Should Violent Video Games Be Banned?

Today it was the turn of video game makers to meet with Joe Biden to talk about cures for violence. The conversation didn’t seem to go far–no surprise there–but the idea of regulating or banning violent video games offers a thought experiment. I personally never play video games, and care nothing about them. I think the violent ones are aesthetically appalling, morally repellent and a symptom of the degradation of our culture. I think the world would be a much better place without them, and I suspect that they contribute to violence. In other words, I feel about violent video games the same way gun-haters feel about guns. So it is interesting to think about the pro-regulation arguments when the shoe is on the other foot.

The Associated Press reports:

The video game industry, blamed by some for fostering a culture of violence, defended its practices Friday at a White House meeting exploring how to prevent horrific shootings like the recent Connecticut elementary school massacre.

Vice President Joe Biden, wrapping up three days of wide-ranging talks on gun violence prevention, said the meeting was an effort to understand whether the U.S. was undergoing a “coarsening of our culture.”

Obviously the U.S. is undergoing a coarsening of its culture, contributed to by video games. The questions are 1) whether that fact has anything to do with violent crime, and 2) whether anything can be done about it.

The gaming industry says that violent crime, particularly among the young, has fallen since the early 1990s while video games have increased in popularity.

That’s true. You could revise that sentence to say: “Violent crime, particularly among the young, has fallen since the early 1990s while guns have increased in popularity.”

There are conflicting studies on the impact of video games and other screen violence. Some conclude that video games can desensitize people to real-world violence or temporarily quiet part of the brain that governs impulse control. Other studies have concluded there is no lasting effect.

It is hard to remember that there was a time before “studies” drove discourse on issues of public policy. How would the Lincoln-Douglas debates have gone if the newspapers of the day had been full of “studies”? I don’t seem to have as much faith in studies as most of my fellow-citizens; on the contrary, I view most of them with deep skepticism. I think that if more people read Jane Austen novels and fewer people watched Quentin Tarantino movies, America would be a better and less violent place. I admit, however, that no “study” can prove that proposition.

Cheryl Olson, a participant in Biden’s meeting and a researcher of the effect of violent video games, said there was concern among industry representatives that they would be made into a scapegoat in the wake of the Connecticut shooting.

“The vice president made clear that he did not want to do that,” Olson said.

Of course not. He wants to make a scapegoat of guns. Speaking of which, the AP suddenly stops talking about video games, the subject of today’s meeting, and reverts to guns:

Gun-safety activists were coalescing around expanded background checks as a key goal for the vice president’s task force. Some advocates said it may be more politically realistic — and even more effective as policy — than reinstating a ban on assault weapons.

“Even more effective as policy?” It would almost have to be. We have already had a ten-year ban on “assault weapons,” a meaningless category, and it did no good whatsoever. “Expanded background checks” could possibly be a good idea, depending on what we are talking about. But it isn’t this:

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence said some 40 percent of gun sales happen with no background checks, such as at gun shows and by private sellers over the Internet or through classified ads.

“Our top policy priority is closing the massive hole in the background check system,” the group said.

Ah, the mythical gun show loophole! Actually, there is no such loophole: if you are a registered firearms dealer at a gun show, you have to do a background check just as you do at any other time. On the other hand, if you are a private citizen selling or trading a gun to another private citizen, you don’t have to run a background check–something you have no practical ability to do. And, yes, 40% of all gun sales–I’m guessing the number may actually be higher–are citizen to citizen, not gun dealer to citizen.

People who like guns tend to own a number of them over a period of time. They buy, sell and trade guns a lot. I went shooting with my pal Mitch Berg last weekend. I shot one of his guns and liked it a lot. He liked one of mine, too. What if we had agreed to trade guns, just so we could each shoot something different? Or what if I offered to buy Mitch’s gun? Under the proposal being floated, Mitch would have to run a background check on me. I don’t know how he would do that. If we traded guns, we would have to run background checks on one another. Which is deeply ironic, since Mitch can judge a heck of a lot better whether I am a lunatic who shouldn’t own a firearm than the results of any background check could possibly indicate. That is what gun control advocates are talking about when they refer to closing the private sale “loophole.”

While not backing off support for an assault weapons ban, some advocates said there could be broader political support for increasing background checks, in part because that could actually increase business for retailers and licensed gun dealers who have access to the federal background check system.

They think gun dealers are corrupt, like a Democratic Party constituency, and would happily sign on to a “reform” that would direct more business to them, even though it limits their customers’ rights. Maybe, but I doubt it.

Biden, hinting at other possible recommendations to the president, said he is interested in technology that would keep a gun from being fired by anyone other than the person who bought it. He said such technology may have curtailed what happened last month in Connecticut, where the shooter used guns purchased by his mother.

This is completely insane. Apparently they are talking about fingerprint technology, which could double the price of a firearm. It is, I think, a ridiculous concept, but if implemented, it would prevent me from teaching my kids how to shoot. (Actually, wouldn’t it pretty much prevent anyone from teaching anyone how to shoot?) It would prevent me from taking a guest to the range. It would prevent my wife from using a firearm that I bought in self-defense. It would prevent me from selling, trading or giving a gun to someone else–ever. It would, I suppose, render my gun unusable when I die. It is remarkable that the Biden committee is actually considering such a half-baked idea.

The AP didn’t really have a lot to say about banning violent video games. I suppose Biden is just going through the motions; everyone knows that video games can’t be banned because they are protected by the First Amendment. I think the world would be a better place, and a safer place, without violent video games. But I don’t want to ban them, not only because they are constitutionally protected–that could change–but because only a criminal is responsible for his crime. If we start regulating all the influences to which we think the demented may be subject, there will be no room left for freedom. That seems rather obvious to me; I am not sure why it is not equally obvious to those who want to ban guns.

UPDATE: This post didn’t address the broader question whether violent entertainment in general should be banned. Some think that violent movies and television programs are even worse than violent video games. They certainly are consumed by a lot more people:

If we are going to start banning, why not start in Hollywood? Because Hollywood supports the Obama administration?

And if we want to cut down on spectacular mass shootings, let’s really go to the source: why do mass shooters do it, knowing, in most cases, that they are going to die? They want to go out in a blaze of glory. So why not deny them the glory? Far more effective than banning guns, movies or video games would be banning news coverage of mass shooting events. If these lunatics never got their names in the newspaper or their faces on television, they would have no incentive to carry out mass murder. I think there is zero doubt that if we cracked down on news coverage by the Washington Post, the Associated Press, NBC, CNN, etc., we could drastically reduce the already-minute number of mass murders.

So why don’t we do it? Is the only reason the fact that such news coverage is protected by the 1st Amendment? Maybe, but rights wax and wane over time. Why isn’t there a mass movement to restrict the 1st Amendment within reasonable limits, for the sake of the children? And guns are protected by the 2nd Amendment, so why are we even talking about gun control, if we are unwilling to talk about press control? I say, let’s talk about both, or neither.