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We Are a Country Drenched in Bloodshed: Some Hard Truths About Violence in the Media

There are many causes of violence in our culture, but the least understood is the heavy influence of media.

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Gun Control or Gun Safety

The rush for some kind of symbolic or even modestly substantive gun control legislation is understandable. There is no question that reducing the number of guns in the country, especially making them harder to access when someone has the urge to kill, will result in fewer violent deaths. However, gun control is not a quick, easy or comprehensive solution to the problem of perpetual violence. The battle for gun safety -- given the political realities and the pervasiveness of guns -- won't even begin to address the massive, interlocking and mutually reinforcing violent aspects of our culture.

Future generations may benefit from whatever we are able to accomplish now in terms of gun reforms. But there are many other factors to tackle, and solely focusing on gun control is not enough.

A Reflection of Society

You may wonder, as the heads of the Motion Picture Association have told us over and over, doesn't media simply reflect the society we live in?

The notion that media merely holds a mirror to society is easily disproven. Iowa State's Brad J. Bushman and Craig A. Anderson explain

"Even in reality-based TV programs, violence is grossly overemphasized. For example, one study compared the frequency of crimes occurring in the real world with the frequency of crimes occurring in the following reality-based police TV programs: America's Most Wanted, Cops, Top Cops, FBI, The Untold Story, and  American Detective (Oliver, 1994). The real-world crime rates were obtained from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI; 1951-1999) Uniform Crime Reports, which divide seven major types of crimes into two categories, violent and nonviolent. About 87% of the crimes occurring in the real world are nonviolent crimes, whereas only 13% of crimes occurring in reality-based TV programs are nonviolent crimes. The largest discrepancy between the real world and the world depicted on television is for murder, the most violent crime of all. Only 0.2% of the crimes reported by the FBI are murders, whereas about 50% of the crimes shown in reality-based TV programs are murders."

What About the First Amendment?

As you might expect, given the huge dollars involved, any attempt to constrain big media, entertainment, video game and toy manufacturers, will result in screaming about "freedom of expression." And it is true that the FCC regulates indecency and offensive speech but not violence, because content regulation can be construed as a First Amendment concern as much as a matter of commerce.

However, the First Amendment, like the Second Amendment, has been substantially altered by powerful forces influencing the courts over time. As Adam Gopnick writes in the New Yorker:

"…..  the blood lobby still blares out its certainties, including the pretense that the Second Amendment—despite the clear grammar of its first sentence—is designed not to protect citizen militias but to make sure that no lunatic goes unarmed. (Jill Lepore  wrote about the history of the Second Amendment in the New Yorker recently.) Make sure that guns designed for no reason save to kill people are freely available to anyone who wants one—and that is, and remains, the essential American condition—and then be shocked when children are killed."

To many, the Second Amendment now means the freedom to carry a concealed handgun almost anywhere, including schools.

Over time, the First Amendment -- the right to free speech -- has also been distorted to serve the interests of the corporations that in dominating our media are never at a loss for the right to speak. It's not unlike the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, where the courts have expanded corporations' rights to expression to include investing unlimited money in political campaigns, without even identifying themselves, and at the expense of the individual person's rights.

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