‘Not enough God, not enough guns, too many video games’: are any of the Sandy Hook blame claims true?

The Sandy Hook horror has recently been blamed on a lack of prayer in schools, on gay marriage, on video games, and on people not having enough guns. (And, in what Slate describes as the single “stupidest thing” written about the atrocity, on Sandy Hook not employing enough burly men.) Are any of these reasonable?

The “it’s all the gays’ fault” angle is stupid enough to ignore (although we did come worrying close to having a President of the United States who apparently believes it). And I can’t beat Slate’s take on why it probably would not have helped to have “a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football” who might have bundled the heavily armed and weapons-trained gunman to the ground, so I’ll leave that with them.

But the video games, the “not enough guns” and the “not enough God” lines are getting some traction, so they’re worth addressing. First, despite the fears of Newt Gingrich, there is no evidence I am aware of that violent video games increase the likelihood of mass killings. The Washington Post ran a graph (which I found via the blog Geekosystem) which compares the per capita spending on video games with the gun-related murders per 100,000 population for the top 10 games markets in the world. There is no statistical link (although as our film reviewer Robbie Collin has pointed out, I am assuming that overall video-game spend is a good proxy for the popularity of violent first-person shooters). South Korea has the second-highest spending and next to no gun violence. Japan, Germany, Canada, France, the UK and Australia all spend slightly more than the US but are randomly scattered between 0 and 0.5 gun murders per 100,000 per year. The Netherlands spends the most on games of any of the 10 countries, and has 0.3 or so gun killings per year per 100,000 people.

The US, which has the second lowest spend after China, has around 3.3 gun murders per 100,000 head. That’s 11 times the Netherlands, six and a half times Canada, and around 30 times that of Australia, Germany, France and the UK. Yes, correlation does not equal causation, as we wearily repeat. But a total lack of correlation is a hint that there’s no causation either. We should acknowledge the reasonable concerns about people spending too much time playing video games: not taking exercise is the main problem, together with suggestions of short-term increases in aggression if you’re playing certain games. But there’s no reason whatsoever to link violent games to real-life murders.

The “we don’t have enough God in American life” line falls down on similar grounds. Mike Huckabee, the wannabe President, said: “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”

Well, yes, really. According to a 2007 study, in Canada (0.5 gun murders per 100,000 people per year) about 38 per cent of people attend church each week. In France (0.3ish), it’s 21 per cent. In Britain (0.3ish), it’s 27 per cent; in Germany, about the same, it’s 13 per cent. The USA has a hefty 44 per cent of its population attend church every single week. And yet, once again, it’s got a rate of gun murder around an order of magnitude higher than any of those countries. A common religion definitely has benefits for a society, as I have admitted before. But to blame America’s gun problems on its absence of God is to ignore the fact that it’s more God-friendly than “any other nation at a comparable level of development“. There is no link between godliness and guns.

The “not enough guns” aspect is probably the most interesting and the most controversial. As we’ve already seen, America is a huge outlier on gun violence among developed nations. It’s also the world leader in gun ownership (Yemen is second, at about half as many guns per head of population). Suggesting that making guns even easier to carry would somehow lead to a reduction in gun violence is counterintuitive to say the least. But that’s what some have claimed. A Republican congressman, Louie Gohmert, said: “The facts are every time guns have been allowed, concealed-carry has been allowed, the crime rate has gone down.”

He is, of course, wrong about “every time”, but the relationship between concealed-carry weapons and gun violence is complex. As another Slate article reports, the argument in the US often revolves around the “shall issue” laws of concealed handguns, which require states to have a reason to avoid giving someone a concealed weapon licence as opposed to the person needing a compelling reason for having one. A famous 1999 study by John Lott suggested that those laws “reduce both the number of [multiple victim] shootings as well as their severity”. However, a review of the literature found “not enough evidence” to support that claim, and a Washington Post fact-check this week agreed that the evidence is far too weak to draw a causal conclusions with confidence. That said, as Lott himself pointed out in a response to the Post, concealed-carry laws do not seem to lead to an increase in violent crime. However, stricter gun laws in general, such as assault weapon bans, trigger locks and safe-storage laws, do seem to be linked to a reduction in gun violence, although that is based on a small sample size. Certainly there is not enough evidence to support Gohmert’s suggestion that Sandy Hook would have been prevented if the principal had had an automatic rifle.

It’s human nature that, when we think something has benefits, we forget its risks, and vice versa. (Case in point: I just noticed I found it very hard to acknowledge even the possibility that concealed-weapons laws might have a positive effect.) To many Americans, of course, the right to own a gun is a moral freedom and a safeguard against tyranny. That’s a real benefit and not something we should dismiss. But those people have to be clear-eyed about the risks, as well. In general, the more guns a society has, the more gun crime it has, and it’s by far the most likely cause for America’s problems. Blaming the Sandy Hook atrocity on video games, or godlessness, or even (to a lesser extent) gun laws, is avoiding the real issues by focusing on irrelevant distractions.

Read all Tom Chivers’ Telegraph Blog posts here

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