Fictional Gun Violence and Mass Gun Killings

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Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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56 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    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.

    Which I think demonstration that the two biggest demographics among moviegoers are

    1. Teenagers
    2, People whose tastes haven’t changed since they were teenagersReport

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      Traditionally you are right. Teenage boys were always the prime moviegoers especially those without girlfriends. This has been true since the 1930s if I am remembering my film history class correctly.

      The second part is new probably but I agree.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      Yeah, it always amazes me when I’m at parties with people my age and they ask me if I’m excited about seeing some current movie that was clearly made for kids. I never know how to respond without sounding like a dick.Report

  2. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    Two things I wanted to note in addition to your fine post.

    1. I wonder if the effects are more subversive…for instance the normalization of violence, or the acceptence of it as in-erradicable background noise, such that we are less shocked to general, slowburn-style violence: gang violence, prolonged war, etc.

    2. What the average player does in the average playthrough of one of last years average selling games, if shown in cinematic form in a theater, would be more shocking than any other wide-release movie that year (with the POSSIBLE exception of Tarantino).Report

  3. Avatar Kazzy says:

    If there was zero possibility that the consumption of violent media had an impact of some sort on folks, than it would seem to logically follow that there is zero possibility of anything having any impact on anyone. Which I’m sure we’d all agree is quite silly.

    My response to the “nature/nurture” debate is always both-and. Some folks will consume violent media and be made more violent by it*. Some folks will consume violent media and be made less violent by it. Some folks will consume violent media and it will have no discernible impact on them. Some folks will consume no violent media and be violent. Some folks will consume no violent media and not be violent.

    The idea that one type of input will have a direct, consistent, and universal output is just averse to human nature. Even medicine, which has far more predictable results than media, is not 100% consistent in its impact.

    And while this would make it easy to throw up our hands and say, “Well, what do we do if everyone is impacted differently,” I think it just means we need to work on smaller scales. If Person A notices their child seems more agitated, more aggressive, more violent after consuming violent media, Person A would be best served to limit his child’s exposure. If Person B notices she indeed gets some cathartic release consuming violent media, perhaps she need not ration her intake. Etc. We need to stop seeking one-size-fits-none solutions to complex human problems.

    * I think Ethan is on to something with his question about more subversive, long-term effects of violent media, particularly in terms of how accepting we are of violence in the world around us, even if we are not the direct perpetrators of it. But that question seems even more fraught with entanglements.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      I tend to play violent video games to de-stress (especially when time constraints keep me from working out or being otherwise physically active). Of course, I also play non-violent games to de-stress as well.

      Kinda depends on the stress I’m under.Report

  4. Avatar Mentioner says:

    Thanks for the great post; this entire series has been excellent so far.
    I suspect that the true (and completely unsatisfying) answer will always be “all of the above”. At least to some extent. And yes, culture, but the main thread I always see weaving all of these incidents (and of course murderous violence, in general) is The Gun. It’s hard for me to take seriously arguments that at best seek to obfuscate the role of the gun in all of this. Almost like there is a hierarchy of causes, with the gun at the top of the tower.
    And , of course, I know “responsible gun owners”. And I understand, at a certain level, that the desire to shoot a gun is distinctly separate from the madness that is mass (or individual) murder. Yet. Guns.
    I am very uncertain how to proceed with all of this. I am also grateful for you folks posting in this series. You’re asking hard questions that lead to impossible answers. Thanks, again.Report

  5. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    I’m going to agree that the media plays a role here, although I don’t think they are sensationalizing mass shootings. Simply reporting them in a 24-hour news cycle is enough.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      To people who are would be prone to mass killings, I think the constant media display is glamorizing. These people are obviously not right in the head.

      I do wonder why such things were not common 50 years ago, when guns were even more available. Or were they, & we just never hear about it?Report

  6. Avatar Jaybird says:

    This is so much better than what I was planning on giving to the forum. Excellent post.Report

  7. Avatar Chris says:

    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.

