Authors Note: I originally wrote this piece some time ago, for the Nugget Newspaper, in response to a school shooting. I’m posting here because it remains relevant given recent events, and also because I need a placeholder — time — to finish composing a piece on a recent expedition to northern Nevada with photographer Colin Seitz. The inevitable hand-wringing, blame-game, and soundbyte pandering that follows every despicable act of mass violence in the country will do nothing to address the problem. Neither will the fevered rush to disarm law-abiding citizens under the guise of “public safety”. What is needed will not be found in those proposals, and it is only a fool who surrenders his right to be properly-armed in the face of killers.
The common denominator in school killings isn’t what you think it is. It isn’t guns, and it isn’t mental illness. The only common denominator in mass school killings is long-term, dissasociative exposure to violent media.
Whether its violence in films, violent lyrics, violent television shows, violent novels, violence depicted across social media, or the endless flood of violent imagery in first-person shooter video games, those countless hours steeped in images of interpersonal violence are damaging the minds of our nation’s children.
That is particularly true in violent video games, which encourage a child to kill using the same methods employed by the US military to increase lethality on the battlefield.
The military accomplishes this by the intensive and repetitive use of reactive targets, which reward the trainee with little shots of dopamine – nature’s biochemical reward — for success.
So do violent video games.
Dave Grossman, who is among the nation’s foremost experts on school shootings, has written extensively about the role of media violence in creating child predators. He argues effectively that school shooters are only doing what they have trained to do, hour after hour.
“When children play violent video games, they’re drilling, drilling, drilling–not two times a year—(but) every night, to kill every living creature in front of (them), until (they) run out of targets or (they) run out of bullets….So, when these kids start shooting–we’re reasonably confident that in Pearl, Mississippi, and in Paducah, Kentucky, and in Jonesboro, Arkansas, these juvenile, adolescent killers set out to shoot just one person: usually their girlfriend…But, then, they kept on going! And, they gunned down every living creature in front of them, until they ran out of targets or ran out of bullets!”
The natural aproclivities of military trainees against killing human beings are, at least theoretically, already fully formed in the mid-brain and must be overcome by repetitive drilling.
And, perhaps most importantly, professional warriors are taught that killing innocents is antithetical to their role, counterproductive to the mission and the commander’s intent, and punishable by imprisonment or even death. Critically, they are also taught how to turn the safety back to the ON position.
Which is not what is happening in the minds of children steeped in the disassociative violence of first person shooter video games or other media.
As a matter of science, Grossman argues, constant exposure to violent media and violent video games is short-circuiting the crucial functions of the unformed mid-brain in our children, which serves to, among other things, filter violent impulse.
Not every child who plays video games will become a killer. But every school shooter has played violent video games.
But we don’t talk about that much. We don’t mention that 97% of American adolescents, 12–17, play video games, or that the American Psychological Association concluded, over a decade ago, that “the evidence strongly suggests that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect and for decreased empathy and prosocial behavior.”
In other words, sociopathology.
Instead, we insist on having the wrong conversation, and then compound that problem – in an embarrassing abdication of adult responsibility – by ushering traumatized children in front of television news cameras in exploitive attempts to have them set the tone and direction of what is already the wrong conversation.
The conversation is wrong because we are attempting to treat the symptoms rather than the cultural disease that is causing the illness.
The questions we should be asking each other aren’t about firearms, which millions of Americans use and enjoy without ever killing anyone or anything, it’s what’s going on in our culture that is creating so many dangerous predators in the first place.
And despite the now familiar, and well-meaning, refrains for stricter gun control after every active killer event, it remains unclear how any gun ban, magazine restriction, bullet-button, confiscation scenario, or buy-back program will negate the sudden appearance of a bloodthirsty predator in a defenseless henhouse.
And as a matter of historical fact, everything from jet-airplanes to poison punch has been used more than once in acts of mass killing.
Because preying on the weak is what predators do.
We are not alone with this problem in the world, if that’s at all comforting, and despite the best efforts of peace-loving gun-banners and other fantasists — who insist on the magic-think scenario that gun bans will stuff the predator genie back into the bottle — the worldwide evidence clearly says otherwise.
A study by the University of Melbourne concluded that despite often being touted as a responsible act of prevention following a mass shooting, the Australian gun buyback had no discernable effect on gun homicides in Australia.
Violent crime across Europe – where Norway holds the world record for a mass-shooting event, and Germany held the world record for students killed in a school-shooting until last week – has spiked over the last fifteen years. In Russia, where private gun ownership is prohibited, the murder rate is four times that of the United States.
Grossman writes: “In just 15 years, according to Interpol data, per-capita violent crime went up almost fivefold in Norway and Greece; nearly fourfold in Australia and New Zealand. There was a clean tripling in per-capita violent crime, in these 15 years, in Sweden. And per-capita violent crime approximately doubled in seven other European nations…
“The question you need to keep asking yourself,” Grossman suggests, “is what is the new variable, what is the new ingredient? And the new ingredient is that we are creating killers, we are creating sociopaths (by way of violent media).”
Gun bans aren’t going to stop the mass-production of predators in our country. Prohibition never works. Not for alcohol, and not for drugs, which kill more Americans every year than guns do by a wide margin. It doesn’t work because prohibition of a thing doesn’t treat the underlying issues that lead to abuse or misuse of the prohibited thing.
We’ve always had guns. What we haven’t always had is a proliferation of lethal sociopaths, and until the parents of America stop allowing their children to train in synthetic violence academies, where they eventually graduate and become tomorrow’s vicious predators, negotiating away the right to effective self-defense is short-sighted, delusional, and foolish.