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The NRA’s new president blames video games, and he helped make one

Just another line of dishonesty from the gun seller’s playbook

National Rifle Association Holds Its Annual Conference In Dallas, Texas Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

To no one’s surprise, the new president of the National Rifle Association blamed pop culture for the mass shooting in Santa Fe, Texas that killed 10. But, interestingly, the NRA’s president is the same man who was hired to advise on and promote a Call of Duty game that’s among the biggest sellers in video gaming’s biggest-selling franchise.

Oliver North, a hero of conservatives for facilitating the sale of weapons to Iran more than 30 years ago, was a spokesman and advisor for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, an M-rated game that a lot of 17-year-olds cut school to buy and play on the Tuesday it launched in 2012.

Below is a video of North talking about that experience in 2012.

North in 2018: “Nearly all of these perpetrators are male and they are young teenagers in most cases. And they have come through a culture where violence is commonplace.”

OK. Here’s North in 2012: “There are more people playing those things at any one time than all of the other entertainment media you’d ever want to see around the world.”

I don’t doubt North’s sincerity that it was interesting and creatively fulfilling for him to advise on a video game. But it figures to me that such an intimate exposure to marketing a blockbuster video game would at least recuse him from making this tired and discredited talking point about America’s problems with gun violence.

Call of Duty is a great video game franchise and a great pop culture icon. It’s also about shooting people and getting shot. Repeatedly. If North believes that perpetrators of gun violence grew up in a culture of violence, he also has to understand that he himself profited from one of the most popular examples of violent pop culture.

On the other hand, statistics that show a decline in violent crime over the past three decades can also be made to suggest that the proliferation of video games like Call of Duty help dissipate adolescent anger and violent fantasies before they manifest in real life.

I don’t know. My postulation might be half-assed. But it’s just as valid as all of the let’s-blame-movies or let’s-blame-games moral panics cooked up when people want to avoid the real problem. Either way, it’s interesting to me that this concern for violent culture comes from someone who was so interested in putting live-combat authenticity into a video game that sold more than $500 million in its first week. Maybe if he steps down as the NRA president and is paid to market another video game, he’ll like them again.

But what’s really bothering people isn’t actually the thing being talked about, as is so often the case. The National Rifle Association isn’t really concerned with the culture of America. Its concern is to sell weapons, and like North said when he was in the National Security Council in 1986, it does not matter to whom.

The NRA is a business lobby, just like the Entertainment Software Association, whose members will maybe once again grace a White House luncheon with its presence and pretend like all this talk about violent culture means anything.

The idea that video games and other works of mass media could be more responsible for gun death than the actual sale of firearms is a national joke that no one, even the people who repeat the claims, actually believes. But it’s a good way to shift the conversation away from the guns themselves.

A genuine concern for the public health would consider the overflowing availability of firearms in sporting goods stores, big-box supermarkets and other walks of daily life as potential reasons for gun violence. It would consider the idea that certain types of weapons and improvements to them might not have a practical application for hunting or self-defense in real-world situations. It would consider that weapons meant for sporting purposes and personal defense should be transacted in a controlled way with serious people who can establish and maintain a record of responsible ownership.

But those concepts could reduce gun sales, rather than improve them. So they will never be discussed in a meaningful way as long as the NRA remains as powerful as it is today.

In the days before school shootings were routine, and thank God I came of age then and not now, the nation was concerned about issues like drunk driving and traffic fatalities. That led to legislation — federally enforced, under the penalty of withholding transportation money from states — about matters like the minimum drinking age and what kind of seatbelts are installed in cars.

Lawmakers and lobbyists didn’t blame exploitation movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or video games like Outrun for highway deaths — whose toll was once counted daily on the pages of newspapers. The result of this national concern was fewer deaths on the road, and safer driving conditions for everyone. The conversation about these issues, or the issue of drivers licenses and mandatory insurance for those who drive, rarely touch on the idea of government overreach. Yet somehow guns are never treated the same way.

The NRA argues its constitutionally protected interest dishonestly. That dishonesty is now embodied by Oliver North, a man who made money from helping to create a violent game and now denouncing violent games. A man whose morals seem to be dictated by whoever is signing his checks that month.

If the shameful, violent culture he complains about exists, it’s what makes the NRA’s biggest members the most money. He should want more violence, because the NRA makes money from selling guns to people who buy guns to save themselves from other people with guns. The NRA defends one of those rare products that claims to solve the problems it also creates.

Come to think of it, maybe it is a consistent position that the president of the National Rifle Association was once the celebrity advisor for Call of Duty. One is selling the fantasy of violence, and the other sells the reality of it. Both positions allow him to deliver the lurid gun fantasy that the NRA fights for, not against.