On Wednesday, 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at a high school in Florida, a scenario that has become all too familiar to anyone who reads the American news. Now that the obligatory genuflection at the altar of thoughts and prayers has been completed, pundits and politicians around the country have moved on to the next step in the uniquely American ritual of gun violence: casting about for scapegoats that can bear the terrible weight of blame for these crimes — particularly those that have nothing to do with guns.
Mental illness has become a convenient talking point, despite the fact that mentally ill people are responsible for only a tiny fraction of gun violence — and are far more likely to experience violence than to commit it. And now Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin has reached down into the political grab bag of scapegoats to pin the blame on another familiar boogeyman: video games.
In an interview on the Leland Conway show on Thursday, Bevin says that “guns are not the problem. We have a cultural problem in America… You look at the ‘culture of death’ that is being celebrated. There are video games, that yes, are listed for mature audiences, but kids play them and everybody knows it and there’s nothing to prevent the child from playing them, that celebrate the slaughtering of people.”
There are several things that could prevent a child from playing violent video games, notably the careful supervision of parents — a “personal responsibility” solution that one might imagine would be at the forefront of a conservative politician’s mind. Nor does Bevin consider America’s gun ownership rate — the highest in the world — to be a salient factor. Instead, he believes that entertainment, and particularly video games, are primarily to blame for the incredibly high rate of school shootings in America.
“These are quote-unquote video games, and they’re forced down our throats under the guise of protected speech,” says Bevin.
“These are quote-unquote video games, and they’re forced down our throats under the guise of protected speech,” says Bevin. “It’s garbage. It’s the same as pornography. They have desensitized people to the value of human life, to the dignity of women, to the dignity of human decency.”
There’s a lot to unpack here! The “quote-unquote video games” characterization is curious, and implies that violent video games are somehow not “true” video games. This runs counter to Bevin’s claim that the gaming industry at large is characterized by violent products, but let’s put that aside for the moment. The idea video games merely parade around under the “guise of protected speech” also makes little sense, as their First Amendment protection has been explicitly upheld by the US Supreme Court.
The description of video games as being “forced down our throats” is even more bizarre, conjuring images of people being force-fed Call of Duty matches through some sort of digital funnel. It is a revealing image nonetheless — one that evokes penetration, violation, and physical violence. While studies on the link between violent games and aggression are inconclusive, declaring that the imaginary bullets of video games are more dangerous than actual bullets that tear apart the bodies of their victims requires an Olympian level of mental gymnastics — but one that becomes necessary when more obvious conclusions are considered politically untenable.
When asked about the possibility of implementing gun control measures, Bevin immediately waves it away. “Here’s the question that nobody ever wants to answer or is able to answer,” he says. “What would any rule that anyone is proposed have done to prevent this from happening?” The idea that no one “wants” to answer this question is his most baffling assertion, because it is the precise question currently burning in the minds of millions of horrified Americans. There are also plenty of experts and researchers who have weighed in on the subject with tangible, common-sense recommendations for reducing the rate or death toll of mass shootings.
While most agree that no form of gun control could entirely eliminate the risk of gun violence, research has nonetheless yielded the “no kidding” revelation that more guns lead to higher rates of homicide and that “some specific restrictions on purchase, access, and use of firearms are associated with reductions in firearm deaths.” When The New York Times asked dozens of criminology, law, and public health researchers to assess the potential impact of various gun control laws, bans on assault weapons, semi-automatic guns, and high-capacity magazines — the sort of weaponry frequently deployed in mass shootings to cause maximum carnage — were rated as among the most effective.
While guns have “always been around,” there are now roughly twice as many guns per capita in America today than there were 40 years ago
As proof that these restrictions would have no impact on the devastating rates of gun violence in America, Bevin cites an anecdote from his childhood, when he says he often saw other students bring shotguns and .22 Long Rifles to school to show the weapons off to their friends, and even stored them in their lockers. “If guns have always been around, but only recently have young people started taking them into the classroom and killing each other with them, then it’s not a gun problem because the guns were always able to get into the classroom.” This ignores several crucial factors: while guns have “always been around,” there are now roughly twice as many guns per capita in America today than there were 40 years ago, and many of these weapons are dramatically more lethal than a shotgun.
When Conway asks whether he would support a ban on violent video games, Bevin does not respond directly but instead poses a question of his own: “Why do we need a video game, for example, that encourages people to kill people?”
One could — and should — ask the same question about semi-automatic and automatic weapons whose sole function is to kill as many people as possible. It is nothing short of a tragedy that too many of our politicians never will.
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