Imagine your child, or grandchild, or your niece or nephew, or your friend’s child have gone off to school, the mall, or the theater. Hours later, you hear the breaking-news story every parent in the United States fears most: Shooting in Progress. In March 1998, that parent was me. My youngest son, Joe, was in middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas. I got a call from my aunt in Florida, “Is that Joe’s school on the news?”
The story was on every channel—“Mass Murder in Jonesboro Middle School,” and I cannot describe the magnitude of the horror I felt. I rushed to Joe’s school with fear gripping my heart—only to find out it wasn’t my son’s school that was under attack. This mass murder took place at the other middle school in town. In a flash, I felt relief and then outrage. I learned later that two boys, an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old, opened fire, gunning down 13 little girls and two teachers after a fire alarm trapped them outside the building.
How could this have happened in my own city? How does this continue to happen with sickening regularity?
I am a soldier of 24 years’ service. I have served as a paratrooper, an Army Ranger, a West Point psychology professor, and professor of military science.
Until that moment in Jonesboro, my life’s work had been to uncover the dynamics of killing on the battlefield. I have authored several successful books on this topic, books which have become required reading for the U.S. Marine Corps, the DEA Academy, the U.S. Marshals Academy, and hundreds of other academies and military organizations world-wide. But now, I’ve shifted my focus from what happens on the battlefield to understanding the cause of the current wave of violent killing that is so commonplace in our society. My new book, Assassination Generation, is the culmination of this endeavor.
The massacre at Jonesboro was followed by those in Pearl, Paducah, Springfield, Littleton, Edinboro, Santee, San Diego, Moses Lake, Bethel, Red Lake, Sparks, Centennial, Troutdale, Marysville, Saskatchewan, and elsewhere. There was Sandy Hook Elementary School, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, Louisiana Vocational Tech, the University of California–Santa Barbara, Umpqua Community College, and Northern Arizona University. A movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; a church in Charleston, South Carolina; a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
After an in-depth investigation, The New York Times found that these mass murders occur, on average, more than once every single day in the United States. In 2015, mass shootings resulted in 462 dead and 1,314 wounded.
Today, we put armed cops in our schools, along with lock-down drills, metal detectors, and videocameras, and yet in 2013 there were still 53 school-related violent deaths. Violence is the most likely cause of death among children who die at school. But we should not blindly accept it as normal that we put thousands of cops in our schools to stop our kids from killing each other. Never lose your sense of outrage.
Many factors contribute to youth violence, including poverty, drugs, gangs, and mental illness. But the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has made it explicitly clear that violent TV, movies, and—worst of all—video games are “the single most easily remediable contributing factor” to violence in our society.
This is not a new revelation. As early as 1994—four years before Jonesboro—the American Psychological Association (APA) released a resolution on the undeniable link between media violence and actual violence: “viewing mass media violence leads to increases in aggressive attitudes, values, and behavior, particularly in children, and has a long-lasting effect on behavior and personality, including criminal behavior.” In 2005 and again in 2015, the APA issued further resolutions, in which they noted that the “link between violent video game exposure and aggressive behavior is one of the most studied and best established … Scientific research has demonstrated an association between violent video game use and both increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive affect, aggressive cognitions and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy, and moral engagement.”
On Sept. 23, a man murdered five people in a shopping mall in Oak Harbor, Washington. Victims included a 64-year-old woman and her 95-year-old mother, a 16-year-old cancer survivor, and a man who died protecting his wife with his body. News reports say the killer had “logged more than 100 hours in the past two weeks playing the violent first-person shooter game Call of Duty.” Incredibly, the same log shows that this mass-murderer returned from his crime and logged back into the game, “while a manhunt for the suspect was underway.”
We need to regulate children’s access to violent media just like we regulate their access to cigarettes, alcohol, and pornography. There are two avenues of change: cultural and legal.
First and foremost, each of us needs to take action to create a positive media environment for our own family. In Assassination Generation, we outline a revolutionary TV-turnoff curriculum that can cut school violence in half and raise test scores by double-digits. Similar to antismoking and healthy eating campaigns, we need campaigns like this to educate kids and their parents about healthy media use.
Secondly, Congress must pass legislation that will allow states to restrict the sale of violent video games to children. In 2011, with vast amounts of money, the video game industry convinced the Supreme Court to strike down California’s law preventing minors from buying ultra-violent video games. Two justices, one liberal and one conservative, voted against the majority. In their dissent, they highlighted the absurdity of extending free-speech privileges, for sales to children, by companies that make billions of dollars selling video games in which children are invited to hack, stab, suffocate, shoot, and otherwise maim and kill the likenesses of other human beings.
In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, “What sense does it make to forbid selling to a 13-year-old boy a magazine with an image of a nude woman, while protecting a sale to that 13-year-old of an interactive video game in which he actively, but virtually, binds and gags the woman, then tortures and kills her?”
The only common denominator in all these tragic massacres that have plagued our country has been exposure to violent video games. We have truly raised an assassination generation that has committed unthinkable crimes as children, and they will grow up and commit crimes as adults that we never dreamed of in our darkest nightmares.
But there is hope. By regulating children’s exposure to media violence, we can raise a new generation. This is how we can have the greatest possible impact on violence in our society—and save the most lives. It’s our duty to all the families who suffered through these tragedies to stem the tide of violence, one “Off” switch at a time.
(Written with input and assistance from Katie Miserany and Joe Grossman.)
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, is author of the book Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing with Kristine Paulsen and Katie Miserany.