Time for a deviation from gaming today, although only slightly. With Vice-President Joe Biden set to report to President Obama today, and the NRA seen to be officially endorsing a gun-range iOS game, I want to talk about something – is it really possible to expect America to change its gun attitude so suddenly?
I know America has a gun culture. But it wasn’t until I was talking to my old friend Leo, who now lives in San Francisco, how ingrained this culture is.
We were laughing about the recent NRA-Endorsed iOS App, NRA: Practice Range. This is interesting and we were laughing for two reasons; one, the app is “suitable for ages four and up”, and frankly that was enough on its own to send us into heaps of laughter. But the second thing is, last month the NRA publicly condemned video games. Like, on the news and everything. So it was suitable for a little bit of ripe piss-taking. But Leo sighed and said, “If only it were that easy.”
Confused, I asked why. “Because I have a handgun in my house.”
Taken aback, I asked why. Leo doesn’t ordinarily like guns, truth be told here in the UK we’re not nearly as fond of guns as other countries in spite of a rise in gun crime. “Because… the company told me to get one for insurance purposes. Insurers here can often give heavy discounts if they know there’s a gun in the property.”
Now, I did make a joke about that, something along the lines of “Isn’t that a bit like getting a discount off your car insurance by keeping a hand grenade in the glovebox?”, but in truth I suddenly realised that CSI, Law and Order and a bunch of other TV shows from the states make sense. People always seem to have a gun in their property. Is it because they like guns? Feel safe with guns? No, it’s because some people can lower their insurance premium by having one in the house. And this leads me into a real question – is it too late for the US to worry about gun culture when it’s already so deeply set into not just the culture, but the law – remember, insurance documents are still legal documents.
For all the mocking the gaming world is doing of the NRA-endorsed app, truth is the NRA probably don’t see the irony as crisp and as clear as we do. They will argue, as they have done, that it promotes gun safety and that it’s not intended for children, regardless of the self-appointed age rating. But it’s still ultimately a video game, with guns involving targets. The sort of thing they last month had a real beef with in terms of making us all, as gamers, savage violent Neanderthals. To so many, this is the epitome of hypocrisy, the blackest of jokes and a definition of irony to send Alanis Morrisette into a series of convulsions like she had just been possessed. But do I genuinely think the NRA has any idea what the rest of us find funny, or do I think a lot of people in the US will find it amusing? I doubt it. And this is not a British guy saying the Americans are stupid, I’ll leave that to comedy professionals thanks. I’m saying that culturally, that some may not see the joke because they don’t think there’s anything wrong with what they have done. If you don’t think you have done anything wrong, then your typical response to people mocking you is one of anger and annoyance. Which just makes it worse.
Now, you may be aware that last week, The Escapist allowed Jim Sterling to show footage in his episode of The Jimquisition, footage that still to this day makes people uncomfortable. It was the public suicide of R. Budd Dwyer, a man who had called a news conference only to pull a gun on himself in front of the gathered media and cameras. Accused of corruption and taking bribes, and knowing that the moment his position in the Pennsylvania as its State Treasurer was over he would be arrested and sent to prison, he began a conference with a statement before, eventually, taking an envelope and drawing out a gun. What followed then, on film, is a real suicide. There is no bang. There is no head popping, or gibbing. It’s the reality of suicide, and the reality of what guns do. What guns are built for. We’re not talking about horses here, where once their war use was over and the motorcar had taken over they could be used for recreational activity. These are machines whose design is to injure, to maim, to kill. I had never seen the R. Budd Dwyer footage. So I watched it.
I have no shame in admitting I spent two days not sleeping after it. To see what a real gunshot suicide is like, in film, really freaked me out.
I’ve watched someone die before – my grandparents, after all, slipped quietly away. But that was a peaceful, calm sort of passing. Death is something we are presented with at some point, and in both my grandparents cases, they slipped into comas a few days before they departed this mortal coil. I had time to say goodbye, to thank them, to be grateful for the time we had and the things they taught me. They were peaceful deaths. R. Budd Dwyer’s death was violent, and messy, and very public. That is what shocks us. We see people dying on the news every day, but when a horrendous massacre like Sandy Hook occurs, we are all mortified. We are conditioned to be horrified of certain things naturally – our brains can tell the difference. We know what to be horrified by, what to be disgusted by, what is and isn’t wrong and horrendous because we can tell the difference between a true tragedy and the slight conditioning we receive day after day in the newspapers and on news channels. “10 killed in road bomb in Iraq!” doesn’t seem to hurt much. “10 children killed as bus crashes off freeway!” does hurt however. The media knows how to play us as well, knows how to play down some tragedies so when a big one comes they can really go into overdrive, and get all righteous and mortified and all. And inevitably, as I’ve said before, they like to blame video games because it becomes a debate that fuels their news, gives them more headlines to go on about and people who do comics and video games can be dragged in in some sort of inquisition, thereby further driving an impassioned debate. This we know. We fall for it every time, but we know this.
