Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Brandishing Guns in American Media: Two Studies Examining How Often and in What Context Firearms Appear on Television and in Popular Video Games

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Brandishing Guns in American Media: Two Studies Examining How Often and in What Context Firearms Appear on Television and in Popular Video Games

Article excerpt

The purpose of this article is to determine the amount and context of gun violence across 2 electronic media. Study 1 focuses on the landscape of gun violence on television, including the number of high risk portrayals. Study 2 provides data on the attributes of gun violence in video games. Results for each study are reported in terms of amount per medium and context of portrayals. Finally, differences between televised gun violence and video game gun violence are reported to illustrate how each medium may contribute to problematic behavior.


In the United States, the amount of violence involving juveniles is troubling. Based on the Child Trends Data Bank (n.d., [paragraph] 2), the second leading cause of death for 15-to 19-year olds is homicide. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2004, [paragraph]4), over three fourths of homicides involving 10- to 24-year olds involved a firearm in 2001. Given these alarming trends as well as recent schoolyard shootings, parents and policy makers have been pleading for tougher gun control laws in this country. As President Clinton stated in 2000, "When first-graders shoot first graders, it's time for Congress to do what's right for America's families" (Cannon, 2000, p. 39).

Research reveals that a host of individual, environmental, and sociological factors contribute to violent behavior among children and adolescents (Surgeon General's Report, 2001). Accessibility of guns is one part of the youth violence problem. Studies show that gang involvement (U.S. Department of Justice, 2000), use of drugs (U.S. Department of Justice, 2000), and social deviancy (Callahan & Rivara, 1992) are just a few variables that increase the likelihood of a young person carrying a firearm.

Another factor that the popular press (Murphy, 2002; Woodruff & Schneider, 1999) often implicates as a contributor to violent behavior is the mass media. Actions of gun slinging perpetrators such as Leonardo DiCaprio in Basketball Diaries or Keanu Reeves in The Matrix have been incriminated in a few of the recent school shootings (Cowley et al., 1998; Ingrassia, 2003). Children's cartoons often feature aggressive perpetrators engaging in glamorized gunfire. For example, it is very common in Looney Tunes cartoons to have a hunting scene where Elmer Fudd attempts to shoot and kill Daffy Duck. Characters being shot at point blank range with large guns often appear to only temporarily have their beaks blown off or their faces blackened. Such fantastic depictions seem relatively benign in comparison to what is contained in violent shooter video games such as Duke Nukem or Wolfenstein.

What impact does exposure to such media depictions of guns have on the audience? For obvious ethical reasons, there is no experimental research on the impact of viewing mediated portrayals of firearms on gun-related behavior. Empirical evidence does show, however, that exposure to guns can influence aggressive responding. In one of the earliest weapons effect studies, Berkowitz and LePage (1967) exposed angered and nonangered subjects to guns or neutral objects in the natural environment (on a table) and then gave them the opportunity to aggress. Angered subjects exposed to guns (i.e., rifle, revolver) gave significantly more electric shocks than did those angered subjects exposed to neutral objects. Similar effects have been obtained by other scholars in the laboratory with male high school students (Frodi, 1975).

One commonality across these studies was that the manipulation involved subjects seeing actual firearms in their immediate surroundings. Mediated portrayals of guns also seem to evidence the weapons effect (Page, 1976; as cited in, Turner, Simons, Berkowitz, & Frodi, 1977, p. 359). Leyens and Parke (1975) found that insulted subjects were significantly more aggressive after exposure to slides featuring a revolver than equally interesting slides depicting other objects (i. …

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