Guns

Reality Contradicts Study Linking Movie Guns to Fatal Firearm Accidents

As guns proliferated in movies, accidental gun deaths and violent crime fell dramatically.

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Walt Disney Pictures

A study reported this week in JAMA Pediatrics found that children who watched a movie excerpt in which characters used firearms were more interested in playing with a handgun than children who watched an expurgated version from which images of firearms had been excised. The researchers think their findings could be important in reducing fatal firearm accidents involving children. Jenny Anderson, who wrote a Quartz story about the study, thinks it tells us something about the roots of gun violence. Here is why they are wrong.

In the experiment, Wittenberg University communication researcher Kelly Dillon and Ohio State psychologist Brad Bushman used 20-minute excerpts from two PG-rated movies, National Treasure and The Rocketeer. They randomly assigned 52 pairs of 8-to-12-year-olds to watch either the original scenes or the expurgated, gun-free version, then let the kids play for 20 minutes in a room that contained a disabled handgun in a drawer as well as various toys and games. The subjects were monitored by a video camera and an infrared sensor in the gun that recorded trigger pulls.

On average, the subjects who watched movie excerpts featuring firearms held the handgun longer and pulled the trigger more than the subjects who watched the firearm-free versions. The difference in handling time was not statistically significant after Dillon and Bushman adjusted the data to take into account potential confounding variables such as sex, age, aggressiveness, and attitudes toward guns. But the difference in trigger pulls was robust and dramatic. Whether it has any practical significance is another matter.

Dillon and Bushman worry that children who see guns in movies will be more likely to play with them in real life, with potentially fatal consequences. The implication is that more guns in the movies kids see will mean more fatal gun accidents. But there is no evidence of such a correlation. To the contrary, unintentional firearm fatalities involving children have been falling for decades even though, according to Dillon and Bushman, "gun violence in movies is increasing, especially in movies that target younger viewers."

Dillon and Bushman cite a study that found the depiction of guns in popular PG-13 movies "has more than doubled since 1985" and a follow-up study that found "the amount of gun violence in PG-13 films continued to increase through 2015." During that period, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accidental gun deaths involving children 14 or younger fell by 83 percent, from 278 in 1985 to 48 in 2015.

Reasonable people may disagree about the best way to make further progress in reducing the number of children accidentally killed by guns. But even if we assume that the behavior observed in the highly artificial conditions of Dillon and Bushman's experiment carries over into the real world, securing guns so that children cannot play with them seems like a much more practical approach than restricting their movie viewing or banning guns from PG-13 films.

While Dillon and Bushman focus on accidental deaths, Jenny Anderson worries in her Quartz piece that seeing guns in movies will make kids "more violent." Again, there is no evidence that is happening. Even after increases in 2015 and 2016, the violent crime rate in the United States is much lower today than it was in the mid-1980s, notwithstanding the proliferation of cinematic gun play that worries Anderson.

"This research suggests violent media merits our attention," Anderson concludes. "Exhausting as it may be for parents, being overbearing would seem to pay off." No one who disagrees with that sentiment will change his mind after reading this study.

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  1. We need an enemy of the week. About time to go back to the gun control distraction.

  2. Shut Up Nicholas Cage. *PewPew*

  3. the depiction of guns in popular PG-13 movies “has more than doubled since 1985”

    Given that the very first PG-13 movie was in July of 1984, I’m gonna say that’s . . . unsurprising. If you take the data back six more months, the rise is literally infinite.

    1. And, fun fact: I turned thirteen in July of 1984.

      1. Thus making Top Secret! the funniest thing ever, am I right?

        1. It’s like you read my mind.

  4. They randomly assigned 52 pairs of 8-to-12-year-olds to watch either the original scenes or the expurgated, gun-free version, then let the kids play for 20 minutes in a room that contained a disabled handgun in a drawer[. They] adjusted the data to take into account potential confounding variables such as sex, age, aggressiveness, and attitudes toward guns.

