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Why Kids Who Find Unattended Guns Often Pull The Trigger

Scientists suspect that gun violence in movies may play a role.

Kids who watch movies with guns will play with real guns longer and pull the trigger more often than children who watch those same violent movies but with the guns edited out, according to a new study. The findings are not just a warning to gun owners, but to any parent whose children may come across poorly secured guns, perhaps at a friend’s house. And it’s not enough to talk about firearm safety, the authors say. Conversations about the media your children are consuming are crucial.

“The rates of accidental shootings, injuries, and deaths that involve children, and the knowledge we have about increasing violence in media children access suggested this was very important,” study coauthor Kelly P. Dillon of Wittenberg University told Fatherly. “Previous research has begged researchers to ask and answer this question.”

Children in America are 10 times more likely than children in any other developed country to die by unintentional gun shooting, and researchers are determined to figure out why. Prior studies suggest that several factors may be at play. First of all, studies suggest kids are drawn to what they see on the silver screen, and several projects have linked smoking and alcohol in movies to similar vices in children. Second of all, the gun violence depicted in movies geared toward children under the age of 14 has nearly doubled since 1985. Third of all, 60 percent of U.S. households with guns do not secure them. In other words, experts suspect that kids are dying because they, too often, have access to weapons that let them play out their movie fantasies.

kid seeing gun violence on tv

But connecting all of those dots in a single study has proven challenging. So Dillon and her team randomly selected 104 children and had them watch one of two 20-minute clips of The Rocketeer and National Treasure. One clip was unaltered, while the other clip contained all of the action but without any images of guns. After watching, kids were taken into a room with a cabinet full of toys, with one drawer containing a real 0.38-caliber handgun that had been disabled. (A local Chief of Police inspected the gun before the study, just to make sure). They were then left alone for 20 minutes to play.

“It was an incredibly difficult study to conduct,” study co-author Brad J. Bushman of Ohio State University told Fatherly.

Eighty three percent of the children found the gun, but only 27 percent gave the gun to the research assistant or told them about it. Nearly half of the kids chose to play with the gun. And while the type of movie clip did not influence whether a child handled the gun, those who saw movie clips containing guns held on to them longer and pulled the trigger more often.

The findings, though alarming, come with caveats — one being that participants tended to be from suburban homes and had not had previous exposure to firearms. Dimitri A. Christakis of Seattle Children’s Hospital, who was not involved in the study, raised several issues with the research in an article about the work. His main contention is that, even if this study and others confirm that media violence plays a role in piquing children’s interest in playing with guns, going to war against Hollywood action films is a lost cause. “Decrying media violence is not new and has not proven to be effective. There is simply too much of it and it is not going away,” Christakis wrote. “Guns, children, and violent screen media will continue to coexist.”

kid playing with machine toy gun

Dillon and Bushman’s recommendations are arguably more reasonable than removing guns from movies completely. The Motion Picture Association of America, for one, could provide better disclaimers for parents. “There are warnings for alcohol use and tobacco use,” Bushman says. “There should be a warning for gun use.” And for Dillon, whose children actually helped her test out the methodology before she began recruiting participants, the study serves to reiterate how important it is for parents to screen media before letting kids watch unattended — and have conversations about what they’re consuming.

“Even though they’re young, they understand that their parents are always looking out for them,” she says. “Watching my child pick up a found gun and pull its trigger was sobering, shocking, and lead to very important conversations.”