The recent shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio again reignited the gun debate in our society. Invariably citizens are torn between the desire to regulate the availability of guns and concerns about infringing the constitutionally protected right to bear arms. Several solutions that are unrelated to gun control have been proposed to curb gun violence. Among these are to reduce the number of violent video games that some consider to be responsible for creating a culture of violence, and to target those individuals with mental health issues preventing them from owning guns. What does science have to say about this?
First let’s look first at video games.
There are relatively benign video games that are even educational, but a large number of video games display a certain level of violence which is required to advance levels in the game. Some video games are extremely violent allowing players to engage in the gory killings of monsters, aliens, human beings, or the characters of fellow players. A few feature torture scenes that are either part of the narrative or torture activities that the players have to complete. The most extreme ones feature rape and other forms of violence against women. Over the years a number of these games have been heavily criticized by citizen organizations and even banned in many countries, but this has only increased their notoriety and their sales.
The main question that scientists researching video games have endeavored to answer is whether playing these games makes kids more aggressive. The scientists investigating this issue seem to have split into two sides.
One side is represented by scientists such as Craig Anderson, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, who insists that the issue was resolved a long time ago, and that the majority of studies have shown that playing violent video games indeed increase aggressiveness, decreases empathy, and is linked to delinquency and violent criminal behavior.
On the other side are scientists like Christopher Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida, who insist that violent video games do not increase aggression. He claims that many of the studies showing a positive association between violent video games and aggression were flawed. Ferguson and others have conducted studies of their own and have found no such association. He points out that youth violence has declined even as violent video games have become more available, that nations with the highest per person consumption of video games are among the world’s least violent, and that data from school shooters found no evidence of high consumption of media violence.
It seems that at the moment there is no scientific consensus on the question of whether video games increase aggression or not. Indeed, the Supreme Court in 2011 found the evidence not convincing enough to support restricting the selling or rental of video games to minors. Studies keep appearing both in favor and against the notion that violent video games increase aggression. Clearly scientists need to come together and solve problems with the methodology and design of their studies before a consensus can be reached. But even if it is found that video games indeed increase aggression, that is a far cry from connecting this to mass shootings.
What about mental illness?
Mental illness is brandished by many as the real problem behind gun violence. Most people state that mass shooters are mentally ill people and argue that to curb gun violence we have to curb mental illness. Is this true? Has this been studied by scientists?
The answer is yes, but first we need to make some distinctions. Mental illness as understood by psychiatrists to be specific disorders of thinking or mood such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and so forth, plays only a minor role in mass shootings. Only 3-4% of shooters were people who had mental illness defined this way, and this is considered by scientists to be a well-established fact. There are millions of Americans recovering from, being treated for or living with mental illness that do not pose a threat to society, and thinking otherwise just puts a stigma on this group of people and makes them prone to discrimination. The targeting of these people would have a minor impact on gun violence.
If it’s not things like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, what are the mental issues that most shooters have? Many (but not all) shooters are people who have what is called mental health issues (different from mental illness). They feel alienated, angry, resentful, and experience hopelessness about their personal situations. They harbor specific or general grudges against others, and some have a history of past violence combined with substance abuse. The problem is that many people have experienced issues of mental health in their lives without becoming violent. It is virtually impossible to put together a personality profile to predict who will become the next shooter and who will not.
So what can be done?
The National Council for Behavioral Health has put forward a comprehensive document that distils the scientific evidence regarding gun violence into actions that can be implemented at many levels of society. Among these actions are the Extreme Risk Protection Orders or Gun Violence Restraining Orders, also called Red Flag laws. These laws target individuals who are known to pose a high risk of harming others or themselves, and allow law enforcement officers to temporarily remove their guns with a court order. Red Flag laws are not based on mental illness but rather they are based on what are called “behavioral indicators of risk”.
Actions like the Red Flag laws coupled with others such as universal background checks could reduce gun violence and still respect the right to bear arms.
Screen from Grand Theft Auto IV by Silvio Sousa Cabral used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. Mental illness image from Pixabay is free for commercial use.