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NRA's video game smacks of hypocrisy

By Christopher J. Ferguson, Special to CNN
January 16, 2013 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
The National Rifle Association has released a video game,
The National Rifle Association has released a video game, "Practice Range," a month after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NRA releases shooting video game rated for ages 4 and up for free download
  • Christopher Ferguson: NRA condemned video game industry less than a month ago
  • Ferguson says the NRA doesn't even take its own claims seriously
  • As queasy as the app is, video games do not cause more violence, he says

Editor's note: Christopher J. Ferguson is chair of the psychology and communication department at Texas A&M International University. He is the author of the novel "Suicide Kings."

(CNN) -- The nation has struggled with addressing how best to reduce gun violence following last month's tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Responding to calls for gun control, the National Rifle Association attempted to shift blame for mass homicides away from guns to cultural influences such as video games or entertainment. No one can accuse the NRA of not being clever. At least not until it released a gun-themed shooting game less than a month after condemning the video game industry.

In fairness, "Practice Range," rated for ages 4 and up and free on the iPhone and iPad, is no blood-soaked, first-person shooter game. The trailer shows that it allows the player to engage in target practice using realistic-looking weapons. One of the weapon options appears to be an AR-15, the same weapon used at Newtown. The game also includes some gun safety tips.

Christopher J. Ferguson
Christopher J. Ferguson

I have no objection to the game per se, although the NRA's app smacks of hypocrisy.

Releasing a gun-themed shooting video game a month after the Newtown massacre reveals that the NRA doesn't even take its own claims seriously. As for the NRA's assertion that games create violence, it is nakedly self-serving.

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But, as queasy as the whole thing is, violent video games do not cause more violence. Several researchers, including myself, met with Vice President Joe Biden on Friday to inform him that studies are unable to support the contention that violent video games contribute to societal violence. Rather, it is untreated mental health symptoms that contribute to outcomes including youth violence, dating violence and bullying.

As Fareed Zakaria aptly noted, nations that consume more video games per capita than the United States such as Japan, or share our media culture almost identically such as Canada, have much lower violence rates than our country.

That's true even if you exclude gun violence and consider only simply assaults. And mass homicide perpetrators are no more likely to be gamers than the rest of us. Our society experiences confirmation bias, focusing on video games when the shooter is a young male, and ignoring video games when the shooter is an older male such as 62-year-old William Spengler, who shot two firefighters the week after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. This confirmation bias creates the false impression of a correlation where none exists.

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The NRA is apparently unaware that most theories of media effects make little distinction between a game such as "Practice Range" and one such as "Grand Theft Auto." According to such theories, seeing a picture of a gun or reading "Grimm's Fairy Tales" is as likely to stimulate aggression as a blood-soaked movie or game.

Granted, the U.S. Supreme Court didn't buy that argument in 2011 when it considered a California law regulating the sale of violent games to minors, and criticized the quality of the research attempting to link violent games with aggression more broadly.

I don't believe either "Practice Range" or "Grand Theft Auto" harms minors, although of course some games may have morally objectionable content. But the NRA can't claim, "Video games create mass killers. Oh wait, hey, not this one!"

There are reasonable things we could do to reduce gun violence while respecting the rights of law-abiding citizens to own guns. For example, better and more consistent background checks and required reporting by mental health professionals when patients make violent threats (requiring the removal of firearm licenses from those individuals) would go a long way. We can also put out public health campaigns to warn people of the risks of gun ownership so they could make informed decisions of their own without their constitutional rights being violated.

Sensible changes will not occur if the nation indulges in a moral panic about violent video games as it did after the Columbine massacre. This, undoubtedly, would be exactly what the NRA would like to see happen.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher J. Ferguson.

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