Whenever the topic of gun control gets brought up on television or in Congress, there are always two scapegoats the National Rifle Association (NRA) tend to present: mental health and video games. President Donald Trump has been accusing video games of “creating monsters” since 2012. Since August 2019, he also claims the production of “gruesome and grisly video games” should be stopped following the consecutive mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas. This is in spite of the fact that the American Psychological Association found no correlation between video games and criminal violence.
So why are violent video games a constant talking point in the war for gun control?
On April 20, 1999, two 18-year-old high school students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, shot and killed 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado before killing themselves. Terrified parents began to speculate and spread rumors about what convinced these two suburban boys to commit mass murder. Some said they were bullied. Others whispered that they were part of a “trenchcoat mafia,” who were — despite their ominous name — merely a group of video game and Dungeons & Dragons enthusiasts.
One rumor that was true, however, was that both boys played the video game “Doom,” a first-person shooter game where the player blasts a gory swathe through the demons of hell with a variety of firearms and laser cannons.
In a desperate effort to make some sense of the tragedy, parents immediately demonized video games and demanded research on how it affects the psychology of teenagers. Villanova University psychology professor Patrick Markey, Ph.D. calls this phenomenon “moral panic” in his book, “Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong.” Prior to the Columbine shooting, mass shootings were not uncommon in the United States (U.S.), but were rarely blamed on societal factors compared to individual circumstances. According to Markey, the number of studies into the psychological effects of violent video games increased by 300% four years after the Columbine shooting.
Psychological studies since then have been decidedly split on the actual effects of violent video games and people’s mental state. Some studies found a strong correlation between increased aggression and playing violent video games, while others say there is no correlation.
However, no longitudinal study has ever found a direct correlation between habitual video game usage and criminal violence like mass shootings.
One of the most oft-cited arguments against video games is the psychological notion of “priming,” where being repeatedly exposed to the same images or actions desensitizes the viewer to them and makes them more likely to commit those actions.
Proponents argue that exposing children and teens to aggression, violence and weapons will weaken inhibitions and compunctions against committing those same acts when placed in a similar situation. They point to cases like a news report in 2009 from Infopackets where a six-year-old boy decided to use his parents’ car to drive to school and cited “Grand Theft Auto” as the reason he was able to successfully drive six miles before crashing into a utility pole. More recently, people gawk at and make memes of videos of infuriated players destroying their PCs and TVs after a bad game of Fortnite or League of Legends, two of the largest eSports games in the world. When people try to set world records for the greatest number of kills, preen about their kill-death ratios online and disparage those lesser than them, it’s easy to buy into the idea that violent video games make their players predisposed to violence.
But the argument falls apart when the number of gun deaths is actually compared to the number of gamers. According to the Entertainment Software Association, a trade association that represents American video game developers, over 164 million Americans play video games in 2019. Statistics from 2018 show that the European Union (EU) has over 300 million gamers.
But there have been over 40,000 reported gun-related deaths in the U.S in 2019, compared to nearly 6,100 reported deaths in the EU. Even with a total population of roughly 1.6 times that of the U.S., the EU has less than a fifth of the gun-related deaths, including suicides and gun accidents but excluding deaths during war. The World Population Review also states that the U.S. is among the top six nations with mass shootings and gun violence.
Although many of these countries possess gun cultures of their own, the act of getting a license to buy and own firearms takes far longer in many countries outside of the U.S. Some of these countries also maintain a digital database to track the movement of guns from buyer to seller, which the NRA has lobbied to make illegal in the U.S.
Even the excuse of mental health fails to hold ground as the American Public Health Association published a report that said only three to five percent of violent crimes in the U.S. are performed by the mentally ill.
There’s no reason to continue this nonsensical back-and-forth about the root cause of gun violence in the U.S. Tighter gun restrictions will lead to fewer deaths from gun violence annually.