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Psychologists urge politicians to consider the role guns play in school shootings

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‘Obviously, weapon availability makes a difference’

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Speaks To Media After Visiting Students At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School
Secretary of education Betsy DeVos in Coral Springs, Florida, discussing her visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on March 7, 2018. DeVos was visiting the high school following the February 14 shooting that killed 17 people.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s Federal Commission on School Safety heard testimony this week from two psychologists. While they held differing opinions on how violence in entertainment impacts children, both were clear in recommending that the government take the time to consider the role that firearms play in school shootings.

It seems absurd on its face that a commission formed to study the epidemic of mass shootings in America’s schools should avoid the topic of guns. However, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who chairs the commission, has made it clear that this is her intent. Instead, her team, which includes Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, spent nearly three hours focusing on bullying, movies, video games and social media.

With regard to video games, the commission called on Dr. Rowell Huesmann from the University of Michigan and Dr. Christopher Ferguson from Stetson University. Huesmann argued that exposure to violence, both in real life and on the screen, creates “scripts” inside the minds of children that may later be acted upon. In his presentation, he referenced a body of research that dates all the way back to 1977, when he studied children’s opinions of the original Charlie’s Angels television program.

Ferguson countered Huesmann’s narrative, citing multiple recent studies that looked specifically at video games and their impact on modern youth. He pointed out that, while video games are consumed globally and in every other developed nation in the world, it is only the U.S. that is experiencing an epidemic of mass shootings inside schools.

Where both men seemed to agree was that profligate gun ownership in the U.S. is an anomaly that sets our nation apart from the rest of the world. The commission seemed uninterested in that notion and asked no follow-up questions along those lines.

At one point, Secretary DeVos stopped Huesmann mid-sentence during his comments about firearms, citing a lack of time. Polygon requested a written version of his speech, and has included the relevant portion below:

The availability of weapons for the youth exacerbates this situation in two ways. The mere sight of weapons primes violent scripts using weapons. But a violent script using weapons can only be executed if the youth has a weapon. A comparison of the frequency of types of violence in the United States and the United Kingdom is illuminating in this regard. Contrary to what many think, well done studies have shown that the risk of being violently victimized in the United Kingdom has been higher than in the United States for most years since about 1995. That is true for assault, robbery, rape, and many other violent crimes, but it is not true of homicide, of firearm assault, or school shootings. Obviously, weapon availability makes a difference.

Asked about the “well-done studies,” Huesmann directed Polygon to a study by the United States’ own Department of Justice; it’s currently available online in the U.K.

You can view the entire meeting of the Federal Commission on School Safety on YouTube.