Letters to the Editor: Guns, Games, and Education

Today at GamePolitics we are launching a new feature called Letters to the Editor, where we let our readers offer their very strong opinions on the issues that matter most to them.

Our very first letter comes from Ben Hayward, who felt the need to write about mass shootings, guns, firearms education, and video games. We left Ben's comments mostly unchanged, and only lightly edited. We hope you enjoy it.

My name is Ben Hayward.  I am a father, husband, life-long gamer, and gun owner.  I am not, however, a professional writer, but I felt the need to voice my thoughts on guns and games as they related to recent tragedies.

In recent years, the debate about guns and the crimes committed with them has flared to levels I’ve not seen in my lifetime.  Listening to news anchors and pundits, one might be convinced that the mere act of touching a gun or playing a game is enough to set off a cascade of triggers in the brain that ultimately leads to turning a person into a frothing-at-the-mouth, blood-crazed madman.  One side says, “Guns are the problem,” while the other says, “No, it’s violent games!”  I enjoy both, and I have not gone on a killing spree.

After the Newtown shooting, the country was rightfully stunned;  only a sub-human would not be moved by a tragedy of that magnitude.  Naturally, people immediately wanted to know how someone could commit such a heinous act, and to make sense of something so senseless and frightening. It is human nature to want answers; it’s why our ancestors created stories to explain lightning, fire, floods, and all manner of things that caused them fear.  We want to understand so we can cope.

The arguments on the cause of this tragedy began to focus on two things; one side claimed that guns were the common link in all of these mass shootings, while the other side said it was violent games.  There are a ton of "common factors" that link all of these criminals, but everyone in the media seemed to be ignoring the single, most important, most stupefyingly, glaringly obvious link of all: the crimes were committed by people.

The first explanation to surface was the fact that guns were available to a troubled person. “A troubled person got a gun and killed people, ergo, guns are the problem.”  That line of logic is self-defeating.  Two elements are at play: a troubled person and guns.  For this explanation to work, you have to be able to reach the same conclusion even when one of the elements is removed: people.  Let’s try it both ways:

1) “A troubled person killed people.”  Okay, even without knowing any other facts that’s possible. He could do this any number of ways, with any number of weapons, or even none at all. We’ve seen examples of crazed people killing with guns, knives, hammers, bombs, even their bare hands.

2) “A gun killed people.”  How?  It was laying there and went off?  Even if it were freak, accidental discharge, how did the gun get loaded?  How did a round get chambered?  How did the gun even get where it was to kill people all by itself?

A gun, like a hammer, is a tool.  No one credits the hammer for building the house.  No one credits the wrench for fixing the car, so how can we blame the gun for killing the people?  Until a gun (or hammer, or wrench…) is picked up by a person, it’s literally nothing more than a funny-looking rock.  Like a rock, it just sits there, taking up space and gathering dust.  It doesn’t move, it doesn’t think, it simply doesn’t do anything.  When a person picks it up, suddenly it becomes a tool, and its potential can be realized, for good or bad.  I can use a gun to kill people wantonly, or I can use it to protect my family.  I can use it to kill a deer and feed my family, or I can take hostages.  Same with a hammer: I can bludgeon some people to death, or build a dog house.  Until I came into the equation, the potential of the gun, the hammer, the anything, is zero.  The conclusion: yes, it's people, not tools, that kill people. Or build dog houses.

The second explanation came from the gun-lobby (of which I am a proud member) in rebuttal: “Violent video games poison minds and brainwash kids!”  Sigh.  I remember this line of thought from the ‘90’s when Columbine rocked the nation.  As soon as it came out that the two boys responsible played shooter games (and listened to “evil” music), it seemed everyone was crying out for more censorship and tougher regulations.  We had to force game-makers and musicians to be more responsible with what they were putting into our youths’ minds, because surely it was their fault for causing this, right?

When the Columbine massacre happened, I was in high school, and I was slightly confused by what I was hearing about why those two boys did what they did.  I played these same games, listened to this same music, and, yes, even dressed in black: the Unholy Trinity of the time.  The weird thing was, I wasn’t violent–never have been.  I never felt the need to lash out and hurt anyone, though after Columbine people did make comments to and about me, and people sort of looked at me differently.  Nothing I did ever made these people worry that I might be a ticking time bomb, but once it came out that games, music, and clothes make killers, I was watched a bit more closely.  If it really is the games, music, and clothes that make people kill, though, no one would make it out of a LAN party, a metal concert, or a Hot Topic alive.

