To reduce shootings, give guns on TV the cigarette treatment

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In unveiling a set of executive orders in April, President Joe Biden called gun violence an “epidemic” and an “international embarrassment.” To fully understand gun violence and the American demand for guns, a good place to start looking is at entertainment media such as movies and television.

The United States is experiencing a rise in gun-related homicides related to the pandemic crisis. But gun deaths have long been a public health crisis, especially for young people. During the crime wave starting in the late 1980s, young people were the victims of a dramatic rise in gun homicides. While those rates have declined, the rates of gun deaths for 15- to 24-year-olds remain higher than during the crime rise of the late 1960s and the 1970s. 

There’s been a great deal of policy discussion about how to reduce gun violence but relatively little about how to reduce demand for guns themselves.

One might ask how guns are advertised to the public. You’ll never see an ad for a handgun or assault rifle on TV or hear it advertised on the radio, and it’s unlikely you’ll see an ad for one on Facebook. The main way that Americans learn about the use of guns is through the entertainment media of movies and TV. The gun industry saw this when the Dirty Harry movies showcased the .44 Magnum, a large and powerful handgun, which led to a jump in U.S. sales of the Smith & Wesson Model 29. Gun manufacturers learned that Hollywood would be pleased to use guns as product placements in its films and TV shows. In 2011, the handgun maker Glock even got a lifetime achievement award from the product placement-tracking site Brandchannel for its appearances in action movies.

In recent years, we have been examining trends in the use of guns in movies and TV. In one study, we found that the use of guns in top-grossing movies rated PG-13 — open to children of all ages — had increased to the point where their use was more frequent than in R-rated movies, the traditional home for such violence. 

More recently, we examined trends in the use of guns for violent purposes in top-ranked primetime TV dramas, notably in the police, medical and legal genres. We found that from 2000 to 2018, the amount of gun violence doubled as a percentage of those shows. Even more concerning, the proportion of violence attributable to guns had also steadily increased over that period. A viewer of those shows will not only see the increasing use of guns but when there is violence, they’ll see guns as the weapon of choice for inflicting harm on others.

We compared the trend in TV gun violence with the proportion of U.S. homicides attributable to firearms over the same period. Here we saw some surprising parallels, especially for young people. The more TV shows portrayed the use of guns in violent scenes in a year, the greater the proportion of homicides committed with guns in that year. Although it did so for other age groups, the relation was strongest for those ages of 15-24.

Would this surprise the gun industry? It really shouldn’t because product placements work. The tobacco industry Master Settlement Agreement banned this kind of product placement for cigarettes in the 1990s. Apart from product placement, research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health showed that the more adolescents saw movies with characters smoking cigarettes, the more likely they were to start smoking. Couldn’t something similar be happening with guns?

One might argue that seeing cigarette use is not morally objectionable and so it’s more likely to be imitated by adolescents the more it’s seen in use by appealing characters on the screen. But the same is true for guns, when they are used by appealing characters for seemingly justified reasons. 

We tested that idea in a study in which we showed scenes of gun violence in popular movies to parents. When the guns were used to protect one’s family or others, their use was seen as acceptable for viewing by adolescents ages 15 and older. When guns were used by less noble characters, their use was frowned upon. So, the defense of self or others when using guns is often seen as virtuous and portrayed by glamorous characters, such as James Bond.

To see if the same pattern holds for young people, we conducted an experiment using an fMRI scanner and showed similar scenes to 18- to 22-year-olds. When they saw seemingly virtuous gun violence, their brains registered activation in regions that signal approval. When they saw gun violence that was committed for less virtuous reasons, their brains registered activation in regions that often coincide with dislike.

Just as Hollywood used cigarettes to depict exciting characters, it is using guns and violence to attract audiences. As research shows, entertainment with violence draws big audiences. If Biden wants to reduce the demand for guns, the government should consider funding more research into how gun use in the movies and on TV may be glamorizing such weapons — and influencing vulnerable youth to view guns as the way to protect themselves. 

Research showing that screen depictions of cigarette use influenced adolescents led to a reduction of smoking on-screen. Could we see a similar effect if we reduced the amount of on-screen gun violence? Let’s do the research and find out.

Dan Romer is research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and Patrick E. Jamieson is the director of the center’s Annenberg Health and Risk Communication Institute.

Tags Crime epidemic of gun violence Gun politics gun violence Gun violence in the United States Joe Biden Product placement Tobacco Regulation Violence

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