Episode 36: December 28, 2012
by Lee Falin PhD
When violence and tragedy touch our lives, we often look for some way to affect change. We look for some meaningful action we can take to help prevent similar tragedies from occurring. Such were my thoughts after the heart-breaking shootings that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary school. I wondered what I could do as a father, scientist, and a writer to help prevent similar tragedies.
As I followed the commentary after the event, three claims struck me, which I’d like to explore today. The first was that this shooting could have been prevented by stricter gun control policies. The second was that extreme acts of violence such as this are a result of individuals being desensitized to violence through increased exposure to violent video games. The third viewpoint was that the killer had Asperger syndrome, therefore it was expected that he would exhibit violent behavior.
I wanted to know the truth behind each of these claims. So, in this week’s episode, I look at some of the research surrounding each of these claims. I encourage you to read it with an open mind.
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Gun Legislation and Violence
As with any controversial bit of legislation, it’s critical to have an understanding of the science behind the issue. Several studies have been done on the effects of gun legislation both in the United States and in other parts of the world.
In 1988 scientists at DePaul University looked at an interesting case study. Two cities in the state of Illinois that had similar demographic profiles enacted different laws related to gun control. One city enforced strict penalties on those found with handguns outside their homes, while another city banned handguns completely. While both cities saw a temporary decrease in gun-related crime, both of the effects were only temporary. After a few months, gun-related crime returned to the same levels as before.
Another study by the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993 found that keeping a handgun in the home increases the risk of gun-related homicide in the home. However another study found that overall homicide rates (including those not carried out with a gun) were unrelated to handgun laws.
A further study, also in 1993, found that suicide rates were also positively correlated with having a gun in the home. And another study found that overall suicide rates are effectively curbed by handgun laws.
Finally, yet another study in 1993 found that there was no correlation between violent crime and gun laws.
Apparently 1993 was a common year for gun-control studies because of the ongoing debate at that time regarding the upcoming assault weapons ban which was passed in 1994. Studies following that ban carried out by the CDC and the National Research Council found that the 1994 assault weapons ban had no noticeable impact on gun-related crime, including crimes involving multiple victims, which was precisely the type of event this ban was designed to prevent. The study authors noted that this wasn’t surprising, as it was what many scientists had predicted.
Unfortunately, even in countries with extremely strict gun legislation, violent massacres still occur. For example, in China it is illegal for any private citizen to own any type of firearm. Yet since 2010, there have been at least 10 major school massacres there, resulting in the deaths of dozens of children as well as severe physical and emotional trauma for nearly one hundred others. These terrible events were all carried out without a single firearm.
The take-home message here is that all of the scientific and statistical evidence points to the fact that stricter gun laws will not solve the problem of violent crime, especially the problem of crimes involving multiple victims.
Video Games and Violence
Another area of potential blame that has often been reported by the media is that of violent videogames.
In a 2003 study, researchers studied the behavior of more than 600 hundred 8th and 9th grade students. They found that “adolescents who expose themselves to greater amounts of video game violence were more hostile, reported getting into arguments with teachers more frequently, were more likely to be involved in physical fights, and performed more poorly in school.”
A 2005 study found that exposure to images from violent video games increased activity in the region of the brain associated with violent behavior. Another study found that violent video games played by undergraduate students increased violent behavior, though more so in men than in women.
Finally, a study carried out by researchers at Iowa State University synthesized and analyzed the results of 35 other studies, involving over 3,000 participants. They found that playing violent video games had an effect on aggressive behavior “as strong as the effect of condom use on [the] risk of HIV infection.” The study noted that these behavior changes were significant in both male and female, adults and children.
Asperger Syndrome and Violence
Finally the media was quick to report that the killer in the Sandy Hook shootings had Asperger Syndrome, which may have led to his violent behavior. Those with Asperger Syndrome and Autism have long had to deal with not only with their own conditions, but also with the public perception of those conditions.
A 2004 study found that this perception of mental illness has two negative effects. First, the loss of social opportunities can sometimes cause more harm than the symptoms of the illness itself. Second, the stigma associated with being labeled with a particular mental illness can cause some patients to forego or abandon treatment.
It is often mentioned in the media that a tendency toward “antisocial behavior” is one of the distinguishing factors of Asperger Syndrome. The truth is that even experts aren’t always sure which conditions should be diagnosed as Asperger Syndrome.
However a study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that after evaluating the results of 21 other studies, only 2% of subjects diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome exhibited a history of violent behavior.
Interestingly, a study in 2008 found that while violent video games were known to cause an increase in aggressive behavior, non-violent games, especially games with a social component, are therapeutic for those suffering from mental illness.
Everyone has opinions on these issues; some of them are very strong opinions. However, the scientific evidence is clear. Gun legislation does not stop violent crime, nor does it affect multiple-victim incidents.
Violent video games do lead to an increase in aggressive behavior in males and females, adults and children alike.
People with Asperger Syndrome are not inherently violent, and public perception of mental health issues currently do more harm to some individuals than the illnesses themselves.
Before you write to me to tell me how wrong I am on any or all of these topics, I encourage you to read the studies for yourself. These aren’t my opinions or the well-crafted commentary of some media analyst, blogger, or politician. These are facts; supported by science and statistics, conducted by experts in the respective fields, and published in peer-reviewed journals.