Well, here we are again: senseless violence and the rush to shift blame, using flawed logic on both sides, from the one place the blame actually, rightfully falls: the criminal. Then there's the rush by everyone to come to a "common-sense" solution via more regulations instead of looking to the one place a real solution can actually be found: educating people. More specifically, parents. Everyone wants to claim that when a crime is committed, society, not the criminal, is to blame. “It’s our gun culture,” or, “It’s the game culture.” Well, I’m here to say that both sides are absolutely, unequivocally wrong, and if they don’t cut it out, something irreversible is going to happen at the governmental level. (Now here’s where I attempt to enlighten while also going wacko-Libertarian…)

When a bad thing happens, everyone demands that something be done to fix it, and who swoops in to do the fixing? Big Brother himself, the Government. Hearings are held, and one side screams, “Ban guns!” while the other side shrieks, “Censor games!” Meanwhile, the lawmaker watches from his perch, grinning hungrily and wringing his hands. “Yes,” he thinks to himself, “a law will be passed, someone’s rights will be infringed, and I’ll look like the hero because I ‘did something about it!’”

When I saw the images from some of these hearings, and read some of the stories, I immediately thought of the scene in Orwell’s 1984, where Winston is in Room 101 with the rat cage strapped to his face. Winston wants to resist, but with the rats coming closer and closer to him, he screams the one thing the Party wants to hear: “Do it to her! Do it to Julia!” All they wanted was for him to sell out his lover, his fellow man.

This is exactly what is playing out in these hearings (and all arguments like these, i.e. gay marriage, abortion, marijuana, etc…). A wedge is driven between two groups and, instead of banding together and telling the regulators, “we’ll figure this out ourselves, you can go stuff it,” they play their parts and turn on each other, eagerly hoping the Party will “do it to the other person”, not to them (but we all know they’re next, anyway. It’s only a matter of time). Instead of coming together, hashing it out, and figuring out real solutions, we actually beg government to regulate our fellow man, and so, regulate ourselves.

Are games and guns to blame? No. Well, not entirely. We all know kids are information sponges. They observe the world, and form thoughts and ideas based on what information they’re given. If a kid plays violent games, and from those games learns that guns are nothing but kill-machines able to assist you in racking up an epic body-count, then like it or not, that’s all that kid knows about guns.

No one was there to tell him and show him any different. When, however, a parent educates said child and explains the difference between video games and real life, then the child can start differentiating between the two. When parents don’t do their jobs and raise their kids, the world does it for them, and that ain’t a good thing.  Conversely, parents should also be taught that games can be excellent teaching tools (and some are just fun romps).  I've learned as much from video games in my years as I have from some books.  Games can help teach life-lessons and, yes, even help a person bolster critical-thinking skills.

One of the first things I did after Newtown was buy my young son a Cricket .22 rifle. It’s a single-shot bolt-action rifle, and a great first gun (I also got the scope for it, because at the time I was playing “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” and my son really dug the sniper class. Hey, like father, like son!). 

I bought the gun, first and foremost, as a teaching tool. I knew that in this day and age, even if I completely banned violent games or guns from my own home, my son would go to a friend’s house and possibly see guns and play games there. I knew it was my responsibility to be pro-active as a parent and teach my son what real guns can do, how to use them, when to use them, and most importantly, why to use them.

I had to teach him that guns are tools to be respected, that they are never, ever to be treated as toys, and that in the real world, whatever you shoot will never come back to life. I won’t go over all the lessons, but the “why” of shooting is so important. I feel that it is crucial for parents, even anti-gun parents, to teach their children to understand, not fear, guns. If we were only ever taught to fear things, rather than to understand and respect them, we’d never have electricity, airplanes, or much of anything, really. We’d all be huddled in caves, scared and shivering, wondering around which corner death may be lurking.