    This argument — that in the hands/minds of a few people who are already unstable, bad things will happen — never carries much weight when we’re talking about anything else (e.g., the right to own guns). I don’t think it should carry any more weight when we’re talking about culture. It seems, instead, that we should be talking about the instability, since it’s the constant in these arguments.Report

  8. Avatar Mentioner says:

    Kazzy has a great point, and although not explicity mentioned, maybe the culture argument should be framed in terms of Saturation vs Isolation: diversity of media content (violent, pacifist, et cetera) is “less dangerous” (?) than a saturation of one kind. Of course, I can already see how this fails in the opposite: someone overconsuming pacifist media?Report

  9. Avatar NewDealer says:

    Great post and I largely agree.

    I don’t think the issue is necessarily that popular culture is violent but for a while we have been attracted to the vigilante, the anti-hero, the Walter Whites off the world. We have produced a culture that associates violence with strength/empowerment and also being sexy/confident.

    I notice this even among my very liberal friends. A while ago, a few of them were passing around a Joss Whedon quote. Joss was allegedly asked “Why do you make strong female characters?” His answer was “because I keep getting asked this question.” But what makes a Joss Whedon character strong? She often uses violence to fight the big bad a la Buffy. Why do we associate being able to use violence with being strong? Can you see American culture producing a movie that argues someone is strong because they choose to ignore bullies and not do quid-pro-quo violence?

    Also, people think guns = sexy. Even my very liberal and very pro gun control friends have thoughts about how carrying around a gun like a character in an action movie will make them sexy. I seem to be alone in my undesire to ever fire a gun or not feel cool by wanting to imitate a bullet ballet from an action movie.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Why do we associate being able to use violence with being strong?

      So less Buffy, more Elementary? I think this is why I love Dr. Who.

      Also, people think guns = sexy. …will make them sexy

      I can not express how alien this is to me. A gun implies sexy about as much as a drill does. I think this is a problem. Not for mass shooters, I don’t think sexy enters into their thinking in that way, but for others, I think it is a problem.Report

      • Avatar NewDealer says:

        “So less Buffy, more Elementary? I think this is why I love Dr. Who.”

        Ignoring the fact that these are all just shows with strong cult* followings probably. I have never seen Elementary but would not mind a culture that held up the Doctor as being stronger than any badass character. Same with his companions.

        *The internet makes geek culture seem like it is the dominant market right now but the truth is that the Internet just gives people a stronger sense of community. Geek culture is certainly more of a money maker than it ever was but Joss Whedon is still very much a cult figure. He will not be the next Spielberg or even Lucas or Jackson.Report

    • Avatar wardsmith says:

      NewDealer, perhaps you should reconsider that emigration to Israel then:
      what occurred at a [crowded venue in] Jerusalem some
      weeks before the California McDonald’s massacre: three
      terrorists who attempted to machine-gun the throng
      managed to kill only one victim before being shot down
      by handgun carrying Israelis. Presented to the press the
      next day, the surviving terrorist complained that his
      group had not realized that Israeli civilians were armed.
      The terrorists had planned to machine-gun a succession
      of crowd spots, thinking that they would be able to escape
      before the police or army could arrive to deal with them.
      Report

  10. Avatar M.A. says:

    The answer is:
    (E) All of the above.

    Culture contributes to the problem. We don’t have a gun responsibility culture like switzerland (a nation the gun-nut tribes of the US have been holding up as a model for why the USA should rescind most gun laws, doubly ironic since these same people regularly poo-poo arguments about how most things they consider “socialist” actually have worked and been reliable somewhere in Europe). We have a gun nut culture. There’s a big difference.

    Secular public schools? I addressed that over here. We had mass shootings long before we “took god out of schools” as the religious voices-in-my-head nutjobs are claiming. That’s a zero impact thing.

    Availability of assault weapons? [insert blah-de-blah from gun nuts about what the heck is an assault weapon, why one definition or another is stupid, let them shout themselves out being pointless, and move on…] Yes, the availability of these things without a responsibility for how they are used, secured, or cared for and a system of figuring out not just who bought it but who the current owner is is a problem. The fact that a son could just take his mother’s gun and go on a rampage is a problem. That being said, it’s probably only a small factor, since most of the spree killers have had multiple weapons on them anyways. It’s a “limit the damage” factor, not a stop-it-entirely factor.

