It seems obvious to me that the Aurora, Colorado cinema shooting and the close-on-its-heels massacre at the Sikh temple make the need for gun control clear and absolute, in particular the need to renew an assault weapons ban that would have covered the assault rifle James Holmes used. I immediately signed all the gun control petitions which showed up in my inbox, such as this bipartisan one from 700 mayors. (Others are listed at the end of this article). What seems patently obvious to me, however, is not so obvious to everyone, as gun sales in Colorado spiked 41% after the shooting at the Batman screening. The gun lobby -- which is to a large extent a gun manufacturers' lobby -- is certainly not going to let reforms come easily, even though there have been 60 mass shootings in the U.S. just in the 18 months since the Arizona shooting that injured Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Though there are many factors that contribute to this insanity, surely one of the reasons reform is so difficult is the prevalence of extremely powerful gun commercials available 24/7, slickly produced by multi-national corporations. These are not ads for specific gun models per se but movies, video games, TV shows, online videos, violent songs, and yes, graphic novels and comic books, which send the message that it's a very threatening world out there, that there are people who are less-than-human who you should hate, and that the way to be strong and cool is to be proficient at violence. This is emotional, gut-level propaganda, and it works.
James Holmes' deep identification with The Joker of the 2008 Dark Knight movie is one more very serious warning signal about our culture. When scientists measure toxicity levels in our water or air or they measure the growth of an epidemic, the markers that indicate the problem seem to first be the most susceptible members of the population. Poisons tend to be more noticeable in the homes of the poor and the bodies of children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with compromised systems. Individuals like Holmes who so horrendously mistake movies for real life -- or real life for a movie -- are the ones who happen to be most susceptible. But the breakdowns or mania or whatever you want to call it that they go through are indicators of the presence of toxins which put everyone at risk.
The high school massacre at Columbine (another city in Colorado) was linked to the fantasy sequence in Basketball Diaries , when a very young Leonardo DiCaprio in a cool black trenchcoat mowed down his classmates to a sound cue of applause. Several other similar high school shootings ensued which were also linked to the movie. In fact, two years before Columbine, Basketball Diaries had already been the subject of a lawsuit by parents of victims of at a high school shooting in Paducah, Kentucky.
The same lawsuit targeted Natural Born Killers , which has been linked to eight different murders committed by extreme fans of the film, including a matricide and fraticide, a decapitation committed by a 14 year old, and the murder of the family of the killer's girlfriend. Oliver Stone's killing-spree saga was also sued (unsuccessfully) by a victim who'd been paralyzed in an NBK -inspired shooting--novelist John Grisham supported that lawsuit.
"Child's Play" still of Chucky and friend
In one of the most chilling instances of life imitating art, an Australian man devoted to the horror flick Child's Play killed 35 people; the same movie was implicated in England, when two 10-year olds (who clearly should never have been watching Chucky in the first place) abducted and murdered a toddler. Another Brit watched First Blood too many times, and went on a Rambo-inspired shooting rampage through the streets of his village. Back in Colorado, a teenaged girl and her boyfriend beat the girl's sister to death while babysitting because they were practicing moves from the video game-derived film Mortal Combat.
Other films implicated in separate
incidents of overtly influential violence include Fight Club (with several copycat fight clubs and even an attempted
bombing linked to it), The Matrix, Gladiator,
RoboCop2, Money Train, Scream (in costume),
Magnum Force, Dirty Harry, The Collector, The Deer Hunter (in the form of Russian Roulette), Taxi
Driver, and A Clockwork Orange, and the pattern dates as far back as 1949's
The New York Times points out that five of the films on the above list, as well as The Dark Knight and many other violent films, were made by Warner Brothers. But I doubt that this is truly a matter of a specific studio or specific films. (And I personally think schlock-meisters shouldn't even be put in the same camp as the brilliant ace directors Scorsese, Kubrick, and Fincher, nor should smart and artistically ambitious Cimino, Stone, or Nolan be tarred with the same brush as a vacuous industry just out to make a profit.) The issue goes much deeper, and is a continuing and unthinking trend despite all the evidence that violence in mainstream media is linked to increased aggression. Two of Warner Brothers 1960's movies, Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, were controversial for the graphic way they depicted violence, new at that time. But those seminal achievements took violence seriously -- they were realistic about it because they were considering the actual consequences of violence on the characters and what it really means in a big-picture way. Since then, however, Hollywood has co-opted the gore but shown next to no interest in the meaning.
It is no longer conjecture what effect this is having. In 2003, for example, a study by the Texas Department of Human Services and Iowa State University found that music with violent lyrics led subjects to have more aggressive thoughts and feelings. A number of studies on violent video games have also found links to aggression and violent behavior. One such, a 2012 study, discovered that video games featuring violence against women increased male subjects' belief in myths about rape.
University of Michigan professor L. Rowell Huesmann claims that research in this area of media effects is already conclusive: "It's been well established that media violence makes kids behave more aggressively. Of course, there's no scientific way to evaluate how media violence may have or may have not caused real violence, but there's definitely a relationship, a 'priming' or 'cuing' of behavior for certain individuals." Huesmann's clarity is chilling: "Every study indicates a relationship. The statistical correlation between childhood exposure to violence in media and aggressive behavior is about the same as that between smoking and lung cancer."
Amusing Ourselves to Death
There is the possibility that we, as Neil Postman put it in his 1985 "media ecology' treatise, are Amusing Ourselves to Death . Urban life has cut many kids off completely from any meaningful experience of nature or any of its calming, restorative effects, Richard Louv argued in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods , and replaced it with a "wired' existence -- which is starting to show links to learning disabilities and ADHD. 75% of families own a video game player; boys spend approximately 41 minutes per day playing video games between the ages of 8 and 18. Yet scientists have recently learned that the human brain is still in a formative stage throughout that span -- our brains don't reach full maturity until age 25.
Still, the effects don't even stop at age 25. In their July 16th issue, Newsweek ran a cover story headlined "iCrazy." It consolidated reports coming in on what the amount of time we spend online, emailing, or texting, is doing to us, and the results aren't pretty. A study released this year found that intensive web use alters our brains: heavy web users are adding abnormal white cells -- "extra nerve cells built for speed," Newsweek explains -- while at the same time losing 10-20% of their grey matter: areas needed for memory, emotion, and speech processing, among other key functions. The magazine quotes UCLA neuroscience expert Peter Whybrow: "the computer is like electronic cocaine." Oxford pharmacology prof Susan Greenfield does not mince words: "this is an issue as important and unprecedented as climate change."
The article discusses the case of Jason Russell, a campaigner whose video went viral, leading him to virtually fuse with his computer, barely sleeping, over the next subsequent days. He ended up likening his life to, ironically, another Christopher Nolan movie, Inception , telling his followers that he felt like he was in "a dream within a dream" -- and then had a public breakdown, apparently a "reactive psychosis.'