I love video games.  I love guns.  I am a proud member of both cultures, and I’m doing my part to raise a gamer and skilled and responsible gun owner.  So far my efforts are paying off: my son plays a lot of “Minecraft” (which is teaching him engineering and problem-solving. Dig it!), he knows the names of all the Colossi from “Shadow of the Colossus,” and for Halloween this year, he’s going as Knight Solaire.  He’s also a darn-fine shot with his .22, he keeps his “booger hook off the bang switch” until he’s sure he has a clear, safe shot, and he always engages the safety when he’s not shooting. 

What I want to see from the leaders on both sides of this debate, both the game and gun industries, is less bickering, less blame passing, less government involvement, and more real talking. Maybe we can get together and, instead of trying to help the government take away each others’ rights, we help parents to educate their children about games and guns and tell government to shove off.  Education and understanding, my friends–those are the real solutions.

About the Author: Ben Hayward is a family man, a big fan of humanity and the constitution, and even though he fancies himself a gamer of some skill, he still can't beat Contra: Shattered Soldier, much to his chagrin.

[Editor's Note: the opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not represent the opinions of GamePolitics or its parent company the Entertainment Consumers Association.]

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  1. 0
    Infophile says:

    Well, it's hard to say objectively what a gun is "for." If we go back historically to when guns first came around, they came into favor for a variety of reasons:

    -They were effective at killing or disabling at a moderate distance. They were, however, significantly worse at this than longbows, and comparable to crossbows. In warfare, the goal is to break the enemy's spirit more than it is to kill, and a gun accomplished this either by crippling or killing.

    -It's significantly easier to train someone to use a gun well (even the earliest types of guns) than a longbow, and moderately easier than a crossbow.

    -Depending on the availability of materials, guns and bullets may be more economical than bows and arrows or crossbows and bolts.

    So from this, one could say that a gun is for relatively easily and cheaply crippling or killing opponents in warfare. This isn't exactly what was said in the section you quote, but it's relatively close.

    However, the purposes of tools shift over time. The longbow was originally a weapon of war (and one of the most fearsome, at that), but nowadays it's almost entirely used for sport or hunting for food. Guns are still used for war, but they're also used for sport and hunting for food. They're also used for a sense of protection, as collectibles, for intimidation, for resale, etc. So it's a bit simplistic to say there's any one thing guns are for. (And using "This is/isn't what guns are for" isn't going to convince anyone if you leave it at that, as they'll most likely have a different definition from you).

    To avoid filling this thread with my comments, I'll add my brief response to the initial post here:

    I don't think "blame" is the right way to go about this conversation, even if the decision is to blame the individual. Finding something or someone to blame doesn't actually solve anything. But I do agree that we need to sit down and have a real, careful discussion. If we want to prevent these occurrences in the future, we have to ask what we can do differently. So the relevant questions are:

    1. Should we ban or limit violent video games in an attempt to reduce the number of mass killings?

    2. Should we ban or limit guns in an attempt to reduce the number of mass killings?

    3. Is there something else we can do to reduce the number of mass killings?

    To answer 1 and 2, we have to break them into pieces:

    1a. Is there a causal link between violent video games and mass killings?

    1b. If there is a causal link, is it worth the infringement of freedom in banning or limiting violent games in order to reduce the frequency of mass killings?

    And similarly for guns. The second part here is completely subjective, but the first part can in principle be answered objectively. Let's start with video games. Going by data for the frequency of shootings in the US over the years, the peak frequency of mass shootings was actually in 1929. There was a rise from the 1960s to the 1980s, but then a decline through the 2000s and a very recent upswing. The growth of the video game market, for comparison, is steady (and accelerating until very recently) growth since the first arcade machines in 1971. Games couldn't be particularly violent (due to graphical limitations) at first, but this capability steadily grew throughout the same timeframe. Putting this together, there's really no correlation between mass shootings and video games. It's hard to speak to causation though, as there are a lot of complicating factors here and we're looking at broad timescales with lots of time for new complications to slip in. The best we can say is there's no evidence video games cause an increase in mass shootings.

    What about guns? In this case, there have been cases of nations banning guns entirely in a relatively short timescale. For instance, Australia banned firearms in 1996 and saw a sharp decline in mass shootings (and suicides using guns). However, New Zealand didn't ban guns at that time, but also saw a decline in mass shootings. It could be a cultural shift in both nations was the key, or it could be the gun ban in Australia and a cultural shift in New Zealand; it's hard to say. The gun ban on its own didn't have much of a direct effect on the homicide rate in Australia overall (mass shootings make up a miniscule fraction of homicides), but it did seem to cut down the suicide rate. So to sum it up, there's limited (but debated) evidence that banning guns may decrease the frequency of mass shootings.

