Yesterday, in the New York Times, our former Prime Minister John Howard brought gaming back into the gun control debate, arguing that America needs tougher gun laws…
“Certainly, shortcomings in treating mental illness and the harmful influence of violent video games and movies may have played a role.
“But nothing trumps easy access to a gun. It is easier to kill 10 people with a gun than with a knife.”
…but also “violent video games”. Really, Johnny could have easily made his otherwise decent point without raising the spectre of violent gaming. So here, we’ll compare the documented effects of three influences on violent crime—video games, gun control laws, and policing. Then we’ll ask “So why are games relevant to murder, anyway?”
Games reduce crime overall
First, games can lead to players becoming more aggressive. Some lab tests find that—for male gamers at least—violent games reduce the brain’s sensitivity to violence. Violence, arguably then, becomes a more acceptable response to everyday situations.
However, whether this gaming rage actually leads to more crime is not so clear. For most players, the increased aggression disappears quickly. For fully half the gaming population—females—games haven’t even been found to cause increased aggression. And for those gamers who might get truly unhinged from a game just enough to go beat someone up in real life, gaming keeps these people indoors. Although far from confirmed, this indoor diversion effect has been argued to lead to lower violent crimes overall.
As such, games don’t deserve the blame. Neither do movies, which have also been proposed to reduce crime due to locking people away indoors for hours at a time. Censoring or restricting media may just divert people with already-violent tendencies into actual crimes.
Gun control laws might reduce crime… eventually
On the other side of the debate is whether gun control laws reduce crime. As Howard noted, Australia has had a big reduction in gun-related crime since the bans enacted in the late 90s. Since 1996, there has not been a single mass-homicide involving guns, and the numbers of gun-related suicides and homicides have halved.
However, this is a distinctly Australian phenomenon. Many studies find that gun control in America does not work—that the laws have no correlation whatsoever with reduced crime rates. And this is one reason why video games get the blame—gun control is far from proven.
The problems are twofold. First, America is extremely diverse with a huge number of states, cities, and towns. If one state tries to control guns, and a neighbouring state does not, then guns just come in across the border.
Second, America already has tens of millions of guns in circulation. This leads to the quite real problem of gun control laws simply turning criminals to a ready black market.
While America’s most recent moves to control guns may bear fruit in the future, it will be a long, long time before an impact is felt. While this isn’t an excuse for lax gun control, it is worth bearing in mind when people say “gun control is not the answer”. Realistically, gun control might not have any appreciable short term effect.
However, there is a far better short-term solution than simply throwing our hands in the air, or commissioning yet another study into violent video games.
Better policing is proven to reduce gun crime
The biggest proven influence on what reduces gun crime is, unsurprisingly, policing. While gun bans do not necessarily work, policing that targets gun-crime does.
New York City saw a substantial reduction in its homicide rate in the 1990’s—a decrease of 73%. Of all the factors that could have possible contributed to this, the most significant was the increased arrest rate for murders. Between 1990 and 1999, New York City hired more police, and had a greater focus on making arrests for actual crimes, rather than the vague “War On Drugs”. NYC’s success in this regard is well documented.
This is supported by the experiences of other American cities which have seen police focus on actively reducing violent gun crime. Baltimore City is an example, which once had one of the highest violent crime rates in America. After a period of refocusing police efforts on reducing violent gun crime, making arrests for gun crime, and confiscating illegal guns from the black market, Baltimore has seen a substantial reduction in firearms injuries, homicides, and suicides.
Why are games relevant to gun control?
If we can believe the actual, documented results achieved by different crime-control measures, then:
- Video games have no appreciable effect on crime, other than a possible small reduction gained from keeping people indoors.
- Gun control laws have an effect on crime, but have significant challenges to implementation.
- Policing has the greatest proven reduction on gun crime.
Why then, are games often mentioned in the same breath as gun control, yet policing is not?
The answer is that it is much easier to shift blame than do what works. Both gun control and better policing requires a substantial investment into police resources. Both will also threaten the underlying gun culture. This is a culture that sees putting on a gun in the morning as a normal thing—like pants—and a culture that sees easy access to guns as a God given right. Even shutting down the black market becomes problematic, since doing so would require some harsh measures to stop the trade of guns between private people.
Yet despite these challenges and culture shocks, if America really wants to reduce gun violence, they’re going to have to bite the bullet and do what’s been proven to work—long term gun control and better policing. Video games shouldn’t even be in the same conversation.