Blaming games after Sandy Hook shooting was example of "moral panic" argues professor

Stetson psychology professor Chris Ferguson says shooter's gaming habits were largely overblown.

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After the horrific massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, many politicians and pundits blamed video games for the atrocity. But the widespread condemnation of video games is really just an example of "moral panic," as the shooter's gaming habits were largely overblown, Stetson University psychology professor Chris Ferguson argues in a new opinion piece at The Hartford Courant.

Image credit: Don Emmert for Getty
Image credit: Don Emmert for Getty

Ferguson reminds readers that following the schoolhouse shooting, rumors spread that the 20-year-old shooter was obsessed with violent video games, despite little evidence to prove that he had any such proclivity for these games. One report even pegged the shooter as a "deranged gamer" seeking to win "points" by killing as many as possible on that day in 2012.

A summary of the official police investigation of the Sandy Hook shooting was released in November, and though it showed that the shooter played many games, including Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, his biggest interest was in non-violent titles like Dance Dance Revolution. Ferguson said the shooter's gaming habits were "unremarkable" for a 20-year-old.

Just last month, Connecticut state police released thousands of pages of documents pertaining to its investigation. Ferguson said he found little in these documents to challenge the initial report, including testimony from one officer who instructed families not too give too much credence to the theories surrounding the shooter's gaming habits.

Overall, Ferguson writes that nowhere in the official investigation report are video games linked to the shooting, nor is it mentioned that the shooter was "obsessed" or "enthralled" with video games. The documents, Ferguson writes, also never mention that the shooter used games as a training system for the shooting.

Also in his editorial, Ferguson calls out the various political initiatives undertaken following the shooting, including Southington Conn.'s failed attempt to collect and destroy video games, as well as the various bills before Congress that aim to study violent video games.

"The condemnation of violent video games following the Newtown shooting is a classic example of a moral panic," Ferguson said. "Politicians put pressure on the social science community to produce certain types of research results, based on an erroneous assumption. The news media churned out headlines that followed suit. Most of the debate over video games went forward without waiting to see how much the shooter had in fact played them."

"Newtown was an opportunity for moral crusaders to harrumph over violent video games as they did over rock music in the 1980s and comic books in the 1950s," he added.

By focusing squarely and "uselessly" on violent video games, we become distracted from the real issues, like addressing mental illness, Ferguson said.

"During the past 20 years in which video games have soared in popularity, youth violence has dropped by almost 90 percent," he said. "We would do well to remember this, concentrate on more pressing matters such as poverty, and forgo discussion of cultural issues, if we are really serious about crime."

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