    Lack of funding for health care: duh. We’ve used the legal system as a substitute for mental health care for a sizable portion of the population for a long time. It was an overreaction to abuses in mental institutions whereby most state laws were made so complicated that it’s almost impossible to get someone committed against their will.

    Side note on this one: A good friend’s (now-ex-)wife tried to commit suicide a couple years ago. Had a history of depression. Her tactic of choice was pills, but in the year following she made many threats to do so using a gun instead. Out of concern for her well-being, both he and her parents tried to get her into a database of people who should not be sold a gun at any time: they couldn’t do it thanks to nitwits and nincompoops of the NRA gun nut bent who’ve made it nigh impossible to no-sale list even a seriously disturbed individual who has made threats to misuse guns for violence on several occasions in front of multiple witnesses willing to submit notarized statements to court on the matter.

    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.

    It’s highly interesting that this comes up. Over and over again, opportunists go after a new target. At one time it was pulp novels; at one time it was coming books; it’s been movies and TV, radio plays, over and over again.

    The vast majority of the population isn’t affected by it to a large enough degree to do something wrong. The few who are, are likely to trigger off of something no matter what it is. After all, someone thought Catcher in the Rye was telling them to go kill John Lennon, but the mental warping required to make that bizarre connection (and possibly, “voices in the head” problems) would almost without a doubt have triggered off of some other source if the book hadn’t been read by that particular individual.Report

  11. Avatar DRS says:

    Not enough time right now, but let me just say I think you should consider “culture” in a broader sense than just “popular culture” (movies, videos, songs, music, etc.). What does owning and using a gun mean to Americans that it might not mean in other countries who also have wide ownership of guns? This is the issue that I think should be explored more thoroughly than just a focus on the actual hardware itself.Report

    • Avatar b-psycho says:

      Not enough time right now, but let me just say I think you should consider “culture” in a broader sense than just “popular culture” (movies, videos, songs, music, etc.).

      Like, for instance, militarism and xenophobia…Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      There’s an episode of Extra Credits that discusses the difference between the American attitude towards the gun and the Japanese attitude towards the gun with regards to video games.

      You really should watch the video but if time is short, here’s the deal in a nutshell: Japanese culture sees the gun in a similar way to the Samurai saw the sword. It’s an extension of the user (see Megaman for a big example). American culture sees the gun as a tool. Pick it up, use it, if you find a better one, throw the old one aside. Start out with a 1911, move up to a rifle, move up to a fully automatic rifle/sniper rifle, maybe find a rocket launcher here and there. Throw it away when you’re done. Take a new one off of one of the bodies you just created.Report

      • Avatar DRS says:

        Yes, but video games have only been in existence for a few decades. I’m looking for something that goes perhaps as far back as 1776. Like I said, popular culture would build on, but not create, its own underlying assumptions.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          The video touches on this but the Japanese Military Tradition goes back a loooong ways and goes through such places as the Samurai, Shinto, and so on. (My knowledge is severely limited but I don’t think I’ve done a disservice.) The American Military Tradition goes back not anywhere near as far but has focus on The Individual Soldier who is Just A Guy Who Hears The Call (Or Maybe Gets Drafted) and does his duty to the best of his ability for his country, for honor, and, most importantly, for his team. (There are a handful of little digressions through The Wild West that tend to focus on the exceptional individual but there is as much love out there for lawmen like Wyatt Earp as there is for outlaws like the James Gang.)

          This has, so far, culminated in the types of games that folks from either culture prefer to play.Report

          • Avatar DRS says:

            The American Military Tradition goes back not anywhere near as far but has focus on The Individual Soldier who is Just A Guy Who Hears The Call (Or Maybe Gets Drafted) and does his duty to the best of his ability for his country, for honor, and, most importantly, for his team.

            Maybe this is the clue, right here: the individual is the one who has a relationship with the gun. It’s not the army’s gun, it’s one guy’s gun, his personal property. Does this mean that his actions are seen as individual actions only, sort of “me against the oncoming enemy army”? Does this lead into the American popular culture image of one man cleaning up a dirty town, like Shane or recent movies where one guy breaks the law because he’s pursuing justice?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              To my knowledge, the Samurai had a relationship with his sword. (There are tons of etiquette rules for how it ought be handled, who is allowed to touch it and under which limited circumstances, etc.)