The thing is, the debate is now about gun control. The NRA wants to believe that it can influence the world in thinking video games are bad because then they have some more power, but they just put their name to a video game so they are cheapened. There is no real evidence either way if games make people violent – anecdotal as it may be from some quarters, the majority of people who play games are healthy and well-adjusted adults looking for some stress release. You can’t really ignore that, nor that in these groups, violent crime has decreased. The facts don’t matter however because the NRA and its supporters still say that “This is not the time to talk about gun control!” – as if somehow, the aftermath of one of the most disturbing shootings in US history isn’t the time to talk about how and why someone so mentally ill could come to be in possession of such a weapon. It absolutely IS the time to talk about gun control, and yes, gun safety is part of it. People who have guns should, ideally, have some training and some understanding of how to use them, how to disarm them. But this still teaches someone the basics of how to use a gun. It only serves to inform those really set on using them, and no matter the controls, there will be times when one person slips through the cracks.
In an ideal world, guns would be illegal – but again, in the United States, guns are just there. When you can get a better deal on your home insurance by having one in the house, you know how deeply set the idea of guns are in the American consciousness. To change this will take decades, it will take time to deglamourise gun culture in movies, TV shows, music and games. It will take years to sort through the U.S. legal system and all its little quirks to make sure there are no loopholes left to own or shoot a gun. It will take a lot of effort and I don’t think right now, even after Sandy Hook, that America really wants to challenge its second amendment. It’s perfectly happy to see the first compromised to allow them to continue to benefit from the second, and that might sound scary but economically, it makes perfect sense. If you’re going to compromise on freedoms, then having a gun is the most logical thing. Because then you set up a system that will invariably and eventually corrupt itself, and that is ostensibly what the second amendment is for, no? Just in case there’s a corrupt government or state and you have to sort it out yourselves. And if not, as long as there are long-term benefits financially in owning one, you will own one. It will be normal to do so. Because why would you otherwise put up your premium?
This is where I think, especially as a Brit, I can’t sit in judgement. Because Leo was right, as she always is I find, that this is more complicated than simply saying guns are bad. Because we all know guns are bad really. We all know they are made to at least injure, if not designed to kill as efficiently as possible. We can all be horrified by gun crime, and unless you are a true sociopath, the R. Budd Dwyer footage will shock and repulse you. We know guns are bad. We really do. But in games, in movies, in music, in comic books, on the news and in TV shows, guns are prevalent in almost every corner. You cannot get away from guns, because the American culture for guns long ago seeped into the entertainment medium through Hollywood and Westerns, and now it’s just… well… normal. It’s a plot device, it’s how we do things. Whereas years ago it was swords, sorcery or just punching or jumping on things, now guns are inherently there. I show someone Streets of Rage nowadays and they wonder why there are no guns in it (there were in later ones, but I’m still a fan of the first!). Fictional guns are everywhere, but in the UK at least, gun ownership is still fairly minority. It’s the same in other parts of the world. And now I sort of understand why. We don’t have any real financial benefits for owning guns – farmers often have guns for pest control, but the average schmuck doesn’t see any real financial incentive in owning one. They’re expensive, you need to buy a licence and keep it updated and there’s no end-goal benefit for it.
So yes, we can laugh at the NRA app. And we can say how ironic it is. But they won’t see it. I think America is at the start of what can only be described as a long road, and gun control and gun safety and lots of other things will be at the heart of it. It’s clear that in a year where the world witnessed two horrific massacres – Sandy Hook and the Aurora shooting, aka The Batman Massacre – that something needs to be done. Mental health, gun control, the media and its depiction of violence and not just games but all media of all types, let’s be even handed in that and the realities of insurance, there are multiple layers to the discussion and Joe Biden cannot and should not be seeking to make a scapegoat of anyone, because it won’t actually help. There need to be proper procedures in place, a real plan to curb gun crime and to examine those who own guns – and I’m sure there are plenty who own guns as collectors and enjoy them aesthetically, but again, umm… paintings? I digress, it’s certainly a lot less simple than asking people to turn their guns in via a financially-motivated amnesty.
I’m sure some would get their old guns in for some extra cash. But they’ll still keep one or two.
Because hey, if they don’t, they’ll have to pay more insurance…