Fact Check: NRA on Violence in Games & Films
The National Rifle Association's Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre blasted fictional violence in video games and Hollywood films during a press conference held in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings. But little scientific evidence backs up the theory that fictional media violence leads to desensitized, gun-wielding killers.
One new U.S. study, released on Oct. 29, took direct aim at the possible linkage. When researchers showed Hispanic college students fictional TV shows followed by video clips of actual violence, they found that participants could still feel empathy for real-life victims regardless of whether the students had first watched the musical show "Glee" or crime drama "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit."
"What we found is it didn't matter if they had watched a violent or nonviolent TV show," said Chris Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas.
Though limited to Hispanic students and TV shows, the study is still the the first to examine how viewers of violent media respond empathetically to real acts of violence, Ferguson and his colleagues say. Past studies have either suffered from serious design flaws — such as using contrived lab scenarios to gauge reactions to real-life violence — or failed to directly examine whether desensitization to violent media translates into real-life violence. [3D-Printable Guns Targeted after Sandy Hook]
A handful of past studies on TV or video game violence and empathy mainly suggest only that people's brains can become desensitized to further TV or video game violence.
"What you can take from past studies is that watching media violence may desensitize us to media violence." Ferguson told TechNewsDaily. "The more we watch, the more it takes to shock us."
That's perhaps not so shocking. But like many others, LaPierre has tried to leap the gap between fiction and reality by claiming that "blood-soaked films" and "vicious, violent video games" were responsible for molding people such as Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who killed 20 children, 6 adults and himself.
Past studies have failed to connect widespread desensitization to media violence with widespread desensitization to real-life violence. A study published in the October issue of the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture — one of the most careful and comprehensive of its kind to date — also failed to find such a link.
Ordinary Americans and the press also rushed to pin the blame for the Sandy Hook shooting on video games such as "Mass Effect" (a science fiction game played by the brother of Adam Lanza), "Dynasty Warriors" (a game featuring historical Chinese generals fighting with swords and spears) and "Call of Duty" (a military-themed first-person shooter series that the NRA failed to mention in its rant against games).
The intense focus on video games reflects an emotional reaction by people to find a reason, any reason, for the Sandy Hook shooting, Ferguson said. Such a reaction also ignores the scientific evidence on violent video games — the same body of evidence that convinced the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2011 to reject California's arguments for restricting violent video game sales.
"People need to keep in mind with violent media and mass shootings that youth violence is at its lowest level in 40 years," Ferguson said. "If violent video games were contributing to youth violence, we'd expect to see a lot more violence."