Why do these things happen? Why do they keep happening? What can we do to stop them from happening?
These are the obvious questions asked, screamed, and cried out whenever something as horrific as the Newtown murders or the Aurora murders reach the national news. We want things to make sense, and we want to fix things which are broken. For many years, various groups have worked to demonize various trends, items, and products in order to stop violence. There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer, but we don’t want to deal with complex ones. There may not even be a complex answer.
First, is gun violence on the rise in the United States or not? If you watch the news, you’d think every public place is only a hair’s breadth from utter annihilation from a nut with a gun. Although gun violence in America is higher than most other industrialized nations by a rather large ratio, it’s actually not at a particularly high level compared to our own historical norm. Many people think that we live in especially dangerous times, but that’s simply not true. We’re no more in danger now than in 1975. Of course, our parents didn’t have four channels of 24-hour news that needed to be filled. We hear about more violence, but that doesn’t mean we are experiencing more violence. So, we aren’t seeing any more gun violence than our parents saw.
Second, is restricting gun ownership a panacea that would prevent gun violence? This seems obvious to many people. More guns must lead to more gun crimes, after all. But, other countries have higher rates of gun ownership than the USA does, and have much lower levels of gun-related homicide. Switzerland is a great example. Every able-boded male between 18 and 50 is a member of Switzerland’s armed forces and there are approximately 2 million firearms in private hands in that country of 6 million people. Approximately 25% of Swiss households have a firearm in the home. That’s about the same percentage as the USA (The Swiss have 46 guns per 100 people and we have 88 guns per 100 people in the USA, since we seem to have a lot more collectors or arsenal-builders here). There were 0.52 gun homicides per 100,000 citizens in Switzerland in 2010. In the USA, that was 3.2 – over six times the rate. So, availability of weapons doesn’t necessarily lead to more gun violence.
Finally, does media violence lead to actual violence? We are not the only country with violent video games and television shows and movies. Yet, we are an outlier in terms of gun violence compared to those other countries. Studies sometimes show that violent imagery can cause violent behavior, but the imagery is usually out of context and not how we actually encounter those images in real media consumption. Further, looking at violent behavior in a lab is only interesting to the researchers; looking at the rise of media violence and whether that correlates to real-world violence is what matters to society. There is no such correlation. As anyone who has lived through the past thirty years could tell you, media violence has not decreased and yet (as shown above) gun violence has decreased. If there’s any causative motion, you might be able to claim that the rise of more violent video games in the 1990s (as opposed to the cartoonish games of the 1980s) has actually caused us to become less violent. There is no proof for that statement, but if you look merely at correlation and ignore plausible causation, you could make that argument. So, media doesn’t make our citizens more violent.
What does make the United States different from other countries? Why do we have more gun violence than societies similar to our own? Why does Canada have one-quarter the gun-related homicide rate the USA has? Is our society so different from Canada and England and all the other industrialized nations? Before we try to make sweeping changes to our laws, it might be educational to figure out whether the things we want to change would plausibly make any difference. It’s not as simple as “more guns” or “fewer guns” or “video games” – it’s not obvious, and it’s not something we have figured out yet. It’s not a new problem, it’s not an increasingly large problem, but it’s definitely a difficult problem. Banning one thing or another might feel like the right thing to do, but it likely won’t make a difference.
This does not mean we should just give up and accept a certain level of murders because we don’t have a simple answer to fix the problem. But, we need to actually identify the cause of the problem before we can fix it.