              There are much fewer (though extant) etiquette rules with regards to guns for the American… but, if I’m understanding the relationship over there correctly, there is a degree of veneration that isn’t there for the soldier (I mean, outside of “personal property” veneration).Report

  12. Avatar Scott Fields says:

    First – this was a truly excellent post, Rose. I truly appreciate how you’ve back yourself up with so many references.

    This is the first time in the symposium I’ve felt compelled to jump in, because I believe the “culture question” will mean more in the end than gun policy will. In the US, culture leads.

    Both Ethan and Kazzy have touched on the idea that the effects of the culture may be more subversive than overt and I’d agree, but I’d qualify that to add that a focus on media violence in the culture is too narrow and simplistic. There are a lot of other elements in the culture – rampant sensationalism, win-at-all-costs mythology, celebrity worship, to name a few – that contribute.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      I wanted to make sure that I wrote on something manageable and semi-measurable. THat is not to say there are no other cultural effects.Report

  13. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    This was very well done, Rose.

    It’s hard to present a lot of conflicting studies while properly juggling all of the limitations and still producing a threaded, intelligent analysis. Kudos.

    Now I’m going to go see if I can dig up sufficient falsification info 😛Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      Pat, I am a social/psychological science autodidact. Honestly, you could not have paid me a compliment that moved me more. 🙂Report

  14. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    There’s a part of this I’m uncomfortable with- not with your post, which takes quite the right approach- but just that there really *is* a thing where good liberal people snicker at the idea that culture might matter in the ways conservatives say it matters. I’ve heard it before when conservatives say these sorts of things about culture and violence or morality, and yet liberals are fully aware that cultural ideas norms about race, gender, sexuality, and class do shape individual attitudes and behavior. Of course they do. Why would it be different with violence?Report

    • Avatar Wardsmith says:

      Rufus, you say ” liberals are fully aware that cultural ideas norms about race, gender, sexuality, and class do shape individual attitudes and behavior” and yet the way it typically comes across is that the culture is “wrong”, especially with regard to your list of normsReport

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        Well, yeah, often it does come across that way. It can go the other way of course- I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to anyone, but definitely not any liberals I know, to say that cultural attitudes towards homosexuality were shifted in recent years by shows like Will and Grace. I mean, really, it’s not really news to say that liberals take cultural ideas and norms seriously– so I don’t see why they wouldn’t see Peggy Noonan’s point.Report

        • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

          I’ve always been amazed at the way the far left and far right sound like each other when they talk the depth and permeation of cultural influences.Report

          • I think there are two reasons for this, and I also suspect it’s not an attribute solely of the “far” left or “far” right.

            1. Tribalism: The issues about which culture is often invoked tend to be about highly emotional issues for which the available policy options that are actually on the table are very few. Even though most people on any given side of an issue might have very nuanced views, they are in a situation where they believe that a or b (or not-a or not-b) are the only things under consideration.

            2. “Culture” is a very slippery term: People on any side who invokes culture invokes a poorly defined (by them) concept and people jump to conclusions about what the invoker really meant and the invoker’s allegedly hidden agenda. When Noonan made her comment, I imagine that those who are critical of it interpreted it something like “she wants to force people to pray in school,” or some other such view that she may or may not endorse but that is commonly associated with her “side” in the political spectrum.Report

  15. Avatar Fnord says:

    We have a data set that’s not very large tracking a variable that’s rather random. Over the entire period, the number of mass shootings per year (using the Mother Jones data) is 2, with a standard deviation of 1.59.With a set like that it seems like it would be all to easy to see a pattern where chance is the only culprit.

    2012 was an outlier year for mass shootings, with 7 occurring. We wouldn’t be talking about this if it weren’t. But the 2000-2009 decade had an average of 2 mass shootings per year, precisely matching the average of the entire data set; fewer than the 1990-1999 decade (although 1999 was another outlier; the 10 year period from 1989-1998 also averaged 2 per year).