    But all that's only half the story. Is it worth limiting a freedom in order to preserve safety? How much freedom is worth how much safety? It might be worth limiting people's freedom to nuclear weapons to prevent someone from blowing up New York out of spite, and it might not be worth banning guns to prevent an average of one mass shooting per year. But where exactly we draw the line is something we can't determine objectively. It's something we have to have a lot of debate on.

  2. 0
    Infophile says:

    It's something like 250,000 bullets are shoot for persons killed in Iran.

    Ever heard of suppressive fire? Besides, why don't we try to stick to statistics closer to home? There's a big difference between the efficiency of killing armed insurgents in a battlefield (I'm assuming you meant to say Iraq here) and the efficiency of killing unarmed civilians.

  3. 0
    Jordan C.D says:

    1 a gun is a tool. Hell do you know how ineffective guns can be at killing people? It's something like 250,000 bullets are shoot for persons killed in Iran. That's not effortless that takes a lot of effort.

    2 Basically what you're saying is that we shouldn't teach our kids that guns are tools not toys? I'm really asking you since I've reread what you've said and that' seems to be what you want. I can't really see someone wanting that but hey this is you, not me! 

    3 Did you have anything worth while to say? It seems the only reason what you posted was because the writer didn't follow your constraint set of beliefs; to add to that,  you didn't even seem to have any good augments why you dislike what he said.

    -Jay CD

  4. 0
    E. Zachary Knight says:

    Except the purpose of a hammer is not to kill as many people as possible in as little time as possible with as little effort as possible. Fail #1.

    Except that is not at all what a gun is for either. Fail #1

    Yeah, all parents seem to like to talk about how much respect they try to instill in their children about guns, yet children are still getting shot by other children. Fail #2.

    Pointless logical fallacy meant as a refutation of a point. Fail #2

    Oh wait, an "I'm a complete intellectually and emotionally stunted 12-year-old boy (mentally) that has no concept of reality" disclaimer. Okay, carry on then.

    Tops it off with an ad hominem attack. Fail #3

    E. Zachary Knight
    Divine Knight Gaming
    Oklahoma Game Development
    Rusty Outlook
    Random Tower
    My Patreon

  5. 0
    KaylaKaze says:

    "A gun, like a hammer, is a tool." Except the purpose of a hammer is not to kill as many people as possible in as little time as possible with as little effort as possible. Fail #1.

    "I had to teach him that guns are tools to be respected, that they are never, ever to be treated as toys, and that in the real world, whatever you shoot will never come back to life." Yeah, all parents seem to like to talk about how much respect they try to instill in their children about guns, yet children are still getting shot by other children. Fail #2.

    "Now here’s where I attempt to enlighten while also going wacko-Libertarian…" Oh wait, an "I'm a complete intellectually and emotionally stunted 12-year-old boy (mentally) that has no concept of reality" disclaimer. Okay, carry on then.

  6. 0
    Neeneko says:

    Instead of coming together, hashing it out, and figuring out real solutions, we actually beg government to regulate our fellow man, and so, regulate ourselves.

    Thing is, the government is not something separate from 'us', it is 'us'.  Figuring it out ourselves includes figuring out when governmental power is an appropriate tool to use.  Unfortunately/Luckily (depending on the context), things like social pressure only go so far and sometimes it makes sense to have something that has the ability to set and enforce standards do its job… and really, that is WHY we have government.  It exists because we need to handle things that could not be handled well otherwise.  Not to say it always does, but such a tool can not simply be discounted.

    In other words, government regulation IS 'regulating ourselves'.  And when you do come up with a way to 'regulate ourselves' that does not involve government, all you end up doing is creating ad-hoc state like entities that use lower level community tools to enforce regulation.

    As for coming together, that is what these debates are.  We have a problem, we do not have a nice simple known solution.  Different people and groups believe that they have a way to improve things, and between them they debate it.   What we tend to encounter is groups not respecting each other's concerns, and this is happening in all directions including the OP's piece.  This is just another angle that is still 'I have a solution, you are wrong, if people agreed with me then everything would be fine, by disagreeing with me you are not working together'.

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