In the aftermath of the school shooting this past December in Newtown, Connecticut, where elementary school children and teachers lost their lives as the result of a troubled gunman, the debate about gun control has moved to the front burner. An issue that has long simmered in the U.S., it seems that gun control is finally getting close attention. From bans on particular weapons and limits on ammunition clips, to more consistent, comprehensive background checks for gun permits and purchases, many so-called solutions have been lobbed forth from bunkers where the various camps on this issue take cover.
The old “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” statement has been dusted off by those favoring gun rights. Silly analogies, such as claims that “baseball bats are used to kill people, so why don’t we ban all baseball bats?” have been put forth to deflect charges made against weapons. Hunting has been “ok’d,” while the possession of assault rifles and quantities of bullets in magazines for assault weapons has been attacked. When the press called the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.), the organization deflected criticism by pointing the finger at policing. Essentially, the N.R.A. said, “Don’t look at us law-abiding gun owners—it’s the illegal firearms, the lack of policing, the problems in the justice system.” Then, as an added offensive defense, the N.R.A. said, “Oh, and what about violent video games?” as if to suggest it’s not owning and shooting actual firearms that contributes to violence with guns, but rather its the result of virtual, digital shooting of firearms.
The video game industry has been arrested, tried and convicted by the mere indictment. When it was invited to the table to talk with Vice President Biden’s task force to address gun violence in our country, the video game industry was damned. If the industry participated in talks, it was admitting a role in societal violence, hence condemning itself by its mere presence. If it ignored the invitation, then it was charged (and convicted) with not being responsible for its products. Gaming magazines and online forums held their own talks and published articles this past month on the issue, making this point.
Gamers and developers repeatedly complain about the fact that the most violent games—shooting games especially—are always rated “M” for “Mature,” which amounts to games created for the seventeen-plus person. That children are playing violent shooting games is the problem of parenting, not the industry. My favorite comparison is film. Parents see the “R” rating, and automatically disallow their children viewing of films with this rating. They do not buy these films for children under seventeen, and if they allow kids to watch “R” rated films, the majority of parents watch the films with their children. When it comes to video games, the word “game” apparently somehow erases the “M” rating from parents’ minds.
When my husband purchases video games for himself and our son, the clerk in the store regularly asks whether my husband is aware of the rating of the particular game, and warns him that the game play is not necessarily suitable for our son. This tells us that more often than not, store clerks are warning parents away from certain games at the point of purchase, potentially losing sales for the company, which is practically unheard of in any retail industry. My husband has witnessed an annoyed parent march into a store to buy an “M” rated game for an adolescent, who was refused at the register unless a parent accompanied him or her in the purchase of the game. The parent inevitably blows off the warnings of the clerk, sighs exasperatedly, and theatrically (and rudely) jams cash or a credit card at the clerk, then storms out of the store with his or her child and the game in tow.
My son has been playing “M” rated games for years. He has also been watching “R” rated movies for a long time. My husband and I screen films (and games) and my husband also plays these games with our son. They discuss what is going on in the game, and the value (or lack thereof) of the content. Is there something from history in the game? What portion or side of a story is being told in the game? What side of the story is missing? What does online play with strangers say about human nature? (This last question is always a good one for a long conversation!) All of these questions (and more) are addressed regularly. Games with story lines are discussed. How men and women are depicted, and even the interaction between human and alien populations is part of the discourse around games, their content, online play and design of the game itself, its merits where game play, storytelling and art intersect. Video games make for a rich discussion in our household. These discussions lead to talks about conflict resolution, the actual violence in today’s world and violence throughout human history. If more parents heeded the warnings of the game labels, knew the content of what they let their children play and used games as a gateway to conversation, video games would not be blamed.
The attack on video games reminds me of the outrage around heavy metal in the 1980s, when teen suicide was blamed on particular bands and their music. Parents, grieving the loss of a child, placed the blame on heavy metal bands and the song lyrics that their suicidal teens listened to. The lyrics often spoke of despair, suicide or violence. Thus, the bands were to blame. No one wanted to consider that the teen was drawn to such music because of already present depression. No one wanted to think that a child isolated in his or her room listening to hours and hours of music without human contact was the problem—–whether the music was heavy metal or classical. No one wanted to recognize that a lack of public awareness about and the stigma attached to mental illness and depression contributed to the problem.
Now that I’ve mentioned mental illness and depression, I get to the crux of what I’d like to now call my open letter to President Obama, Democrats across the country, and Republicans in positions where they might act in Congress today. Republican representatives in Ohio spoke out against gun control the third week of January this year. In place of gun control, they claimed President Obama was not doing something about the real issue: mental health. I propose that the President invite every member of Congress to a meeting in which he asks whether both Republicans and Democrats might agree to put aside any talks about gun control whatsoever in favor of a discussion about mental health. Let’s not consider changing one thing at the federal level, nor at the state level. Let’s not ask for universal background checks. Let’s not discuss what number of bullets is not dangerous in a single clip of ammunition (such a silly argument anyway since a single bullet is, obviously, meant to be deadly). Let’s not talk about assault weapons. Let’s agree that guns don’t kill people, and that people kill people. Let’s talk about what “kind” of people kill people with guns, in fact. Republicans and members of the N.R.A. would have to admit that unstable, emotionally vulnerable, mentally ill people are those who are most likely to use any kind of weapon, regardless of the amount of ammunition, to kill people, including classrooms full of children. We can all likely agree that mentally stable people do not walk into malls or kindergartens or former employers and kill people.
Now that all of that has been made clear, that talks in Congress will not be about gun control, but rather about mental health care, and not just mental health care but rather specifically mental health treatment and access to this treatment, and let me run-on this sentence further to say that talks will also be about removing the stigma associated with mental health treatment, let’s talk about it. Of course, I am sure that plenty of people will know where I am going with this as a liberal feminist. You might have heard the words “health care” uttered together as I began this paragraph. If you were a Republican, or member of the N.R.A. (or both), and President Obama started down this line of talk, you might wonder where the other shoe was and when it was going to drop. Well, here it is. I’d like nothing more than to have talks in Congress be about health care, access to health care and removing stigma from mental health treatment. Yet, when we talked about this last time, when a couple dozen (white, suburban) elementary school children had not been killed so recently, Republicans weren’t so keen on mental health care, unless it was something each individual paid for through a private company with no cap on earnings for its executives, no caps on bonuses, and definitely no caps on premiums for coverage for each individual. A single-payer plan, which would allow access to physical health as well as mental health care, was at the very least considered socialism and quite possibly was akin to communism. However, I do not believe we can have a conversation about, or blame our President for a lack thereof, mental health care or the stigma associated with mental health treatment without considering health care and how it is provided in our country.
Thus, a liberal feminist and Republican congressional representatives agree about mental health care. We agree that Americans need access to mental health care, and that stigma must be removed from seeking such care. We also agree that access to mental health care will do more to reduce violence of all kinds, including gun violence than any gun control measures. Where I know we will battle is about how we can assure access. However, seeing as Republican representatives made the suggestion, I now wait to see exactly what they’ll do about this call to action on mental health as a national issue.