Speaking of crazies: the NRA speaks

In the midst of exploding public outrage over gun violence, the NRA finally broke their silence and it’s lobbyist, Wayne LaPierre, said this: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” According the Huffington Post:

He blamed video games, movies and music videos for exposing children to a violent culture day in and day out.

“In a race to the bottom, many conglomerates compete with one another to shock, violate, and offend every standard of civilized society, by bringing an even more toxic mix of reckless behavior and criminal cruelty right into our homes,” LaPierre said.

LaPierre announced that former Rep. Asa Hutchison, R-Ark., will lead an NRA program that will develop a model security plan for schools that relies on armed volunteers.

Predictably, the NRA’s answer is more guns to help the “good people” combat against the “bad people.” This statement is truly astonishing. New York mayor Bloomberg described it as “a shameful evasion of the crisis facing our country.” Forget for the moment the problem that people are good until they do something bad. Also forget that a significant number of schools already have armed security. By deflecting blame onto movies, television and video games, the NRA is calling for Orwellian-scale mind control that would be necessary to sanitize the thoughts of every person in the US. Moreover, there is the matter of Constitutionally-protected free speech. Is the NRA really suggesting that “gun rights” are more basic and more fundamental than thought and speech?

Beyond the NRA, many other groups have pointed fingers at video games, mental health and other straw targets in the hope of explaining this violence. But there is no evidence that video games contribute to youth violence. In fact, according to of TIME:

In fact, during the years in which video games soared in popularity, youth violence has declined to 40-year lows. And while it’s natural, in such an emotional time, for people to search desperately for answers, that often results in misinformation. In 2007, after the Virginia Tech Massacre, pundits such as Dr. Phil immediately blamed video games. Only later did the official investigation reveal that the perpetrator was not a violent game player after all. In the Sandy Hook case, after the shooter was misidentified as Adam Lanza’s brother Ryan, the Facebook page of the video game Mass Effect (which Ryan “liked” on his own Facebook page) was attacked by angry hordes.

At this point, we don’t know much about Adam Lanza’s media use history. Given that, as researchers Cheryl Olson and Lawrence Kutner note in their book Grand Theft Childhood, almost all young males play violent video games at least occasionally, it’s playing the odds to say Lanza did too. But that has all the predictive power of saying that he sometimes wore sneakers or ate breakfast. In their 2002 evaluation of school shooters, the U.S. Secret Service found no evidence to suggest that these perpetrators consume more media violence than anyone else.

Why then, when the evidence is so poor, do we always return to media to blame for societal ills? The notion that simply removing video games would make these events go away is as understandably tempting as it is nonsensical. After the 1999 Columbine massacre, the nation uselessly diverted itself into a decade’s worth of video game violence laws that were struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Let us hope that Senator Rockefeller’s efforts do not distract us from the bigger tasks at hand: gun control and improving our mental health system.

As of now, there is no evidence that Adam Lanza played video games, or that he had a diagnosable mental disorder that could have predicted this tragedy. Let’s consider what we DO know:


Which of these can we control?

If we really want to reduce gun violence, the straightforward answer is to reduce the number of guns, and to reduce their availability to all persons. Gun control works. It appears to have been extremely effective in Australia, and it can be effective here. Here are just a couple of academic articles on the subject:

  • S Chapman, P Alpers, K Agho, M Jones, “Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms: faster falls in firearm deaths, firearm suicides, and a decade without mass shootings,” Injury Prevention, 2006 [pdf link].
  • L Hepburn, D Hemenway, “Firearm availability and homicide: A review of the literature,” Aggression and Violent Behavior, 2004 [link].

The Hepburn/Hemenway article offers a very clear conclusion in the abstract:

Individual-level studies (n=4) are reviewed that investigate the risks and benefits of owning a personal or household firearm. The research suggests that households with firearms are at higher risk for homicide, and there is no net beneficial effect of firearm ownership. No longitudinal cohort study seems to have investigated the association between a gun in the home and homicide. Two groups of ecological studies are reviewed, those comparing multiple countries and those focused solely on the United States. Results from the cross-sectional international studies (n=7) typically show that in high-income countries with more firearms, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide. Time series (n=10) and cross-sectional studies (n=9) of U.S. cities, states, and regions and for the United States as a whole, generally find a statistically significant gun prevalence–homicide association. None of the studies prove causation, but the available evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that increased gun prevalence increases the homicide rate.

The best available evidence (along with common sense reasoning) points to gun control as the obvious answer for reducing gun violence. There are simply not enough gun-toting noblemen to protect the rest of us from ourselves. Even as the NRA press conference began circulating in the media, there was another shooting, this time aimed at apparently random victims in Pennsylvania. Among other victims, a church volunteer was shot while putting up decorations. How does the NRA proposal protect her? It doesn’t.

David Frum has assembled an impressive list of shooting incidents on his twitter feed, demonstrating that armed guards are a nonsense proposal when considering the variety of gun-violence scenarios that occurred in recent years. Here is an abbreviated list:

we need a federal agent to protect every little girl with a stupid relative. http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/22/relative-shoots-costumed-girl-after-mistaking-her-for-a-skunk/ …

We need a federal agent at every cancer hospital http://www.wlwt.com/Cancer-Patient-Shot-On-University-Hospital-Campus/-/9838586/10427550/-/t6q0ep/-/index.html …

We need a federal agent at every marriage proposal http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/22/robert-allen-kleman-fired_n_906873.html …

We need a federal agent at every gun range. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vPnMbLr5nc …

We need a federal agent at every zoo http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=95258&page=1#.UNUUKKX5gfM …

We need a federal agent at every public swimming pool http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/25/shooting-se-kids-pool_n_1625223.html …

The list goes on, and the point is well made.