VIOLENCE SEEMS to be embedded in our DNA. For as long as there have been human beings, there has been violence. Humans are adept at brutality. And for those of us who hope for an end to violence and believe in a God who desires that we beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, the ever-lengthening account of human slaughter and the ever-growing list of victims can be a temptation to despair.
The mass killing of first-graders and their teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, last December may represent a watershed moment in the public perception of violence and the search for solutions to the problem of mass shootings. But the problems of violence extend beyond mass killings like the one at Sandy Hook. In my city of Chicago, the murder rate is topping all past records, with most of the killing taking place in a small number of high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods. One recent victim was a young woman who had performed at Barack Obama's second inauguration.
As in the past, a great deal of attention is being paid to the idea that we are awash in a "culture of violence," which extends to every sphere of society, including the television shows we watch, the movies we view, the books we read and the games we play. The condemnation of violent culture is one theme that unites the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre and President Obama, who in a speech in the aftermath of Sandy Hook criticized "a culture that all too often glorifies violence."
The search for causes is understandable. But it is not at all clear that a "culture of violence" is responsible. Violence as a social phenomenon is far too complex to be traced to so amorphous a source or to any single set of causes.
There is no question that we are surrounded in popular media by depictions of violence, from The Walking Dead and the Call of Duty games to Quentin Tarantino's film Django Unchained. Nevertheless, we should be wary of attempting to extrapolate from that fact to the conclusion that the depiction of violence can be causally tied to the commission of actual violence. The data do not support the idea that the consumption of violent media leads to a greater propensity toward violence. If anything, they point in the opposite direction.
For example, the New York Times recently reported on one study that found a correlation between higher violent video game sales and lower rates of violent crime. In addition, violent media are popular in many other countries that exhibit far less violence than the United States does; if there were a connection between violent media and real-life violence, one would expect there to be a correlation in rates of violence across national boundaries--but there is not. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, factors such as poverty, drugs and involvement in crime are far better predictors of a propensity to actual violence than consumption of violent media.
Interestingly, despite our renewed focus on the problem of violence, it is not even clear that it is increasing, despite horrific acts like Sandy Hook. To the contrary, overall violence has declined in the United States over the past five years. Since 2010 it is down 3. …