Searching For Legal And Cultural Responses To Violence

January 2013: a 16-year-old shoots and wounds two people with a 12-guage shotgun at Taft Union High School. A year later, a 14-year-old Californian with a history of threatening behavior shoots and kills his 17-year-old sister, allegedly over a laundry mishap.

October 2013: A 12-year-old boy opens fire with a shotgun at Berrendo Middle School in Roswell, N.M., injuring two. Police suggest the event, using a gun retrieved from an unlocked safe at home, was a planned event, but with no specific motive. That same month, a 24-year-old math teacher at Danvers High School in Massachusetts is raped and murdered. Her alleged attacker is a 14-year-old student upset earlier in the afternoon when the teacher mentioned his former home state of Tennessee. A note by her body read “I hate you all.”

February 2014: A retired Florida police officer shoots and kills a fellow movie-goer in a theater, allegedly over an altercation regarding the man’s texting prior to the start of the movie.

April 2014: A 7-year-old boy brings a loaded handgun, belonging to his grandfather, to his elementary school and shows it off. He is disarmed before any accidents can occur. It is one of only several instances the past year in which elementary school aged children come into possession of and bring weapons to school. At Franklin Regional High School in Murrysville, Penn., a 16-year-old student randomly stabs and severely injures 22 people. Allegedly, he was in a threatening phone call with another student the night before the rampage, and a note found in his locker, disparaging fellow students, read in part, that he was “… the only one among them that isn’t a plebian.”

Marion Sanchez, 16, is stabbed to death, April 25, at Jonathan Law High School in Milford, by Chris Plaskon, also age 16. It is rumored that Ms Sanchez turned down the young man’s invitation to the prom. A day later, a 17-yer-old student at Madison High School in San Antonio, Texas, is thwarted from creating carnage there when it is discovered he has two handguns, ammunition, and a 12-inch knife in his backpack, as well as having hidden an AK-47 in a school trash barrel. The student planned to use the weapons if his “demands” were not met during morning announcements, according to several news sources.

Less than a week later, another 17-year-old is relieved of an enormous cache of weapons in a plan to kill his family, and bomb both the junior high school and high school in Waseca, Minn. The teen is said to have idolized school mass murderers

In between lie hundreds of other incidents of violence in response to frustration, anger, and disappointment. Is deadly violence now the 21st Century response to what once might have resulted in a hair-pulling altercation or a bloody nose?

According to the National Vital and Health Statistics, the homicide rate in 1933 was 9.8 deaths per 100,000; the Criminal Justice Information Services Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation posts the 2012 murder rate in the USA as 5.6 per 100,000. A decline in the 1940s and 1950s led to a low 4.7 deaths by homicide per 100,000 in 1960, ticking upward again in 1969 to 7.7 per 100,000. It would appear that many factors contribute to the various ups and downs of homicide rates, from the National Firearms Act of 1934 that regulated and taxed certain firearms such as machine guns to years of social unrest to right-to-carry laws.

A CNN chronicle of the 25 worst mass shootings — not mass murders overall — shows that 13 occurred since 2000. Four of the top 25 mass shootings took place in the 1990s, and six in the 1980s.

Thirty-four incidents of massacres in school have been recorded in this country since 1927, with a total of 239 deaths. Twelve incidents have been since 2000. In the workplace, 136 Americans have died in 18 separate mass killings, six of those incidents taking place in the last 14 years.


Beyond Gun Control

On April 29, State Representative DebraLee Hovey (R Monroe/Newtown) issued an statement in which she suggested that legislation passed last year by the state addressing gun control was not enough to “change an endemic culture of violence in our society.” Ms Hovey suggested there are other steps to reduce violent acts in the future.

During the last legislative session, Ms Hovey proposed a bill that would require a warning label on “M” rated video games (suitable for ages 17 and up), and impose an additional sales tax on violent video games sold in Connecticut. Tax revenue received would go toward educating people about the effects of playing violent video games and recognizing signs of behavioral issues in children and young adults. The bill did not pass.

“I’m extremely disappointed and frustrated,” admitted Ms Hovey in a phone interview with The Newtown Bee, regarding the failure of the bill to pass.

She has focused on violent video games, she said, based on studies that attribute an increase in aggressive behavior among those who play violent video games. A 2014 study done by researchers at Iowa State University, following participants over a three-year period, showed that along with increases in aggressive behavior, particularly for teenagers and children, more than 90 percent of games rated E10 or higher contain violent content.

“What I found in my research was that the quantity of time spent playing [violent video] games affected how much of a negative impact it had. It is a numbing of the sensitivities,” she said. She targeted those games rated “M,” but even some of the E-10 (generally suitable for ages 10 and up) depict violence, and have “what they call minimally suggestive themes.”

“I don’t think families really understand the depth of social inappropriateness in video games,” Ms Hovey said. The violent video games are not only inappropriate in violence content, she said, but sexually, racially, how women are victimized, crude language, and in how players gain more points, in some first person shooter games, by showing no remorse for violent acts. “It is diminishing children’s sensitivity,” she stressed.