    A linear regression of the data does show a trend. But it’s complicated. It looks to me like a large chunk of that is because the 80s had relatively few mass shootings and the 2012 outlier itself. A linear regression of the 1990-2010 shows a change not much greater than the population growth over the same period.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      Yes, I see what you’re saying. Although now that I look at it, it looks more like 2000-2005 was just exceptionally light. We had all changed since 9/11?Report

      • Avatar Fnord says:

        Now that you mention it, I do see it.

        And yet, a full third of that 5 year period was BEFORE 9/11.

        This is what I mean about reading patterns into random data. There’s bound to be ups and downs in any set of data like this, which will be tempt the would-be analyst into associating with something explainable and meaningful (a caveat which applies just as strongly to my own idea of the 80s being mostly free of mass shootings.

        Couple that with the ambiguities in selecting the data, as Mother Jones describes, and it’s very hard to draw meaningful conclusions with much confidence.Report

  16. Avatar Glyph says:

    Nice post Rose. I just read this today – it seems sort of related to the “fiction/empathy” linkage you refer to.

    I am generally skeptical of the idea that violent media/storytelling, stimulates violent behavior, at least in adults, for reasons similar to what you’ve laid out (plus the idea that we’ve had “violent media” forever, going back to Greek and Roman myths and the Bible; and also there are cultures with even more media violence than ours, like Japan, that still have lower rates of IRL violence).

    But.

    When I was in college, and “Doom II” came out, we spent stupid amounts of time playing that game. I mean, just hours upon red-eyed, malnourished, bladder-busting hours.

    I also worked retail, and the stockroom was laid out in a maze-like fashion that bore some resemblance to a particular level of the game. And I had a lot of really weird moments where I would turn a corner half-prepared to blast an Imp with my shotgun. (Later, I experienced a similar phenomenon with the Ps1 game “Wipeout” and certain curved interstate ramps). For just a few milliseconds, the real world and the videogame world kind of blurred into each other.

    Now, I never had the urge to blow anyone away with a shotgun. But, for an individual who is already mentally unbalanced, and/or sleep-deprived or drug-addled, I can’t completely dismiss out of hand the idea that this sort of input might have an effect.

    I mean really: an outside observer who did not know that we had chosen to play the game and were enjoying ourselves, would probably be horrified at what would appear to be the “Clockwork Orange”-style conditioning that we were basically undergoing during all those dry-eyed hours and hours of staring at the monitor.

    That’s not to say that we should ban such media; but more to say that, like drugs, some people probably would be better off never indulging in them.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      Speaking of 9/11, I remember being addicted to Tetris, and every time I looked at the WTC, I wanted to put the long skinny piece there.Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      But, for an individual who is already mentally unbalanced, and/or sleep-deprived or drug-addled, I can’t completely dismiss out of hand the idea that this sort of input might have an effect.

      No, you can’t.

      But on the other hand, you have to take into account what occurs in the absence of the trigger/effect.

      Does the guy never hit his tipping point? Or does something else set him off?

      If something else is going to set him off regardless, you have something being a trigger without being the root cause.

      I suspect that most triggers are not root causes. I suspect that the vast majority of the spree killing offenders are triggered by various confluences of events, but the likelihood that you’d prevent them from ever going off by removing all of the possible triggers is pretty unlikely.

      I readily admit this is a gut feel. It’s not falsifiable by any means.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        Pat, this could be a semantics/terminology thing; but I am not thinking of the game as a “trigger” (an “event”) so much as an “input” (conditioning/programming). The gameplay generally takes place over a long period of time, and mind and twitch/muscle memory are presumably being imprinted with it. When the real “triggering” event does happen and the person breaks, this may be in part the “program” that then gets run (but to your point, in the absence of the games, would it still be something else? Yeah, probably. We had rampage killers before video games, and like Rose shows, playing the games isn’t all that highly correlated with the rampages).

        In short, I have no idea what my point is. 🙂Report

        • Avatar Glyph says:

          And of course, it could be a chicken/egg thing: that is, we all, on some level, already *have* the programming/subconscious desire to occasionally “go postal”; this desire is why we build, buy and enjoy such games to begin with, because they give a safe outlet for this dark antisocial desire (the catharsis to which Rose refers).Report

        • Avatar M.A. says:

          Regarding the trigger, Glyph – Have you read Catcher in the Rye lately? I’ve heard it makes you want to kill John Lennon. Or something.Report

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