    Oh, FFS! Did they adjust the data to take into account potential confounding variables such as innate curiosity, training in manners, and knowledge of physics?

    1. I thought people left loaded guns around small children in order to thin the herd. At least now they’ll know what to throw in the DVD player for maximum thinning.

  5. I remember watching Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” with my dad on TV — multiple times starting from around age 9 or so.

    Then I got my own car when I was in high school and, strangely enough, I didn’t feel the urge to chase anyone through San Francisco, nor did anyone I know end up crashing into a gas station and going up in fireball.

    Even kids tend to know the difference between movies and real life.

    1. I bet they also know the difference between movies and movies with holes chopped in them.

  6. Wilful idiots! Kids played with the damn triggers because now they knew what it did. All it really shows is that if you want kids to not pull triggers on guns they find, you better teach them to not pull triggers — start teaching gun safety in kindergarten, repeat every year.

    Fucking wilful morons.

    1. And note the tacit assumption that people will routinely keep loaded guns in their toddler’s play area.

    2. Agree completely, 8-12 are prime years for making a child gun proof and I have a 12 year old grand-niece who is a fine example. For her 12th birthday her grand-dad and I bought her a P238 SIG of her own and a lockbox for it. It’s kept in her parents room and she won’t touch it without permission from one of her parents, even to show it to her grandfather. She loads her own magazines when we go shooting and be prepared for a lecture if the first thing you do when picking it up isn’t checking it clear. Keeping a child ignorant of life saving knowlege because YOU are scared of guns is child abuse and endangerment.

  7. But if we don’t get children interested in guns, how will they fend off the roving gangs of sex traffickers?

  8. It’s a known fact: every fatal shooting involved a gun. Ergo, guns are bad.

    1. Wrong. One time I killed a guy by shooting him with a sandblaster.

      1. *tears man-card in half, walks away with a tear in his eye*


  9. But the difference in trigger pulls was robust and dramatic. Whether it has any practical significance is another matter.

    Uhh…no. Their own study appears to say that kids played with it the same amount regardless. Tell me this, if your kid grabs your gun and starts pulling the trigger while it’s loaded do you really give a shit if they pull the trigger 9 times instead of 10? How about 5 times instead of 10? 1 time instead of 20? Either way your kid is spraying bullets, but in reality the kids more likely to drop the damn thing after one time. Gunshots aren’t exactly muffled.

    Now, if the fake gun had made an actual gunshot noise when they pulled the trigger that might be interesting but probably ‘not legal’ in America. Not a loaded gun, obviously, but a simulated gunshot sound at the same volume.

  10. Even for adults, 10-100% of your personality at any given moment is probably just the last movie you watched

  11. Wow how much money did they spend to investigate that revolutionary theory that kids play pretend games that imitate the movies they see?

  12. By the way I don’t buy their claim that one of the goals of the study was to compare trigger pulls. I bet you they did a study hoping to show that gun-movie kids played with the guns more total. But when they failed to prove that hypothesis they went fishing for other things in the video to measure, till they found something that fit their bias. Something you will always be able to accomplish if you’re clever enough, especially with a relatively small study.

  13. The “violent movies” studies are reflected in “violent video games” and “spread of concealed carry laws” and such, which are also “linked” to “rising tides of violence” which don’t exist.

  14. Re: “The researchers think their findings could be important in reducing fatal firearm accidents involving children”

    Many of the ” fatal firearm accidents involving children” occur because of the easy access “children” have to firearms in households occupied by adults engaged in criminal activities where guns are readily available to prevent other criminals from killing them or stealing their stuff. One way to help solve the problem would be to advocate for a law that would impose a mandatory death sentence on any recidivist with a violent criminal history that uses a firearm to commit a crime regardless of childhood upbringing, economic impoverishment, mental health, age, IQ, ethnicity, sex or gender identity.

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