The Dark Knight and Other Violent Films Do Not Cause Rampage Killings

The brutal murder of twelve innocent movie-goers and the injury of dozens more by James Holmes at an Aurora, Colorado theater screening of The Dark Knight Rises has unleashed a torrent of public anguish and a number of admirable attempts to make sense of the senseless.  But let's base our conclusions on facts and not fantasy.  In short, violent films should not be blamed for the tragic event.

The Dark Knight Rises is not an incitement to mindless acts of violence; on the contrary, it is a call for us to be civilized by showing us what true evil looks like, and it illustrates through dramatization what happens to a society when people take Occupy-style calls for anarchy seriously.  The distaste that the hard left has for the film should be well-known, with some socialists even tellingly rooting for the movie's arch-villain, Bane.

With this firmly in mind, we should scrutinize attempts to connect the film to real-world violence.  As a backdrop, the famous director Peter Bogdanovich recently wondered if he had a part to play in the shooting by directing the 1968 movie Targets, which portrayed a sniper shooting teens in a drive-in movie theater.

The Washington Times ran a piece in the Opinion/Analysis section entitled "Hurt: An open letter to Christopher Nolan, Sean Penn and Warner Brothers," which characteristically summed up the pervasive sentiment that we Americans live in a "sick society" in large part due to violent movies (emphases mine):

Your celebrations of diabolical mayhem and pornographic violence prey on the fantasies of sick, fragile minds. You insulated them from the painful reality of bloodshed. You have inspired mass murder. You are the Osama bin Laden of this travesty.

This, of course, is all legal and has made you a fabulous fortune. But, never forget, this is who you are. It is what you do. This is your legacy.

When you die, your gravestones should read: Here lie men who created such horrific, meaningless violence in such realistic scenes that a sicko carried it out for real and shot 70 people, killing 12, including a 6-year-old girl.

As much as one can appreciate that emotions are running high following the Aurora massacre, the argument that violent movies cause such spree killings, and violence in general, needs to be debunked.  Major politicians like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have pointed to the Aurora shooting as a justification for tighter gun control laws, even suggesting that police officers around the nation go on strike until Americans relent.

There are a number of ways to expose as false the argument that (increasingly) violent movies are causing such spree killings.  The first is by making the very simple point that hundreds of millions of people worldwide are exposed to violent movies and do not engage in spree killings.  One cannot simply look at spree killers to see if they enjoyed violent movies to ascertain if the gory flicks are a determining or triggering factor.  That is an error in science known as "sampling on the dependent variable," which is akin to asking hard drug abusers if their first drug experience involved cigarettes or marijuana.  This doesn't prove that such chemical substances are "gateway drugs," because there are plenty who have used them and don't go on to use more illicit drugs.  A simpler way to expose this fallacy is by asking murderers if they've ever eaten broccoli.  Just because almost every known psychopath has eaten broccoli, that doesn't mean that broccoli is the cause of psychosis.

The second method is by looking at the public record of "rampage killings." One notes that they are worldwide in scope and include numerous events in nations that are poor electricity consumers, which is a proxy measure for mass media exposure. Although the above-cited list of rampage killings is not based on scientifically compiled data (which are sparse forthcoming as spree killings is an under-researched topic), the list shows without a doubt that spree killings happen in nearly every society on earth. In fact, Oceania and Asia are among the highest regions in the world for spree killings.

Also, if we look at the time factor, famous spree killings go back to 1913, before the dominance of mass media.  We can also contextualize these spree killings within a broader setting of total violent crime.  As such, it might surprise many that total violent crime statistics have gone down nearly 66% since 1973, despite the much-decried intensification of movie violence.  According to a recent FBI-based report, murder alone was down 8.1% between 2008 and 2009.  

Although spree killings may be up marginally, these observations deflate the "sick society" claim that America's entertainment media are inciting more violence and murder, including rampage killings.  And since we are talking about a planet of 7 billion people, a marginal rise in spree killings to at least twenty major events per decade is nothing for people to be overly panicked about.

The causes of rampage killings are more psychological in nature than sociological.  But we can rule out many psychological causes by scratching off significant factors from the composite list.  The largest known scientific study on rampage killings published at the time, as reported by The New York Times, shows that rampage killers "are not drunk or high on drugs. They are not racists or Satanists, or addicted to violent video games, movies or music" (emphasis mine).

