I don’t think I have ever taken so long to write something in my life. I have thrown more versions of this column into the proverbial trash bin than anything I have ever written. The reason is simple: I had to get it right.
My previous column dealt with gun ownership, the differences in gun culture between Northern and Southern States, and finished with the NRA rally cry of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
I promised my follow-up column would have the answers, but that has proven to be a bit like jumping off the sidewalk into an open manhole.
Is the answer to gun violence further gun control and more legislation? Is it stopping the production of violent video games? Is it censoring graphic content on the Internet? Is it being more proactive about mental health issues?
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The truth is, it is all of these things. And it is none of these things.
The violence we see is the result of a growing trend of mediocre parenting, of which we are all guilty.
I tried to make a case against gun control in my last column. What I have come to realize is that people either get it or they don’t. Everyone is free to their opinion, and we live in a great nation where we can disagree with our friends, neighbors and loves ones. But gun rights and gun ownership is one of the amazingly divisive topics of our day.
However, “gun control” can mean a lot of things. If you are a gun owner, do your children know the four cardinal rules of handling a firearm? More importantly, do you know the four cardinal rules? Do you take your kids shooting and show them responsibility and safety at the range?
I believe in the tenet of continuous improvement, especially as it applies to business, but really in every aspect of life. There is nothing in my life that I couldn’t do better, or even just wish I did. So yes, I believe there is in fact room for better “gun control.”
But writing more laws to control guns will do little more than create criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens, and like most laws, likely include many concessions on issues not related to the core problem. We cannot, and will not, end or even curtail gun violence by passing more laws; just ask the residents of Chicago.
I have known plenty of people who have spent hours playing video games. I even know a grown man in Detroit who lost his business because he was so devoted to an online video game called World of Warcraft. Let me say that again: He was the sole proprietor of a successful business backed by a Fortune 500 company and he lost it because of a video game.
But he never killed anyone.
When I was 8 years old, Nintendo had introduced their first 8-bit gaming system. My favorite game was a shooting adventure game called Contra. Anyone who is reading this right now between the age of 35 and 45 knows exactly what my next words will be:
Up-up, down-down, left-right, left-right b-a, b-a, select-start.
That was the button sequence you would press on the remote to gain infinite lives. That’s right – you could play forever, and your character could get shot or otherwise “die” and you can keep playing. I have not seen a Nintendo Entertainment System in almost 30 years, and I still remember this.
Maybe not coincidentally, around the time that this video game was popular, the soda called Jolt also was tremendously popular: “All the sugar and twice the caffeine” was their slogan.
I had a cruel, mean mother. She would only let me play so many hours a day, and not before my homework was done and not after a certain hour. And if I got a bad report card, bad grades or displayed bad behavior (all of which happened frequently) she would take it away from me for a day, a week or even a month. In fact, it is a wonder I ever got to play at all.
But that was my mom. What about my friend’s parents?
I am 37 years old. I was born late in 1977. I won’t claim to be a social historian, but I believe that my generation was the first that saw a preponderance of two income families. I can’t think of any of my friends that I grew up with whose parents didn’t both work.
It also seemed that divorce was a pretty common experience for my generation. My parents were divorced when I was 3. I lived with my mom and saw my dad on the weekends. My wife’s parents were also divorced at a very early age, as were many of my friend’s parents.
So again, I am not a social historian. Nor am I a sociologist, psychologist, electronics expert or developmental pediatrician. Truthfully, I am not even as smart as most people seem to think I am. But I do spend a lot of time lost in my own thoughts.
So what about my friend’s parents? Many of them were divorced, like my parents were. But there were an awful lot of “cool” moms out there, who didn’t care about how many hours my friends would play Nintendo and as long as it kept them quiet, they could have all the Jolt soda they wanted. And when they got so good at the games that they played, and they “beat” the game, their cool parents bought them more and more games. And when the 8-bit graphics of the Nintendo were outdated, they bought them the Sega Genesis, Nintendo 64, Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox. Those moms were the coolest, and I loved spending time at my friend’s house.
Those moms were “cool” because they were worn out. And being cool was easier than being tough. My mom had a career, kept a spotless house, cooked amazing meals and still had time and energy after her divorce to maintain her own identity outside of being just a single mother. I can’t even fathom keeping up this pace as a parent, let alone a single parent.
Another great dynamic of the divorced parent was the weekend dad. My dad was about 30 years old when my parents were divorced. Plenty of energy left in life to do whatever he wanted. I always enjoyed my time with my dad, whether we would go out on his boat, go fishing, take road trips or sometimes just visit my cousins on a snowy Sunday. But I have to admit, I was jealous of my friends. Their weekend dads would spoil them rotten with video games, GI Joes, “Star Wars” figures – seemingly whatever they wanted. Those weekend dads were so cool! All I had to show for my weekend was a farmer’s tan, sun-bleached hair and a jellyfish sting or two.
