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Violence: Control Guns or Control the Media?

The NRA is right and so are its critics.

According to Susan Linn, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, more than 1,000 studies found “that exposure to media violence is a risk factor for aggression, lack of sympathy for victims and desensitization to violence.” Studies from the US and Japan show similar results regarding video-game violence. Children are especially vulnerable. And when you look at media violence, it is obvious that much of it is directed at children.

On this score the NRA is right: there is much to be concerned about regarding society’s saturation with violence from the media. Without so much violence on TV, in movies, books, video-games, music, in the promotion of certain sports, violence in general would be reduced and, it follows, so would murder by guns.

The choice, though, isn’t between gun control and the reduction of media violence: it is both. Entrenched positions on both sides make it an either/or choice. The NRA excoriates those who advocate for gun control and sticks to the script that media violence is the underlying cause; gun control advocates won’t acknowledge the role that media violence plays and attacks the NRA for obfuscation.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Thinking that violence in the media and unrestricted gun control both need to be addressed is easier than holding contradictory ideas simultaneously since they aren’t contradictory at all. Social problems don’t have a single cause but are congeries of causes.

Reductionist thinking, as exhibited in much debate about social problems, is attractive. Find one cause—the so-called root cause—and attack that. But life is complex and the solutions to its problems are multi-dimensional.

So the NRA is right when it says that media violence needs to be addressed. But so are those who say that society needs better gun controls. Ideologues create false choices. A good society rejects this kind of thinking. You don’t need to be a first-rate mind to see that this is so.