It’s fair to say that most sane, right-thinking humans who live in the United States have been living past their mental breaking point for years when it comes to the nonsensical lack of constructive debate about mass shootings. I don’t know if other Americans, when pressed, could name the specific moment they just threw their hands up and accepted that we live in a world ruled by ghouls like Wayne LaPierre and Omar Mateen. For me, it came on April 20, 1999, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shot up Columbine High School in Colorado. I was in high school at the time and watched as the grownups all freaked out and then proceeded to do … nothing much, besides elect George W. Bush president and then stack Congress with a bunch of people who let the 10-year, 1994 federal assault weapons ban expire in 2004.
The suggestions we’ve heard from our fellow Americans about how to prevent mass shootings run the gamut from the logistically ridiculous (like arming the same teachers who most Americans seem to loathe), or willfully indirect (like vague notions of more mental health care, which Americans have time and again shown an unwillingness to fund). One of these fruitless lines of inquiry has remained a favorite old standby, however: It’s those darn violent movies and videogames that are to blame!
Something as subjective as the level of violence in media is, of course, hard to empirically measure. Studies about the link between violent or aggressive behavior and having viewed or interacted with violent media have vacillated between one conclusion or another for years now.
One thing that really hasn’t vacillated, though, is the overall rate of violent crime in the United States, which one criminal justice professor said in 2016 has been “dropping like a rock” for the past two decades and now resembles the level it was at in the 1960s, according to FBI crime statistics. The occasional uptick from year to year hasn’t reversed this precipitous decline.
And over the same period of time, have our entertainments become more wholesome? Late ’80s or early ’90s fare like Die Hard or Terminator 2 seem downright quaint compared to the gleeful ultraviolence on display in recent years. The body count in either of those movies barely runs into the double digits, yet we may note, thanks to a disturbingly thorough breakdown by one graphical artist, that 112 mooks met their firearm-related deaths at the hands of Keanu Reeves’ impeccably dressed hitman before we even get to how many were victims of vehicular homicide or death by pencil.
This is all part of a trend in the industry that I’ve remarked upon many times as I’ve watched movies throw themselves fully into the age of digital filmmaking. Just a month before the Columbine shooting, The Matrix touched off a feverish new age of Hollywood action, marrying the innovation of the server farm with the balletic excess of John Woo shoot-’em-ups. Cartoonish ultraviolence is now so comparatively easy to render on-screen using a combination of green screen, computer-generated imagery, wire effects and an increasingly friendly cross-cultural collaboration between Hollywood and Hong Kong, that the most mundane action heroes are given body counts that would make Achilles blush.
As for videogames: Compare the violence of 1993’s Doom with 2016’s Doom if you want an indicator of the trend in that medium.
Yet, even as our entertainment has taken to dispensing with ever-growing platoons of henchmen with ever-wilder tropical storms of lead, the actual, nonfictional deaths in America have gone down. To draw another comparison to another cinematic fixation that pairs well with a real-world cause of death, vehicular fatalities in the United States are at roughly the same rate per 100,000 people that they were in 1920, when barely anybody had an automobile and nobody had even conceived of The Fast and the Furious.
This is all cold comfort considering that the five deadliest mass shootings in the country, according to CNN’s running tally, have all occurred in the last 10 years. Firearm deaths in the United States remain absurdly high compared to other countries, just as its share of firearm owners remains absurdly high.
For example, Australia—which is all too glad to consume American-made, English-speaking entertainment, yet which closely polices firearms—has about three firearm deaths per million people compared to the United States’ 33 per million.
It’s exhausting to have to lay all this out. Infuriating. Dehumanizing. It shouldn’t need to be said because of how patently obvious it all is. My generation, and the one before mine, have been screaming at the top of our voices for decades that the problem of gun violence stems from guns. The generation after mine is now stepping up to the plate to do the same. Bless them, they haven’t yet become numb to the idiocy of our national silence. I hope they don’t, and I hope they remind the rest of us how to feel that pain.
Kenneth Lowe would not use a gun or a club or a knife and take another monkey’s life. You can donate to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence here.