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Gabrielle Giffords and NRA are both right about one thing: US culture of violence

Gabrielle Giffords made a compelling plea at the Senate hearings on gun control today, but the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre is also partly right: Banning guns won’t address a pervasive culture of violence that doesn't distinguish between real and virtual violence.

By John Sanbonmatsu / January 30, 2013

This undated publicity image released by Activision shows soldiers and terrorists battling in the streets of Yemen in a scene from the video game, 'Call of Duty: Black Ops II.' Op-ed contributor John Sanbonmatsu says: 'So long as America continues socializing its young people in a culture of violence and war, whether in video games or in military campaigns abroad, we are unlikely to see an end to tragedies like Newtown or Aurora.'

Activision/AP

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Whatever else is said about the murder of 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Conn. last year, let no one say – especially at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on gun control today – that those killings were “unimaginable.” Every day, mass killings are imagined, rehearsed, and enacted – virtually – by millions of children and young adults, mostly boys and men, in violent video games. One segment of Bioshock 2, for example, invites players to kill defenseless, cowering girls (called Little Sisters) or lure them into a trap where they are mowed down by a machine gun.

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Adam Lanza didn’t have to imagine the Sandy Hook massacre on his own. Others had already imagined it for him.

When Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, pointed a finger at video games and media violence during a news conference after the shootings, it was a calculated effort to distract attention from the gun industry and its powerful lobby. As former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly wrote in their USA Today op-ed announcing the launch of their gun-control superPAC, "We saw from the NRA leadership's defiant and unsympathetic response to the Newtown, Conn., massacre that winning even the most common-sense reforms will require a fight."

But Mr. LaPierre was also half right. Glock and Bushmaster give troubled teens and young adults like Lanza the means to kill. But antisocial video games and a wider culture of militarism give them the script.

What LaPierre neglected to say is that the arms industry, the video game industry, and the military are deeply entwined with one another and even, one could argue, allied in values. In many ways, their work together is eroding the distinction between virtual and real killing.

During the Iraq War, Marines relaxed after conducting search and destroy missions by playing Call of Duty 4 and CounterStrike, fielding the same weapons and tactics. CIA agents and Air Force personnel today kill real people in distant countries using remotely piloted drones, on interfaces modeled on video games, while US soldiers hone tactical combat skills on video game simulators and use Xbox joysticks to control real machines in the battlefield.

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