By Ryan Sitton
Since the recent Parkland shooting, a debate has raged in our country about the role of gun control versus Second Amendment rights. As a Texas Railroad Commissioner, our agency has no jurisdictional authority in this debate. However, as a public servant, I am often asked about solutions to issues of public concern so I feel compelled to provide these thoughts.
The fact is, when I consider the tragedy in Florida, I want to act. I want to do anything we can to stop these kinds of violent attacks. I want to do something aggressive to make sure that no group of people — kids or otherwise — can be attacked like this for no reason. However, I can’t help but feel like the debate over gun control is the wrong debate. In fact, since I feel like the gun control debate doesn’t address the serious, cancerous root-cause of the mass killing problem in the United States, I’m intentionally omitting my specific personal views on gun control from this piece to offer a different approach.
Before I go further, I want to say that this issue hits home for me. My mother and father were both schoolteachers for 44 and 38 years respectively. Several years ago, my father experienced a school shooting in the hallway outside his classroom in which a student was killed. In addition, my brother is a career police officer, and has seen his friends and fellow officers shot by people that had guns, many of them illegally possessed. When I ask them about their experiences, neither my father nor my brother believes that gun control will solve the problem. In fact, my father liked the idea of having teachers who were armed and could protect students and faculty if necessary. Their personal experiences have shaped my views on these tragedies but so have other family interactions.
About four weeks ago, my teenage daughter (who is precious to me) wanted to download a video game on her phone. It is called “Sniper” and the game is — as it sounds — an experience in which the player guns down criminals from afar. I reviewed the game, and it isn’t the worst I’ve seen, but it was graphic. You can watch as the bullet penetrates the skull of the person being shot, and blood splatters out the back. Kids will say things like, “But dad, you are only killing the bad guys,” as if that is an acceptable reason for children to be experiencing this sensation. That bothers me.
At 43 years old, I have played my share of video games. I played Pac-Man and Zaxxon, and later played Super Mario Brothers and Zelda, and I graduated to games like Mortal Kombat — a very violent game for its time. I try to picture the reaction I would have seen if I had asked my parents to let me buy “Sniper” for my Sega 25 years ago. It would NOT have been mild. I also didn’t have access then to a smart phone where I could have surreptitiously viewed violent content without my parents knowing – all of the time.
According to a 2015 American Psychological Association review, research demonstrates a consistent relationship between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, as well as a lack of empathy and sensitivity to aggression. In its 2016 policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics similarly states “there is broad scientific consensus that virtual violence increases aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, but there has been little public action to help mitigate children’s exposure to it.” The research is clear that there is a relationship between violent stimuli and aggressive behaviors.
I know that mental health in this country is a multifaceted complex problem. Drug and alcohol abuse, depression and loneliness, when untreated, can all trigger abhorrent acts. But our culture has become entirely too comfortable with violence. We are not only desensitized to it, it is celebrated. From television to movies to video games, it has become more and more prevalent, graphic and acceptable. I am not advocating for more stringent content regulation. But I am advocating for more vigilance. Not just for our own kids, but for those in our community. We should be aware of what our kids are seeing on their phones, AND THEIR FRIEND’S PHONES. If we see another child getting way too into violence, instead of thinking that it is none of our business, we need to overcome that uncomfortable feeling, and express concern to that child’s parents. “Did you know that your son is playing this game or watching this show?” is a fine question that more of us, myself included, need to ask.
None of us want this nonsensical violence to continue. All of us want to prevent another mass killing. I don’t claim to have perfect solutions when it comes to the gun debate, but I don’t think curbing gun access will work. At a time like this, we need to be asking ourselves more than just, “How did the Parkland shooter get the gun?” and instead ask, “How did he get to the point that he thought this was what he wanted to do?” This is not a partisan problem. It is a cultural one. And it will take more than a new set of laws to change that. It will require changed behavior, accountability, and probably more than a few family fights about “just because your friend watches that show or plays that game doesn’t mean that’s acceptable in this household.”
It will take all of us.