Guns, films, and fame: how to stop mass shootings

Guns, films, and fame: how to stop mass shootings

I don't know what's more shocking, the horror of the most recent mass shooting, or the fact that many people aren't even particularly surprised, as they've come to expect such things from time to time. My heart goes out to the victims and their families. Nothing I say could possibly console them - if they even were to read this in the first place - so I won't even try. However, while I can't console the victims, I can point out some simple steps which we could take to address the problem and to drastically reduce the likelihood of such events happening in the future.

There are three main components to the problem. Each of the three components plays a crucial role in either facilitating or motivating mass shootings. They are, in no particular order: guns, films (or more broadly, media in general), and fame. If we address all three of these components, we will go a long way towards solving the epidemic of mass shootings. If we address any two of the three, I suspect we'd at least make a significant dent in the problem. Even if we were to only tackle one of these issues, it would probably at least help a bit. On the other hand, if we ignore all three and continue to go on with life as usual, we will, I fear, get more of these horrible tragedies in the future.


There, I said it. I've probably lost a good chunk of my readers now by merely mentioning the word, as the National Rifle Association and its members are pretty touchy on this subject. I should know, I'm an NRA member myself, having been given a lifetime membership for my ninth birthday by my father. So I know a thing or two about guns. I grew up around them. I'm on the NRA's email list. I get the magazines. I know how NRA members think, and I'm keenly aware that any attempt to control guns will result in a knee-jerk response from some of my fellow NRA members.

NRA members generally believe that the citizenry must be armed, in order to prevent us from being overrun by dictators; their guns are the only thing keeping the good ole' USA from losing its tenuous hold on democracy. Now, I chuckle a bit when I hear NRA members talk this way, because I've watched as corporations have pulled off a coup in front of our very eyes, by purchasing our politicians, and by extension our democracy, over the past few decades. And all the guns of my fellow NRA members have sat idly by, hidden away in closets or under beds, while the corporations took our democracy away from us, as we watched football and American Idol. (Disclaimer: I'm not suggesting that a violent response would have been good; to the contrary, I believe in peaceful mechanisms of change. I'm merely pointing out that the very thing that the NRA claims could be prevented by means of private gun ownership has already occurred, at least to a large extent.)

As an aside, I must confess that I've never really understood this line of reasoning from the NRA. Are we really to believe that a bunch of guys with small arms would be any match for a government army employing drones, tanks, attack helicopters, hellfire missiles, jet bombers, and such? That's a long shot, at best, if you'll pardon the pun. But, alas, I'm on a tangent and I'm straying from the subject at hand. Let's get down to brass tacks: the availability of guns, in particular high capacity semi-automatics, is one of the three keys to solving the crisis of mass shootings. My friends in the NRA may make it politically intractable, perhaps, but the fact remains: it's one of the three keys, and we need to tackle two of the three, ideally, if not all three. If you think we can't get this one, then that means we've got to nail down both of the other two.

Update October, 2015. After another mass shooting, I should update this section as the NRA has adapted its "thinking" and its PR spin in this arena. Over the last few years, as these shootings have continued - and in fact increased - the NRA now says that the problem is that we don't have enough guns. If only more folks were armed, these shootings might not occur. In fact, they want teachers to be armed in the classroom. I don't really know where to start with this argument, since it's a bit circular. Essentially, we'd need all of our teachers to be police officers as well, wearing weapons on their hips, readily accessible. And, we're to believe that they'd be able to get the first shot off, since usually the perpetrator targets the instructor (first). And, I guess we're also to believe that a full fledged shootout in a classroom would not put all the students at risk but somehow make everyone "safe". Never mind that a crossfire in a small room might kill as many as the perpetrator would have anyway.

So, this is the NRA's "solution" to the problem. And what's frightening to me is that this argument seems to hold sway with my fellow NRA members; they actually have been convinced that the problem is we don't have enough guns in our schools. When a population becomes completely removed from reality - whether on gun control, climate change, vaccinations, or any other matter, we've got a serious problem. We cannot use magical thinking where facts no longer matter, and expect to ever solve a problem. Of course, the gun manufacturers approve of this NRA spin, needless to say. The president made a good point in his most recent address on this subject, when he pointed out that we have more guns per capita than any country in the world, and other countries also have angry or mentally ill people wishing to harm others, yet we're the only country that has these events on a regular and even routine basis. So, that begs the question: what's different about our country? I think the NRA can do the math on this one.


Well, more accurately, I should say: films, video games, television, talk radio (I addressed talk radio during the aftermath of the shooting of congresswoman Gabriel Giffords, here), sports (boxing wasn't violent enough, so we've moved on to more violent UFC type fighting), and other media. Oh boy, now I'm going to lose the other half of my readers, my friends who defend all media content because of the first amendment and free speech issues. In general, these folks have a pretty strong argument. And it's not easily solved, as it's quite tricky to limit content in the media without unintended consequences. However, we must find a way to do so, if we want to solve the crisis of mass shootings.

