Movies, Guns, and Violence

As prayer vigils and Sunday services that reflected on the Aurora, Colorado, shooting that killed 12 people at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” have receded into the background, discussion has turned to what causes young men to become mass murderers. Before we address this issue, it’s worth stopping again to pray for the families of these 12 people who lost their lives and for the many others who were injured and/or traumatized by the shooting. Perhaps we can even find it within ourselves to pray for the alleged gunman (and his family), as UrbanFaith contributor Rev. Robert Gelinas asked his Denver area congregation to do yesterday. The suspect appeared dazed, and possibly drugged, in court this morning, Yahoo News reported. But, what made him a killer?

Movie Violence

At Charisma, Ted Baehr, publisher of Movieguide and chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission, argued that the content of the latest Batman movie cannot be blamed for the tragedy. But Baehr also noted that, although most viewers are either desensitized to or scared by movie violence, “more than 500,000 studies, capped by the latest Dartmouth University study, show that violence in the media influences susceptible youths to commit violence.”

Roger Ebert agreed that it wasn’t the content of the latest Batman installment. Writing at The New York Times, he said, “I’m not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence. I think the link is between the violence and the publicity. …Whenever a tragedy like this takes place, it is assigned catchphrases and theme music, and the same fragmentary TV footage of the shooter is cycled again and again. Somewhere in the night, among those watching, will be another angry, aggrieved loner who is uncoiling toward action.”

However, at The New Yorker, David Denby expressed ambivalence, writing, “Who knows whether the killer … wanted to be a mass murderer like the Joker, or if he was just using the event as a staging ground to render himself immortal. … Whatever his intentions, the sophisticated response to movie violence that has dominated the discussion for years should now seem inadequate and evasive.”

At The Wrap, Sharon Waxman said, “Movies are not the cause of real-life violence. But that does not mean they have no impact on us. We love the movies because they affect us deeply — often to the good. But if that is true, than so must be the reverse.” Waxman also said obsessive fans can lose touch with reality. “Playing shooter games touches some primal urge in the human psyche, not necessarily our most civilized impulse. And since Columbine, movies and videogames and television shows have only become more violent,” said Waxman.

Fanboy Culture

Because the alleged shooter reportedly died his hair red and identified himself as the Joker at some point Friday, the culpability of “fanboy” culture is worth considering.

“We have a new breed of fanboy, who are more contented by fictitious realities and attack anything that remotely deviates from their film expectations, shattering often overtly fragile sensibilities,” said Levar Polson at Not So Reviews, noting the irrational reactions of some fans following negative reviews of Dark Knight Rises. (The website Rotten Tomatoes was forced to close down its comments section when angry fans leveled death and rape threats at critics who had the nerve to post negative reviews.)

But at Primary Ignition, Rob Siebert defends fanboys, saying, “I’ve been to comic conventions, I’ve been to midnight screenings, I’ve been to autograph signings, and most of the people you see there aren’t violent, cruel or malicious. Some are a little socially awkward, I guess. But that’s the extent of it. … It is still okay to love Batman and superheroes, it is still okay to see The Dark Knight Rises, it’s still okay to be passionate about all that stuff.”

Even movie critic Marshall Fine, who was on the receiving end of some of the most vicious death threats following his negative review of Dark Knight Rises, cautions against making a direct connection between real-life violence and the kind of passion ones sees from fanboys. He writes at The Huffington Post: “It’s the peculiar avidity of the Comic-Con crowd, a passion I don’t particularly share but won’t knock here. … While I’m a little amazed at the size of the response, the intensity of people’s passion for the things they truly love — whether it’s a comic-book movie or a sports team — should never be underestimated. They may not have any actual connection to the thing itself — other than that passion for it — but, to them, it’s personal.” Fine attempts to put matters into their proper context by dismissing his situation as trivial compared to what happened in Aurora: “My 15 minutes are up. Tune in next week when normal life resumes. Except, of course, for the people in Denver.”

Easy Access to Guns

Whatever the psychological and spiritual causes may be, many are calling for stricter gun control laws, including religious leaders. Others are apparently arguing for more liberal concealed weapons laws.

At USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman asked if Jesus would “pack heat.” She quoted one writer who said gun control is a “pro-life” issue and referenced a 2011 ABC News/Washington Post survey that found “the most support for stricter [gun] laws came from black Protestants (71%) Catholics (59%) and the unaffiliated (55%)” while “solid opposition was expressed by white evangelical Protestants (60% )” and “mainline Protestants were more divided (47% favor, 51% oppose).”

Patheos blogger Ellen Painter Dollar wants to know “why Christians aren’t bringing the same dedication to talking about guns as we do to other issues, notably abortion and homosexuality.” She said, “Gun control is not about winning or politics or fantasies of well-played vigilante justice. It’s about taking weapons of mass murder out of the hands of those who would use them for ill (such as James Holmes) as well as those who would use them for good but possess the universal human capacity to screw up (such as George Zimmerman).”

At Loop 21, Keli Goff called New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to account for using this tragedy to argue for gun control while “passionately” defending the city’s “stop and frisk” policy that targets people of color—a policy that would have presumably allowed the Aurora killer to “slip through the cracks.”