Some of you see where I am going with this, and some of you don’t, which really scares me.
When I started writing this column, I had a hypothesis. I thought it was a strong one. My theory revolved around an inclination that the stereotypical mass shooter that we see far too often on the news these days was a 22- to 25-year-old white male who was greatly influenced by video games and graphic content in movies and online.
Of the 160 mass shootings since 2001, all but four have been male, so I was on the money there. I was off on the age. The average age at the time of the shooting was 36. If you calculate what their age is (or would be) today, the average age is 42.
That’s my generation. That’s a kid who was a fifth grade bully when I was in first grade. That’s my friend with the cool mom.
Another part of my hypothesis was that with the development of computing power and graphics capabilities, the hyper-realistic video games we are seeing in the last few years especially, were causing desensitization to the most abhorrent act one human can perform on another: murder.
You know the games; you see the commercials, and you can’t wait to see this “Medal of Honor” movie, or the Sci-Fi adventure “Halo.” The graphics are so amazing, it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between a Hollywood movie and a video game.
But I was wrong again.
One website ranks the top 10 most-violent video games in descending order of most to least violent as these: Postal (2003), Grand Theft Auto (2001), Manhunt (2003), Madworld (2009), Thrill Kill (1998), Mortal Kombat (1992), Gears of War (2008), Gods of War (2007), Soldiers of Fortune (2000) and Carmaggedon (1997).
All of these were released before 2010. The website also includes video clips of some of the more graphic scenes, and I have to admit, they are tame compared to the capabilities of modern gaming.
Another interesting observation; if you look at the top four most deadly mass shootings since 2001, they are: Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Fort Hood and Aurora, Colo. They are in order of most to least lethal.
The Fort Hood shooter was the statistical outlier in this group, because he was 39. You could also argue that he was the one who was least like the others because of his motive; arguably more akin to terrorism.
So for the sake of argument, let’s remove Fort Hood from the discussion. If we do that, the average age of the remaining shooters in these incidents is 22.
Ah ha! Maybe I’m smarter than I give myself credit for.
If you take it a step further, and “map” the 10 most-violent video games against the average ages these shooters would have been at the time of their release, you will see a heavy clustering during their very formative teenage years, and three of the games were released in consecutive years leading up to their 22nd birthday, the magic average year when they all made a decision to destroy so many innocent lives.
This information comes from an unclassified document published by the FBI titled “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013.” It is very easy to find on the FBI website and actually is a very interesting read.
I should also say that you will not find the data as I presented it. I scoured the document and compiled this information and mapped it myself. If you’ve got a few hours, Microsoft Excel and perhaps bottle of Jolt, I would invite you to do the same.
So video games are the answer?
Video games, graphic pictures, movies, pornography – these are all easy scapegoats.
I look at pictures of the three shooters in the above incidents and I see very lost children. Of the three, only one survived. Maybe he has some answers.
Or maybe the answers are all around us.
Maybe letting a child play video games all night long, where they can experience the adrenaline rush of battle without the inconvenience of actually being in the military, isn’t the best thing for your kids.
Maybe we are letting these media define our children’s reality because it is too much work to listen to our children, guide them and discipline them lovingly.
Maybe giving your child an iPad for hours on end because it keeps them occupied isn’t always the best choice.
Maybe being your child’s friend when they need a parent is ridiculous and selfish.
Maybe we shouldn’t look the other way when our kids do some strange things and maybe we shouldn’t feel guilty thinking they are “off. “
And maybe working so hard so you can pay the bills at the expense of having quality time with your children isn’t always the best sacrifice to make for your family.
Please understand that in many ways, this is an open letter to myself, because I will openly admit, I am as guilty of all of it as anyone. But I suspect I am not alone.
When we moved to Fort Mill, we had never heard of it before, much the same way that two years ago I’m sure many of you had never heard of Newtown, Conn. I wrote this column, and I have a great passion for the subject because I don’t ever want to live in a Newtown. But I also feel that we, as a nation, have looked for answers for far too long in the wrong direction.
So my only hope is that this column opens a dialog between families, schools and our great community. What are we doing to raise our children the right way, and what could we be doing better? How do we teach the value of life and separate it from the fantasy of video games and movies?
Many of the headlines in this paper deal with the surge of new residents, the need for more schools, higher taxes, wider roads and most importantly, maintaining a way of life.
But are we overlooking the most fundamental way to preserve it?