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Niko from Grand Theft Auto IV

I’m a freelance games journalist. I write for some of the most progressive publications on the planet. I’m also a gun owner, supporter of the 2nd Amendment, and nominally inclined toward the National Rifle Association.

Strange, I know.

So when the NRA blamed the Newton, Connecticut tragedy on violent video games, it struck a raw nerve.


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“There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people,” NRA President Wayne LaPierre said in a December 21st statement.

“Through vicious, violent video games with names like ‘Bulletstorm,’ ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘Splatterhouse.’ And here’s one: it’s called ‘Kindergarten Killers.’ It’s been online for 10 years. How come my research department could find it and all of yours either couldn’t or didn’t want anyone to know you had found it?”

Those who associate make-believe violence with real-life violence (particularly the idea that video games make kids more proficient marksmen) don’t understand gaming, firearms, or both. Since the NRA – the preeminent defender of the 2nd Amendment – is sufficiently acquainted with firearms, I’d have to conclude that it knows jack shit about gaming.

I don’t question Lt Col Dave Grossman’s expertise in firearms and marksmanship. But when the former parachute infantryman and U.S. Army Ranger calls certain games “murder simulators,” I can’t help but think that he’s never played a first-person shooter (or any video game with guns).

Anyone who’s both shot a weapon and played a video game in the last 20-30 years can point out clear differences between the two activities. Proper marksmanship entails a variety of mechanical, psychological, and physical elements that video games cannot possibly simulate.

I straddle the fence between gun owner and gamer so these discrepancies seem readily obvious to me. For example, no FPS, no matter how meticulously researched and detailed, can possibly mimic the recoil of a real-life weapon (especially the heavier automatic weapons).

Weaver stance

Above: The Weaver shooting stance. You can observe it in movies or video games but can only learn it by picking up a real-life weapon.

I shot an M2 Browning .50 Caliber Machine Gun (“Ma Deuce”) from an enclosed Humvee turret once, and my ears were ringing afterward. No video game recreates the tactile response and visceral reality of firearms.

Playing Call of Duty won’t improve your sight picture, breathing, or hand placement. Medal of Honor won’t teach you the “weaver stance” or how to absorb the recoil of a .45 1911 pistol. Putting rounds downrange is the only way to become a more proficient shooter and learn the mechanical skills for handling a sidearm.

This is a very old argument. Any reasonable person — the key word being reasonable — can sense the innate difference between holding a virtual weapon and handling the wood and metal of a real-life firearm.

But few people can exhibit a basic level of familiarity with both video games and marksmanship. And every school shooting prompts calls for tighter regulation of our industry, and “violent video games” has become an all-too familiar refrain. U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has already passed a bill to direct the National Academy of Sciences to examine the link between violent video games and real-life violence. My guess? The study is inconclusive, finding no causal link between virtual entertainment and school shootings.

The Newton, Connecticut tragedy is symptomatic of many societal ills — ills that would more befit our tax dollars. Violent video games are not among them.

I’m not a member of the NRA. I support their mission but am generally adverse to large organizations. If I were, however, I would cancel my membership forthwith. Instead of launching a probe into the systematic failures that led to the Newton shootings or merely expressing their condolences, this influential lobbying group has cast aspersions on the least likely culprit.

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