The study, conducted in the year 2000, examined 100 cases, including the Columbine massacre.  Among the findings:

While the killings have caused many people to point to the violent aspects of the culture, a closer look shows little evidence that video games, movies or television encouraged many of the attacks. In only 6 of the 100 cases did the killers have a known interest in violent video games. Seven other killers showed an interest in violent movies.

A dominant theme in rampage killings is that of workplace violence, not movie recreation fantasies.  A 2011 New York Police Department study shows that in 41% of spree killings examined, the killer had a professional relationship with the victims.  This implies that the motives for the killings more likely revolve around personal and professional revenge than are movie-related.  The motives for rampage killings are certainly not "Tea Party"-related, as Brian Ross surmised they might be in the case of the Aurora shooting.

Despite the well-known public disutility of gun control policies, the Aurora tragedy has occasioned calls to clamp down on guns.  In one peer-reviewed scientific study entitled "Multiple Victim Public Shootings" conducted by John Lott, Jr., the author characterizes such killers as "highly unusual" before pointing out the following:

Using data that extends until 1999 and includes the recent public school shootings, our results are surprising and dramatic. While arrest or conviction rates and the death penalty reduce "normal" murder rates and these attacks lead to new calls from more gun control, our results find that the only policy factor to have a consistently significant influence on multiple victim public shootings is the passage of concealed handgun laws.

Indeed, in a book co-authored by Lott and Bill Landes entitled More Guns, Less Crime, the astonishing fact is pointed out that "states that allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns enjoy a 60 percent decrease in multiple-victim public shootings and a 78 percent decrease in victims per attack."  And as AWR Hawkins has pointed out, 24 out of 25 gun uses are for self-defense, and not for violent crime.

Therefore, the idea that citizens deprived of guns would have helped prevent the Aurora shooting should be flipped on its head -- to wit, an armed civilian may have helped to halt it.

In summary, cross-country comparisons, historical examination, scientific studies, and police reports show that there is no credible evidence to support the belief that violent Hollywood movies are inciting an increase in rampage killings, in addition to mass murder, murder of any kind, or violent crimes in general.

The brutal murder of twelve innocent movie-goers and the injury of dozens more by James Holmes at an Aurora, Colorado theater screening of The Dark Knight Rises has unleashed a torrent of public anguish and a number of admirable attempts to make sense of the senseless.  But let's base our conclusions on facts and not fantasy.  In short, violent films should not be blamed for the tragic event.

The Dark Knight Rises is not an incitement to mindless acts of violence; on the contrary, it is a call for us to be civilized by showing us what true evil looks like, and it illustrates through dramatization what happens to a society when people take Occupy-style calls for anarchy seriously.  The distaste that the hard left has for the film should be well-known, with some socialists even tellingly rooting for the movie's arch-villain, Bane.

With this firmly in mind, we should scrutinize attempts to connect the film to real-world violence.  As a backdrop, the famous director Peter Bogdanovich recently wondered if he had a part to play in the shooting by directing the 1968 movie Targets, which portrayed a sniper shooting teens in a drive-in movie theater.

The Washington Times ran a piece in the Opinion/Analysis section entitled "Hurt: An open letter to Christopher Nolan, Sean Penn and Warner Brothers," which characteristically summed up the pervasive sentiment that we Americans live in a "sick society" in large part due to violent movies (emphases mine):

Your celebrations of diabolical mayhem and pornographic violence prey on the fantasies of sick, fragile minds. You insulated them from the painful reality of bloodshed. You have inspired mass murder. You are the Osama bin Laden of this travesty.

This, of course, is all legal and has made you a fabulous fortune. But, never forget, this is who you are. It is what you do. This is your legacy.

When you die, your gravestones should read: Here lie men who created such horrific, meaningless violence in such realistic scenes that a sicko carried it out for real and shot 70 people, killing 12, including a 6-year-old girl.

As much as one can appreciate that emotions are running high following the Aurora massacre, the argument that violent movies cause such spree killings, and violence in general, needs to be debunked.  Major politicians like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have pointed to the Aurora shooting as a justification for tighter gun control laws, even suggesting that police officers around the nation go on strike until Americans relent.

