Gun control partisans sometimes claim that rampage shootings are a uniquely American affliction, caused by our failure to imitate other countries’ gun policies. It’s true that other countries have fewer school shootings than we have. But uninformed anti-gun Americans overstate their case.
There have been massacres in Germany, Scotland, Canada, Brazil, the Soviet Union, China, Japan and South Korea. And the foreign countries do not rely exclusively on gun policy to prevent gun violence in their schools.
For example, rating by the Ministry of Justice is mandatory for all video games released in Brazil. As a result of that prospect of scrutiny and accountability, online game stores do not sell their most violent and harmful games in the Brazilian market.
The Brazilian government outlawed Mortal Kombat, Postal, Carmageddon, Requiem, Blood and other violent first-person shooter games in 1999 after a 24-year-old medical student killed several people at a cinema, re-enacting a bloody Duke Nukem video game scenario.
Sega gained a competitive advantage over Nintendo in the U.S. market by allowing a bloodier, more brutal version of the Mortal Kombat game. But Sega canceled release of that most inhumane version in Spain, where the government was unlikely to tolerate it.
South Korea and Australia banned the Mortal Kombat game altogether.
Germans passed the Children and Young Persons Protection Act in response to the Erfurt Massacre of 2002, in which an expelled 19-year-old student killed 16 at his high school.
It was already illegal to provide content on how to commit a crime, and to glorify or trivialize violence. But the new law created an age-based system for listing and restricting video games that are harmful to youth, whether due to violence or a dark and threatening atmosphere.
American game publishers and developers began to release edited versions of their games in the German market in order to avoid a restrictive rating that would depress sales. Microsoft opted not to release its third-person shooter Gears of War game in the German market, and did not initially submit to the rating system.
Gears of War was nevertheless imported into Germany by travelers. The government then revised its system to presume that unrated imported video games deserve the most severe restrictions. The first two iterations of Gears of War were added to the restricted “index” of media harmful to youth.
German prosecutors enforced the index, and youth welfare agencies brought violations to their attention. On the third phase, Microsoft finally relented and submitted to the German rating system.
Americans have attempted to counter the influence of toxic entertainment media here, too, but have been unable to overcome elite opposition in Congress, the courts and the mainstream media.
After the Columbine High School massacre, President Bill Clinton denounced “video games like Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct and Doom, the very game played obsessively by the two young men who ended so many lives at [Columbine].”
“What does it do to children, who see thousands of acts of violence on television,” asked Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2001, “who are conditioned by video games to do things that are abhorrent to the human spirit?”
Manufacturers should “understand that there’s a certain responsibility in the development of video games,” he said.
Ashcroft said boys who massacred fellow students at Columbine (Colorado) and Heath (Kentucky) watched violent video games before their crimes. The Kentucky murderer learned tactical shooting skills in video games and was a better shot than most police officers, according to the Attorney General.
Industry spokesmen were dismissive of the idea that video games condition players to commit violence or that they can hone players’ marksmanship. Although everybody seems to agree that great art and literature can inspire us, many who enjoy or profit from the bad stuff claim to doubt that it’s harmful.
Yet an Australian university experiment studied participants who played Mortal Kombat and found that “playing violent video games leads players to see themselves, and their opponents, as lacking in core human qualities such as warmth, open-mindedness and intelligence.”
Simulated violence can lead to actual violence, wrote a University of Missouri psychology professor, because “to the extent that a player learns to make specific or violent responses in the context of the game, those same skills could transfer to scenarios outside the game, potentially increasing aggression in non-gaming situations.”
Novelist Stephen King, a former classroom teacher, was more sensitive than video game entrepreneurs to the fact that art and entertainment can rehearse adolescent violence. He was appalled to learn that the Kentucky shooter had a copy of King’s rampage novel, Rage, in his school locker. King asked his publisher to let it go out of print.
The U.S. courts have sided with the publishers against parents. When three parents of Heath High School shooting victims sued, their claim that media violence inspired the shootings got as far as the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before it was was dismissed in 2002.
It’s “simply too far a leap from shooting characters on a video screen to shooting people in a classroom,” that Court held. I don’t know enough about law to express an opinion on the legal merits of that holding. But it was certainly a dagger through the heart of any prospect of accountability for those who get rich degrading and destabilizing adolescent character, at the cost of great human suffering.
Even our video game industry’s rating system is a sham. The Video Game Decency Act of 2006 was an attack on the obvious corruption of our system, which relies on voluntary disclosure by publishers. It would treat publishers’ false descriptions of their video game content as “unfair or deceptive acts affecting interstate commerce” under the Federal Trade Commission Act. It died in committee. In other words, it was never even brought to the House floor for a vote.
Thus parents have no recourse against entertainment media corporations when their children fall in a media-inspired hail of bullets, and they have no reliable, authoritative rating system to guide them in shielding their own adolescents from material that might deform their character.
“A child growing up in America today witnesses 16,000 murders,” NRA executive Wayne LaPierre said after the Sandy Hook massacre, “and 200,000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18. And throughout it all, too many in the national media, their corporate owners, and their stockholders act as silent enablers, if not complicit co-conspirators.”
The suppression of American gun ownership will not reduce rampage shootings. When will we join the rest of the civilized world in confronting the loathsome commercial media, mostly American, that invades our families to entice and train our most troubled adolescents to slaughter classmates and teachers?