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Kids Emulate Movie Characters Who Use Guns

A new study finds exposing kids to movies featuring gun violence can have dangerous consequences.
A scene from National Treasure.

A scene from National Treasure.

Want to create a society in which a shocking number of children die from gun violence? Here's a simple recipe: Expose kids to countless images of adults shooting one another to resolve their differences. Then make sure there are enough poorly secured firearms in circulation so that many have access to them.

Sad to say, that describes current-day America—a land where gun violence is an element of many purportedly family friendly movies, and firearms are carelessly stored in many homes. The journal JAMA Pediatrics calls this a "toxic mix," and that's not hyperbole: According to research released earlier this year, 7,100 children under the age of 18 are shot every year, and 1,300 of them die as a result.

Now, a new study in that journal provides evidence of the dangerous dynamic that puts so many kids' lives in jeopardy. It reports that children who found a strategically hidden firearm were far more likely to pull the trigger if they had just watched a clip from a movie that featured the firing of firearms.

"Children who see movie characters use guns are more likely to use guns themselves," conclude co-authors Kelly Dillon of Wittenberg University and Brad Bushman of the Ohio State University.

Their study featured 104 children between the ages of eight and 12—a mix of girls and boys of various ethnicities. Each participant was required to bring another child of a similar age—a relative or friend—resulting in 52 pairs of kids.

Each pair was randomly assigned to watch a 20-minute edited version of one of two PG-rated films: The Rocketeer or National Treasure. Half saw a version in which gun violence was edited out (while keeping the narrative intact); the others were exposed to scenes of characters using firearms.

Gun-control and gun-rights advocates can surely agree on the importance of keeping dangerous guns safely away from small hands.

Afterwards, each pair was taken to a different room and "told they could play with any of the toys and games" in a cabinet, including Lego bricks, nerf guns, and checkers.

"One of the cabinet drawers contained a real .38-caliber handgun that was modified so that it could not fire," the researchers report. "The magazine held infrared wiring to count the number of times the trigger was pulled with sufficient force to discharge the gun."

More than 80 percent of the pairs—43 out of 52—found the gun, and, for 22 pairs, either one or both children played with the weapon. Kids who had seen the movie clip containing guns spent an average of 53 seconds holding it, and "fired" the weapon an average of 2.8 times.

In contrast, those who saw the non-violent version held it for an average of 11 seconds and few pulled the trigger; the average was 0.01 pulls.

Analysis of eight randomly selected pairs of kids—four who saw the movie with gun action, and four without—found those in the former group were more aggressive in their style of play. One child pulled the trigger 26 times, while another did so 35 times; he also "threatened to hit his friend with the gun, and attempted to steal toys and games from the playroom," the researchers report.

They point out that "the movies we showed children were age-appropriate and not very graphic in terms of gun violence. The effects might be greater with newer films containing more gun violence." (Recent research found gun violence in PG-13 movies has more than tripled since the mid-1980s. The films screened for these kids were rated PG.)

In an accompanying editorial, Dimitri Christakis and Frederick Rivera concede that reducing violence in films and video games, and restricting the sale of guns, are both non-starters in the current cultural environment. But they note there is a more focused fix for this problem.

"Prior studies have shown that safe storage of guns is associated with a 75 percent reduction in the risk of firearm suicide and unintentional shootings among youths," they note. "Intervention programs to increase the safe storage of firearms are effective, even in rural areas where hunting and using firearms are a regular part of the culture."

Perhaps a massive public-service campaign is in order. Gun-control and gun-rights advocates can surely agree on the importance of keeping dangerous guns safely away from small hands.