal lunged at this guy. The school psychologist lunged at the guy. It has to be someone who's trained, responsible. But, my god, if you can prevent this kind of thing, I think you ought to."