To those who suggest that pegging violent video games as contributing to violent attitudes and actions as akin to the fears promoted when television became popular in the 1960s or cellphone health hazards that never occurred, Ms Hovey said, “I think this study from Iowa State University proves them wrong. It is a longitudinal study over three years.”

Law enforcement groups have told Ms Hovey that technically, there are not more murders now than other times in history, but that society is much more aware of the events.


Risk Factors

Jeremy Richman and Jennifer Hensel’s daughter, Avielle Richman, was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, December 14, 2012. Since then, they have established the Avielle Foundation, dedicated to identifying brain illness early on, and removing stigma associated with brain health issues, as well as facilitating intervention.

Dr Richman, who holds a PhD in neuropharmacology and currently works in drug discovery for Boehringer-Ingelheim, and Ms Hensel, who hold a master’s in pathobiology and currently owns the medical writing company Presentis, have researched studies correlating risk factors to acts of violence that are done objectively, that are “powered appropriately, statistically validated, and that are meaningful,” said Dr Richman.

“You always have to be careful where statistics come from. Data is surprisingly hard to come by,” he cautioned. It is not clear-cut to say that violence has increased in correlation to any particular risk factor.

“The fact is, there isn’t compelling data yet that violent videos result in violence,” he said. But, he stressed, he does not doubt that there will be data to support that theory. Data collected since the 1960s correlate violence on television and in movies to violent behavior, and two Surgeon Generals have issued warnings, said Dr Richman.

“And that’s passively sitting back and watching. With a video game, you are part of the game, so there is bound to be a profound effect,” Dr Richman said.

The draw to violent video games is not surprising, Dr Richman said, as the element of “playing” appeals to our animal nature. “I think we’re always drawn to challenges of clearing the next level. [Video games] are made to draw you in to the next greater challenge,” he said, and are designed to appeal to the might makes right attitude that is a part of our human history. Our culture and marketing make the violent video games attractive.

Dr Richman suggested that as a society and culture, video games and media need to be used as positive tools. “We’re not going to decrease virtual interactions. We need to learn how not to rage against it, but how to use it. We need to encourage game makers to make games that are enriching and educational,” he said.

It is the combination of genetics and environment that affect behavior, he pointed out. “Environment influences what and how genes are turned on. So, there are things in the environment that we do have control over,” Dr Richman said.

Domestic violence, early childhood difficulties, environmental stresses, toxins in the environment, physical or brain traumas, and even poor nutrition have been related to antisocial behaviors. These are factors that can be influenced, however.

What the Avielle Foundation hopes to do is to provide answers to the “What next?” that occurs when brain illness is recognized. “We want to develop curriculum and courses to provide tools to law enforcement, parents, students, and health care workers so that when [brain illness] is recognized, they don’t feel uncomfortable,” Dr Richman said, likening it to a first aid course for brain health. The Avielle Foundation wants to provide funds for research for those underlying behaviors that lead to acts of violence, “and provide that information through community engagement, in a effective and appropriate way.” They look to youth for innovation in ideas. “We need everyone’s imagination. Imagine the horrors we’re going though,” he said, “then use imagination to come up with a solution some young mind would come up with.”

Dr Richman and Ms Hensel see that recognizing and reassociating brain illness — a less embarrassing language than “mental health” — as the most effective way to make changes. “We need to bring brain diseases to the point so that parents aren’t afraid to get help for their kids, and so that people don’t feel they have done something wrong.”


The Power Of Hope

They have learned to believe in the power of hope, said Dr Richman. “Hope is what gets Jen and me out of bed in the morning. We need to empower people,” he said, “and give them hope.”

“I do not blame video games in entirety for violent acts, of course,” Ms Hovey said. Other factors contribute, she said, including that our society has individuals not equipped to manage day-to-day functioning. When other issues such as divorce or alcoholism or drug problems are added to that, a person becomes more vulnerable.

“There is a whole spectrum of people moving through human experience. Some are less equipped, for whatever reason, to move through life in a positive way,” she said.

“But in the context of our society, we’ve targeted other activities we believe to be detrimental, such as smoking and drinking. I would like this issue to become the next Mothers Against Drunk Driving [MADD] issue. When your children are exposed to violent content, they become more aggressive and less sensitive to the human experience,” Ms Hovey said. “If we can educate consumers about mature video games as violent behavior triggers and put more resources into researching contributing factors of violent behavior, why wouldn’t we?” she asked.

Ms Hovey is retiring from public service as of January 6, 2015, so she does not anticipate trying to put the bill through again.

“I don’t think it’s an issue I’m going to let rest, though. I want to get some momentum around it, and I hope a colleague will take it up and reintroduce it. I want to heighten people’s awareness to this issue, and inform the public,” Ms Hovey said.

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