The Week, like many other outlets, asked if the tragedy will change or reignite the gun control debate. New York Times columnist Gail Collins sounds doubtful, saying advocates (who also tend to be survivors) just keep slogging along in a seemingly hopeless fight. But at Media Matters, Matt Gertz says the media meme that gun control is a no-win issue among Americans is inaccurate. “Polls indicate public support for a broad range of stronger gun restrictions, including the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban,” said Gertz.

What do you think?

Do violent movies and the culture that crops up around them bear any responsibility for this tragedy and will stricter gun control laws help stem the tide of violence?

Can Bullying Lead to Murder or Suicide?

One L. Goh, the 43-year-old South Korean immigrant who is charged with killing seven people Monday at a tiny Christian College in Oakland, California, reportedly felt picked on by members of his mostly Korean school community.

“People at the school ‘disrespected him, laughed at him,’ Oakland Police chief Howard Jordan said, according to the Associated Press. “They made fun of his lack of English speaking skills. It made him feel isolated compared to the other students.”

Oikos University nursing instructor Romie Delariman disputed that assertion, telling the San Francisco Chronicle that Goh “can’t deal with women” and is “mentally unstable” and “paranoid.”

Jordan said Goh had gone to the school in search of a female administrator who he felt had done him wrong, but she wasn’t there when the shooting took place. He also said Goh was expelled in January for “unspecified behavior problems” and “anger management” issues. Goh, thus far, has shown no remorse for the killings, investigators said.

The Link Between Bullying and Suicide

While few would accept or condone Goh’s explanation that mistreatment led him to kill seven people, injure three others, and traumatize an entire community, the narrative that bullying causes young people to kill themselves has become a widely accepted one in recent years.

The suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, for example, became a rallying cry for national anti-bullying campaigns in the fall of 2010. Clementi killed himself shortly after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, used a web-cam to spy on him and another man as they engaged in an intimate encounter. Ravi then took to Twitter to invite others to watch a second hook-up.

Late last month, 20-year-old Ravi was convicted of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, and tampering with the police investigation. He faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years and possible deportation back to his native India. Ravi was not charged in connection with Clementi’s death, but it is unlikely that he would have been indicted apart from it and Clementi’s family sounds firm in the belief that Ravi’s actions caused Clementi’s suicide.

In his first public statements (published at the New Jersey Star Ledger) on the case, Ravi insisted that he didn’t have a problem with his roommate’s sexuality and said he didn’t take a plea deal that would have spared him jail time because he could never get up in court and concede to the charge of bias intimidation.

“I’m never going to regret not taking the plea,” Ravi said. “If I took the plea, I would have had to testify that I did what I did to intimidate Tyler and that would be a lie. I won’t ever get up there and tell the world I hated Tyler because he was gay, or tell the world I was trying to hurt or intimidate him because it’s not true.”

A lengthy New Yorker profile of the roommates asserts that it is anything but clear that Clementi was “bullied to death.”

The Problem With Simplistic Narratives

So, what’s the harm in raising the alarm about bullying? Controversy surrounding a new anti-bullying film provides some clues.

At a website for the new documentary Bully, readers are told that 13 million children will be bullied this year and 3 million will miss school because they don’t feel safe there.The movie has won rave reviews and is being widely advocated as an anti-bullying resource for children, even though it initially received an R-rating for language. But Slate writer Emily Bazelon, who has been reporting on high profile bullying cases for the past few years, worries that the film could do “some good” and “a lot of harm” because of what it doesn’t say about mental illness in its narrative of main character Tyler Long’s suicide.


Bazelon said what is missing from the storyline is Long’s diagnosis of ADHD, bipolar disorder, and Asperger’s Syndrome and the fact that his parents didn’t disclose their concerns that their son might be suicidal to counselors. Ann Haas, a senior project specialist for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, shared these concerns, telling Bazelon that leaving Long’s mental health history out of the film was an “egregious omission.”

“The filmmakers had the opportunity to present bullying as a trigger, as one factor that played a role in a young person’s suicide. But to draw a direct line without referencing anything else—I’m appalled, honestly. That is hugely, hugely unfortunate,” said Haas.

Incomplete pictures like the one painted of Long’s suicide in Bully and of Clementi’s suicide in the press have the potential to create a risk of suicide contagion, which Bazelon describes as “the documented phenomenon of people mimicking suicidal behavior in light of media representations.”

“One message of this move is: ‘Bullying kills’—as if it’s a normal response to kill yourself, when of course most people who are bullied don’t do that. Young people who feel bullied could harken back to the movie, and it could be a powerful draw to suicide for them. If Tyler had been accurately portrayed as a kid with mental health challenges that were very hard for him to manage, he wouldn’t seem so attractive,” said Haas.

The filmmakers disputed Bazelon’s critique in a statement to Entertainment Weekly, saying it downplays clear evidence that Long was bullied in the “days, weeks, and months before his death,” but Slate’s deputy editor defended it, saying Bazelon was only pointing out the potential harm in a one-sided, simplistic approach to the subject.

What do you think?

Could bullying cause someone to commit murder or suicide, or do these simplistic narratives have the potential to do more harm than good?