Does violent media lead to violent behavior? No, says Paul Barrett

Paul M. Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, and has been an editor and legal affairs reporter for the Wall Street Journal and staff writer and editor for Washington Monthly. Barrett is the author, most recently, of “Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun.” He teaches as an adjunct professor at New York U. Law School. He spoke to Variety’s Sean Fitz-Gerald about violence in the media, the impact of saturation coverage of tragedies and mental health issues and violence.


You seem to think our society has a fondness for guns.
Guns are intertwined into American culture and commerce. Guns have been a focus of fascination in this country since before it was a country. Guns were the tools used via a revolution to turn the colonies into an independent country. When the political founders of this country sat down to outline the structure for the government and the liberties and rights that would be retained by the people despite the presence of a strong central government, one of the things they were concerned about was the freedom of expression, the freedom of religion and the freedom to possess guns. This is a subject that is woven into our history in a very profound way, one that has been a significant part of American culture since the beginning. … And since the beginning of mass popular culture, violence, cops and robbers have been a source of fascination to Americans. What would Hollywood be without guns?

How is violence in the media connected to real-life violence, if at all?
There have been a lot of studies done trying to find connections between violence in movies, videogames, other forms of entertainment, and actual violence, and in fact the conclusions have been pretty ambiguous. While, as a matter of common sense, it would seem to many people that providing an example of violent behavior in entertainment would encourage at least some people to turn to violence in real life, there’s simply no hard statistical evidence of that.

Some people have said that Sandy Hook, for example, is a mental health issue and/or a media issue. Others think it’s a gun issue. Your thoughts?
All of those issues are related to what happened in Newtown, Conn. Almost by definition, someone who would commit a suicide-murder is mentally disturbed. The particular young man in the Newtown case, we learned after the fact, was socially maladroit and was so uncomfortable in school that his mother had pulled him out of school. Same with the shooter in Aurora, (Colo.), same with the shooter at Virginia Tech. All of these guys, once we can reconstruct what their lives were like shortly before they committed these awful acts, were disturbed. So obviously, mental illness is part of the picture, and they used guns, because guns are readily available in this country and are very efficient for killing a lot of people and then killing yourself. It’s both a mental issue and a gun issue.
And then if you want to then turn your attention to the fallout from the event — the societal reaction to the event — well, then it’s relevant to talk about the media and how the media covered it.

What are some solutions?
Our whole discussion in this area would be improved if we focused on the question of how to keep firearms out of the hands of people who have already been convicted of crimes, who have already been shown to be mentally unstable, or who fit the other several categories that are already banned by law from acquiring or possessing guns. We should do more to focus on enforcing those things that we pretty much all agree on, and taking practical steps to fight crime, rather than debating endlessly what precisely the Second Amendment means, or debating endlessly whether guns have a good essence or a bad essence.

On the drop of violent crime in big cities
(In Los Angeles), and where I live in New York, violent crime rates are way down over the past 20 years. … In New York, in 2012, we had 412 homicides; 20 years ago we had more than 2,000 homicides. The population has not fallen by that amount, our gun control laws have not changed one bit and I don’t think the number of guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens has changed — but something has changed. I think, in part, it’s the way the police departments are behaving. I think there have been demographic shifts. I think there’s been an easing of certain drug trends, but we ought to be studying what has been happening in New York and Los Angeles in the past 20 years and trying to replicate that success.