The shootings in a Colorado theater early on Friday quickly revived debates over gun control and, to a lesser extent, the influence of movies, TV shows and videogames in contributing to a culture of violence.
Such rhetoric has become all too familiar as politicians, media pundits and academic experts grapple for answers following shooting rampages. The Columbine High School shootings in 1999 led to years of divergent opinion regarding the influence of videogames, and speculation on whether the movie “Natural Born Killers” and dark-themed music glorified violence and even fueled the psyche of the students who carried out that attack.
The movie-theater shootings on Friday spurred pols and experts to a fresh wave of instant analysis.
On MSNBC’s “Now With Alex Wagner” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell advocated more stringent gun control laws and brought up the proliferation of violence in movies, even among the heroes.
“When I was growing up, the good guys, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, they never killed anybody,” Rendell said. “They disarmed people and sent them to jail. … Now in a movie and one of those videos, the hero kills 48 people before the credits are done.”
Another guest on the show, Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said, “There are folks in that theater who thought that (the shooting spree) was part of the movie … That movie was a glorification of the very violence that would end up manifesting itself in all too real a way.”
Such tragedies have in the past raised questions regarding the legal ramifications for the studios, which have long denied any link between real-world and virtual violence. Attorneys for Lee Malvo, convicted along with John Allen Mohammed of the Beltway sniper attacks in the Washington D.C. area in 2002, cited videogames and even “The Matrix” in mounting an insanity defense.
The American Medical Assn., the American Psychological Assn. and the American Academy of Pediatrics have supported the view that there is a link to exposure of media violence and aggressive behavior in children. In the wake of Columbine, the AMA said that it is “naive to suggest that entertainment media is the greatest factor to blame.” But it also said that it was “naive to pretend that a steady diet of death and destruction … doesn’t in some way contribute to the problem of real-life violence.”
D.C. lawmakers took action during the Clinton administration to address TV violence, mandating that all TV sets include a “v-chip” so parents could block objectionable programming. California was among the states in 2005 that passed laws banning the sale of violent videogames to minors. The Supreme Court overturned the California law in 2011, ruling that videogames were protected speech and limiting what lawmakers at the state and federal level can do legislatively about the depiction of violence in media.
Details about the suspect and his motivations, much less what he watched, were only starting to emerge by mid-afternoon Friday, but based on past tragedies the issues of gun control and media violence are bound to get further play on cable TV talk and elsewhere in the days ahead.
“It happens every time, anytime there is an incident of this kind,” said Jonathan Freedman, a psychologist at the U. of Toronto and author of “Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing Scientific Evidence.” The MPAA has supported some of Freedman’s research, but his argument, and that of others, is that the hundreds of studies on the subject as inconsistent and even dubious.
“Fiction is fiction and people know it is fiction,” he said. “What happens when people witness the real thing, that is another story.”
Freedman pointed out a contradiction to those who suggest a causal link: The violent crime rate has gone down since 1990, while violent movies have proliferated and violent videogames have emerged as a hugely lucrative, multibillion-dollar industry.
Meanwhile, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an advocate of tougher gun laws, was among the first high-profile elected officials to call on presidential candidates to put the issue atop their agenda.
“You know, soothing words are nice, but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country,” Bloomberg said.
Gun rights supporters, however, were wondering whether the problem was just the opposite, and whether restrictions on concealed weapons may have made a difference.
Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas) said on one radio talkshow, “It does make me wonder, you know, with all those people in the theater, was there nobody that was carrying? That could have stopped this guy more quickly. I mean, in Tyler, Texas, we had, in my hometown, we had a shooter come in over a domestic matter and just start shooting people, and it was a guy with a concealed carry. He got killed, but his shooting at this guy caused him to run and no doubt saved a lot of lives. He was a real hero.”