Discussing video game violence or film violence with a group of video gamers or film buffs can be as challenging as discussing gun control with NRA members. They may start talking about parental responsibility. Or they might start telling you how even Shakespeare plays were violent. Some will cite the handful of outliers in social science which suggest that violent media (video games or films) reduce the propensity of viewers toward violence. (Never mind that the preponderance of the evidence in social science research points to the opposite conclusion.) Or, they will start rattling off anecdotes about how they've played video games and watched films their entire lives and never killed a single real-life person. There are a myriad of ways in which such rationalization occurs.

If one really wants to examine the issue of media violence, I can wholeheartedly recommend the book Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill by retired U.S. Army psychologist, Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman. In the book, Grossman examines, at length, the scientific research surrounding the issue of violence in the media, a topic that he knows a thing or two about; Grossman worked as a military psychologist, dealing with techniques to reduce new recruits' natural instincts to not be willing to kill other human beings. Think about it: most people go through their entire lives believing "thou shalt not kill" (even if not couched in such overtly religious terminology) until they enlist in the military, at which point they're immediately told to do an "about face" and encouraged to "go out and kill those guys!"

Part of a new recruit's basic training is breaking down this natural instinct, and the military knows a thing or two about how to make it happen. There's a reason that the U.S. Army works with video game companies to produce video games and other simulations of the battlefield. As Grossman points out, such games are "killing simulators" which are used to desensitize the recruits to the idea of killing. The research on film and television violence is pretty clear: the more exposure we have to violence in the media, the more aggression we will exhibit in our everyday lives, and the lower the barrier will be for us to cross the lines which normally make us averse to violence. This may be an inconvenient truth, perhaps, but it's a truth nonetheless.

How might we walk the tightrope between reducing media violence and still respecting the first amendment? I have a few ideas, but I don't have a silver bullet. One idea is that we, the citizens, could simply vote with our dollars. If we quit supporting violent films and video games, etc., en masse, the media companies would quit producing them because it would not be profitable. This approach would certainly work, but for one minor flaw: most people just can't be bothered to boycott anything, even if they could be convinced to do so (which is also doubtful). Another idea might be to actually enforce some standards: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has the right to enforce certain limits on the media - and congress could potentially give it more authority. The FCC has generally acted only in the arena of so-called "sexual" content. Heaven forbid a child might see a breast (something that 50 percent of the population has, after all), but it's apparently perfectly fine for our kids to see murders on a daily basis (something which - we hope - nobody ever does).

Another possibility is a surtax or surcharge: films could be assessed a fee, payable to the FCC, based on the frequency of acts of violence depicted therein. Perhaps a historical war movie, such as Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List, could be allowed to petition for an exemption, but in general the tax would be assessed based on the frequency and severity of violent acts depicted. The more violence, the higher the fee. This would reduce the profit motive and the incentive for media companies to keep appealing to the lowest common denominator, i.e. our basest animal instincts, and instead they might have to actually focus on their craft: interesting plots, quality scripts, compelling acting, and all that jazz. This is not a new idea, of course: so called "sin taxes" are used to create disincentives for smoking, drinking, and other behaviors that are harmful to a society for one reason or another. So, yes, I believe that we need a sin tax for violent media.


Whew, now we have all three issues on the table. Well, this aspect of the problem might be more aptly called "infamy" as it seems to be what many of the perpetrators of mass killings seek. And the media, once again, is at their beck and call, by plastering their faces all over television and the internet, within minutes of the crime. The perpetrators of these atrocities, in many cases, seem to want to be household names, and we gladly accommodate them. But why? There's no reason that the media should be allowed to report the names or photos of these evildoers. It would not be an infringement of the first amendment for congress to pass a law stating that the media is free to report the facts: that a crime occurred, that there were such and such many victims, and that the police had (or had not yet) captured the suspect. Perhaps if the suspect was still at large, the media in the surrounding area should be allowed to report the photo and name, so that he or she could be brought to justice, but in most cases the perpetrator is already dead or in custody.

Quite simply, we need a law which states - as it does for many crime victims, whose anonymity is required by law - that the perpetrators' names, addresses, photos, and so forth must remain anonymous. This would, in a simple and efficient manner, remove "fame" or "infamy" from the list of motivations for any future perpetrators. In the perverse thinking of these folks, some of them seem to aspire to become a household name, even if it's a name held in disgust by the rest of society. Why give them any such motivation?

And there you have it

So there you have it: Guns, Films, and Fame. Address a single one, and we might reduce the problem of mass shootings. Address two and we'd probably go a long way towards eliminating it. Address all three and, who knows, we might live in a fairly peaceful country. Call your congress person; if he or she hasn't already been sold to the highest bidder.