Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012 | 2:01 a.m.
Even his supporters concede that Wayne LaPierre is not the most sympathetic of characters. But the leader of the NRA was at least half-right Dec. 21, and as what you might call a target of his derision, I think it’s pretty generous of me to say that.
Emerging from the hiding that since the Sandy Hook school massacre has shielded the NRA from certain criticism, LaPierre read a statement that clearly sought to shift the national conversation from gun control to, well, just about anything else. Casting about for a culprit, he settled upon — surprise! — the media.
We who work in the media, ever accustomed to admiration, were shocked.
LaPierre called us “silent enablers, if not complicit co-conspirators” of companies that sell Americans violent movies, music videos and games. To stop mass murders, LaPierre suggests, we need to not only put armed police in every American school but also do something (unspecified) to stop people from seeing violence on screens.
Here’s where LaPierre is right: Violence is disgustingly ubiquitous in what Americans watch on all sorts of screens. Through movies, TV shows, music videos and video games, he said, a child growing up in America witnesses 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches age 18.
What LaPierre clearly wants you to conclude is that such violent images lead to homicide, and so that’s where people horrified by the Connecticut killings should turn their attention, rather than worrying about, say, the easy availability of powerful semi-automatic weapons.
In his statement (notably, LaPierre took no questions from reporters), he made no definitive link between what people see on screens and the crimes they subsequently commit. That’s because there isn’t one. Scientific research over the past two decades has found nothing to tie exposure to violent images with commission of violent crime.
But research has found plenty of other reasons to take a stand against violent images. Violent video games, researchers tell us, teach youngsters that violence is an appropriate strategy for resolving conflict. They cause people to associate pleasure with causing pain in others. Violent movies and games desensitize viewers and players to real-life violence. They increase aggressive arousal.
You can’t say violent images are creating a generation of killers. But you can say that we have turned unspeakable violence into entertainment, and you can join LaPierre in decrying it.
In raising that issue in the context of the murders of the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School, however, LaPierre is nothing short of devious, for he is attempting to divert attention from what scientific research has established.
Like this: States with stricter gun laws tend to have fewer gun-related homicides. And where there are more guns, there is more homicide, both in the U.S. and in other high-income countries. The latter seems so logical that it’s hard to dispute — fewer guns mean fewer gun deaths — but that also has been established by scientists, which you can’t say for LaPierre’s head feint toward censorship.
No, the culture of violence in entertainment deserves a different response, and you can find that course in the phrase governments have adopted to combat domestic terrorism: If you see something, say something.
In the gym where I work out, there are many screens — some showing TV newscasts, some with music videos and some with a continual loop of action movies where people are shot, blown up, run over and beaten. Just after the Sandy Hook massacre, a woman I know was so disturbed by the twin images on the gym screens — the newscast showing the sad scenes from Connecticut, the movie showing people being obliterated — that she went to the front desk and asked that a less violent movie be played. A few days later, when she returned to the gym, she was thrilled to note that the movie being shown wasn’t a violent one.
Might a steady diet of “It’s A Wonderful Life” instead of “Die Hard” make us better people? Science doesn’t support that notion. But as a parent, I’m pretty sure I’d rather raise a kid on the morality displayed by Jimmy Stewart’s character than Bruce Willis’. For that to happen, you don’t need to legislate restrictions on movies. You need to speak up.
“Never doubt,” the anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y.