There are a number of ways to expose as false the argument that (increasingly) violent movies are causing such spree killings.  The first is by making the very simple point that hundreds of millions of people worldwide are exposed to violent movies and do not engage in spree killings.  One cannot simply look at spree killers to see if they enjoyed violent movies to ascertain if the gory flicks are a determining or triggering factor.  That is an error in science known as "sampling on the dependent variable," which is akin to asking hard drug abusers if their first drug experience involved cigarettes or marijuana.  This doesn't prove that such chemical substances are "gateway drugs," because there are plenty who have used them and don't go on to use more illicit drugs.  A simpler way to expose this fallacy is by asking murderers if they've ever eaten broccoli.  Just because almost every known psychopath has eaten broccoli, that doesn't mean that broccoli is the cause of psychosis.

The second method is by looking at the public record of "rampage killings." One notes that they are worldwide in scope and include numerous events in nations that are poor electricity consumers, which is a proxy measure for mass media exposure. Although the above-cited list of rampage killings is not based on scientifically compiled data (which are sparse forthcoming as spree killings is an under-researched topic), the list shows without a doubt that spree killings happen in nearly every society on earth. In fact, Oceania and Asia are among the highest regions in the world for spree killings.

Also, if we look at the time factor, famous spree killings go back to 1913, before the dominance of mass media.  We can also contextualize these spree killings within a broader setting of total violent crime.  As such, it might surprise many that total violent crime statistics have gone down nearly 66% since 1973, despite the much-decried intensification of movie violence.  According to a recent FBI-based report, murder alone was down 8.1% between 2008 and 2009.  

Although spree killings may be up marginally, these observations deflate the "sick society" claim that America's entertainment media are inciting more violence and murder, including rampage killings.  And since we are talking about a planet of 7 billion people, a marginal rise in spree killings to at least twenty major events per decade is nothing for people to be overly panicked about.

The causes of rampage killings are more psychological in nature than sociological.  But we can rule out many psychological causes by scratching off significant factors from the composite list.  The largest known scientific study on rampage killings published at the time, as reported by The New York Times, shows that rampage killers "are not drunk or high on drugs. They are not racists or Satanists, or addicted to violent video games, movies or music" (emphasis mine).

The study, conducted in the year 2000, examined 100 cases, including the Columbine massacre.  Among the findings:

While the killings have caused many people to point to the violent aspects of the culture, a closer look shows little evidence that video games, movies or television encouraged many of the attacks. In only 6 of the 100 cases did the killers have a known interest in violent video games. Seven other killers showed an interest in violent movies.

A dominant theme in rampage killings is that of workplace violence, not movie recreation fantasies.  A 2011 New York Police Department study shows that in 41% of spree killings examined, the killer had a professional relationship with the victims.  This implies that the motives for the killings more likely revolve around personal and professional revenge than are movie-related.  The motives for rampage killings are certainly not "Tea Party"-related, as Brian Ross surmised they might be in the case of the Aurora shooting.

Despite the well-known public disutility of gun control policies, the Aurora tragedy has occasioned calls to clamp down on guns.  In one peer-reviewed scientific study entitled "Multiple Victim Public Shootings" conducted by John Lott, Jr., the author characterizes such killers as "highly unusual" before pointing out the following:

Using data that extends until 1999 and includes the recent public school shootings, our results are surprising and dramatic. While arrest or conviction rates and the death penalty reduce "normal" murder rates and these attacks lead to new calls from more gun control, our results find that the only policy factor to have a consistently significant influence on multiple victim public shootings is the passage of concealed handgun laws.

Indeed, in a book co-authored by Lott and Bill Landes entitled More Guns, Less Crime, the astonishing fact is pointed out that "states that allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed handguns enjoy a 60 percent decrease in multiple-victim public shootings and a 78 percent decrease in victims per attack."  And as AWR Hawkins has pointed out, 24 out of 25 gun uses are for self-defense, and not for violent crime.

Therefore, the idea that citizens deprived of guns would have helped prevent the Aurora shooting should be flipped on its head -- to wit, an armed civilian may have helped to halt it.

In summary, cross-country comparisons, historical examination, scientific studies, and police reports show that there is no credible evidence to support the belief that violent Hollywood movies are inciting an increase in rampage killings, in addition to mass murder, murder of any kind, or violent crimes in general.