By Sunday morning, “The Onion” was running its customary “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” story, and politicians had blamed each other, the internet, mental illness and video games for mass shootings that killed 31 people in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
The last one, blaming violent video games, not only ignores decades of research and latches onto any mention of video game playing in the suspect’s history, but actively does harm by distracting from real reasons and solutions to violence in America, which is not new.
On Sept. 6, 1949, Howard Barton Unruh, 28, walked through his New Jersey neighborhood and killed 13 people with a Luger in 12 minutes. After his arrest, it was determined he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and he died in a psychiatric hospital in 2009.
On July 18, 1984, James Huberty, 41, took his wife and daughters to the zoo and then McDonald’s. At home later, he kissed his wife good bye and said he was going human hunting.
He drove to a different McDonald’s and used a pistol and an Uzi to kill 21 people and injure 19 before being shot by a police sniper.
In the days before, Huberty had told his wife that he had a mental problem, and he had called a mental health clinic, whose receptionist assured he would be called back that day. This did not happen.
Mass violence preceded the release of the original gory, violent first-person shooter “Wolfenstein 3D” in 1992, but it would be wrong to say mass shootings aren’t becoming more commonplace. A 2014 “Mother Jones” article cited a Harvard study stating the rate of mass shootings had tripled since 2011.
Video games and their link with aggression have been studied for decades, especially after the 1999 Columbine High School shooters were found to have been fans of “Doom.”
In February, Oxford University released the findings of what it claimed to be the most comprehensive study of video games and aggression in teenagers. One difference between it and previous studies was that it relied on parents to gauge the players’ aggression, not on self reporting by the teens. It also used the ESRB ratings to classify games, not the players’ perceptions of violence.
It’s true that many, if not most, mass shooters had played violent video games. But it’s also true that many, if not most, young men have played violent video games.
The Sandy Hook shooter who killed 20 children and six adults in 2012 was reported to have played video games, including violent ones. But his favorites were Super Mario Bros. and Dance Dance Revolution.
The teenager who killed nine others and himself at Red Lake Senior High School in Minnesota in 2005 was reported to have made a violent flash animation on his computer.
Both of these young men shot themselves, and both were reported to have struggled with mental illness.
A common thread between many acts of violence, including the 2012 Aurora, Colorado theater shooting that claimed 12 lives and the 2011 Tucson, Arizona shooting that targeted U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others is mental illness.
A public letter written by an ex-girlfriend of the Dayton shooter stated he had expressed interest in harming people, and that he was bipolar. She wrote he told her that though he liked firearms, he didn’t believe the mentally ill should own them.
It can be difficult to determine frustration from a reality shattering plan, but paying attention to the mental health of those around you can save lives.
In July, a 19-year-old Texas man’s grandmother convinced him to check himself into a hospital after he told her his intentions to shoot up a hotel. Law enforcement discovered an assault rifle and 17 loaded magazines in the hotel room he’d booked.
Mental health care participation and access is a problem in America.
Nationwide, only 63% of people with serious mental health received services in 2014, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. At a more local level, Barron County is one of 49 Wisconsin counties designated a mental health shortage area by the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration.
The reasons for mass violence are more than just mental health issues, but putting the blame on video games is incorrect. It’s not only lazy and disingenuous, it’s disrespectful to the deceased and puts future victims in danger by ignoring actual problems and investigating solutions.
While guns may be cool, not having the means to access mental health care is not.