Fictional Gun Violence and Mass Gun Killings
An amusing photo floated around Twitter a couple of weeks ago. It was a screenshot of Cory Booker’s incredulous look when Peggy Noonan said the following:
The first half of the Wayne LaPierre statement, in which he passionately scored our culture — the video games, the movies, the whole thing. We’ve all been through this for 25 years, and yet we cannot say it enough. Our culture is helping to make unstable people sick and dangerous. It does make a contribution. He was right to say it, I was delighted to hear it.
It was amusing, of course, to those who re-tweeted it because they were sure Noonan was wrong. Obviously, culture could not have caused Adam Lanza’s massacre of children and adults at Newtown. There was some serious confirmation bias going on in the diagnosis of the cause of the tragic Newtown massacre. Conservatives attributed it, like Noonan, to culture or secular public schools. Liberals blamed availability of assault weapons and lack of funding for mental health care.
I want to think for a bit about the causes of mass gun killings. Not gun violence in general, but the sort of mass shooting we have in Newtown. Four or more people killed at one time in one place. Liberal-ish though I am, I will turn my attention to here to culture and take the causal question seriously. Does our culture causally contribute to mass shootings?
Please note: by considering only the question of culture, I am most definitely not saying that, say, availability of weapons is not a causal factor. I am setting that question aside for the moment. Culture, of course, is a vague term. So vague as to be almost meaningless. I want to focus on one aspect of culture that I suspect most people blame for mass gun killings: visual fictional depictions of gun violence such as those that occur in films, TV shows, and video games.
People such as Noonan often simply state that culture has this effect without evidence. Here too, a statement with no citation from the New England Journal of Medicine that culture plays a causal role:
What is missing from most related discussions is a focus on the seductive, powerful subculture that celebrates and advocates violent and antisocial behavior. Most people are not interested in and do not engage with this subculture, and most who do so are not seduced into action by antisocial themes and violence in films, video games, written materials, or interest groups. However, a very small minority of angry and alienated mentally ill persons may gain a sense of belonging and support from this subculture and may be particularly vulnerable to being seduced into action.
I will note that interest groups are quite different from films, video games, and “written materials” — whatever that last means. Interest groups involve real people talking about real things and are indeed restricted to a small subculture. Violent films and video games are fictional and, contra the NEJM, are by no means restricted to a subculture in which most people are not interested. The top five grossing films of 2012 were: Marvel’s The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, Skyfall, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2. All have violent elements.
Let’s start with the blazingly obvious. The vast, vast majority of people who watch violent films and play violent video games do not engage in mass killings. So clearly we are not talking about any sort of reliable or law-like causation. There have been 62 mass gun killings in America in the past 30 years. Let me make a wild guess. I will say that in the past 30 years, at least 62 million Americans have watched violent movies or played violent video games. A hypothesis that culture contributes to mass killings would have to say something like, “Fictional depictions of gun violence causes 1 in 1,000,000 or fewer people to act on an urge to commit a mass killing.”
In general, engaging in fiction is beneficial to our moral development and social understanding. A lack of interest in fiction and pretense in children is itself a red flag for possible autism. Frequent fiction readers score higher on tests empathy and social acumen, with those who become more absorbed scoring still higher on empathy. 
There is perhaps an exception to the fiction-is-good-for-you rule. Violent movies and especially videogames aggravate aggressive thoughts and reduce prosocial behavior in viewers and players. Whether this is merely a temporary effect or has long-term personality consequences is impossible to say. There are minor longitudinal effects of aggressiveness associated with violent videogame use. There are somewhat more pronounced effects in controlled laboratory studies, where players are asked to play violent and non-violent videogames. For example, players in an experiment who play violent videogames are more likely to administer an ear-splitting blast to an opponent.  There is also debate about cause and correlation, though. It may not be the case that video games cause violence. Rather, it could be the case that violent people are attracted to violent movies and video games. Moreover, one study showed violent movies actually function to decrease crime rates by attracting violent people to movie theaters and temporarily incapacitating them while also reducing alcohol consumption. Although, this too, of course, may be simply a temporary effect. And all of these studies discuss anti-social or aggressive behavior generally. They do not focus on gun killings.
Some people suspect the opposite of what Noonan suspects. They suspect that violent films and, especially, violent videogames provide a cathartic release of negative emotion. On this line of thinking, by experiencing negative emotions toward non-existent objects, we purge ourselves of our own negative emotions toward existent objects. It is hard to know exactly what this means or by what mechanism this is supposed to work, which is one major problem facing the theory. Why should a fictional experience of a negative emotion clear our own away? However, it seems likely false. Catharsis does not seem effective.  And, as stated above, violent videogames and movies do seem at least associated with a mild increase of aggression.
So why do we watch violent movies and play violent videogames? Are we perverse? I do have an answer to this, but it will take me far afield. Allow me simply to say that desiring something to happen in a fiction does not mean we desire it to happen in real life. If you read an Agatha Christie mystery, you expect a dead body in the vicarage so the puzzle can begin. That does not mean you hope you stumble across a dead body when you happen to be in a real vicarage.
Interestingly, angry people are attracted to violent video games in the false belief that it will provide catharsis.  Even though violent video games may not actually be beneficial, or may even be harmful, the desire to play them may not be at all perverse. The desire to engage in them may be a healthy desire of a violent person to rid himself (yes, usually a him) of anger.
Most interesting of all, however, is the fact that while there is some correlation between violent film and videogames and an aggressive personality, there seems to be no correlation between violent film and videogames and mass gun killings. Even though a mass killing is what a player frequently fictionally does in a violent videogame, it does not seem to cause mass gun killings. There are not a lot of data, of course. A study by the Secret Service of students who killed people at their schools (the study included guns and knives) indicated that 27% evinced an interest in violent movies, 24% in violent books, and 12% in video games. A 2000 study in the New York Times of rampage killers found only 6 of 100 interested in violent video games, and 7 in violent movies.
We do not seem to imitate our videogame actions. Even 1 in 1,000,000 of us. The culture of videogames is not a culture of mass gun killings. In short, while the culture question is not something to sneeze at, it does not seem to be implicated in mass shootings.
Yet. Non-gang-related, non-armed robbery mass gun killings are increasing dramatically. Between 1982 and 2005 there were an average of 1.6 per year. After 2006, there is an average of 4.1 per year. What is going on starting in 2006?
I really don’t know. Possibilities off the top of my head:
- Availability of guns
- Greater news coverage, including more in-depth coverage of shooters
- Social media, allowing violent people to connect to other violent people
What it isn’t, is videogames.