In the first post in this series, I discussed what it means to say that one thing causes another thing. It is not necessary to read that post in order to understand this one, but it may help you with some of the terminology I use in this post. You can read the first post here.
While reading this post, keep in mind that it is indeed possible to address the problem of gun violence in the U.S., but to do this, we can’t just guess at its causes based on our own common sense (which may or may not be reasonable) or based on our biases or faulty thinking patterns (see the discussion of the fallacy of false cause in the first part of this series mentioned above).
Rather, we must examine the evidence carefully and have a method for determining causality (see the Methods of Agreement and Difference discussed in the first post), and we must determine whether a possible cause is a strong or weak cause (see the discussion of necessary, sufficient, and contributing causes in the first post).
Let’s go ahead and examine some possible and proposed causes of gun violence.
Proposed Cause #1: People commit gun violence because they don’t have God in their lives.
Although I am a Christian, and my belief in God is a great source of strength for me, the argument for the link between “godlessness” and gun violence is an extremely poor causal argument.
If it was true that “godlessness”* directly causes gun violence, we should expect that the most godless countries are the most violent. This, however, is not the case. The top ten most peaceful countries in the world are not especially religious. Here they are: Iceland, New Zealand, Portugal, Austria, Denmark, Canada, Singapore, Slovenia, Japan, Czech Republic. In fact, not only are these countries not particularly religious, some of them have the highest concentration of atheists in the world. You can read more about this here).
On the flip side, some of the most violent countries in the world are known for being especially religious. You can read more about this here. For instance, many of the most statistically violent countries in the world are strongly Muslim. But before we jump to conclusions about Muslims and violence, it is important to note that Qatar, which rates very high on the list of the most peaceful countries in the world, is also Muslim.
In addition, the U.S. (which historically has been a Christian nation), has the second highest rate of deaths from gun violence in the world (it is right behind Brazil, which has had strong Catholic Christian influences.)** But before we jump to conclusions about the link between gun violence and Christianity, we should note that the many of the most peaceful countries in the world–like Portugal, Denmark, etc.—have strong Christian roots, and many people in the country are still practicing Christians. Not only that, some of the greatest and most influential historical advocates for non-violence, like George Fox and Martin Luther King Jr., were Christian.
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It is inaccurate to say that religion in itself causes violence, just like it is inaccurate to say that a lack of religious belief in itself causes violence.
In regards to the supposed link between “godlessness and violence”, it is important to note that while religious belief is indeed declining in the United States (you can read more about this here), general overall violence is also declining in the U.S.(you can read more about this here). And although we have seen an increase in high fatality mass shootings (you can read more about this here), the actual number of mass shootings is about the same as the 80’s and 90’s.
If there was a link between godlessness and violence, we should expect the U.S. to become more violent as religious faith declines. This, however, is not true, and it seems that the inverse is actually the case. (Once again, this does not suggest that there is a causal link between faith and violence.)
Some people will respond to such a criticism by saying, “Well, believing in God gives people hope and peace and love, and those kind of people don’t shoot other people.” A careful look at people who profess Christian faith and those who don’t will reveal that there are most certainly Christians who lack hope, peace, and love. There are also non-Christians who have these attributes in abundance.
These arguments are not intended to suggest that people should or should not believe in God. Rather, they are intended to point out what most of us already know: both believers and non-believers struggle with difficult feelings sometimes like depression, anxiety, hopelessness, and despair. (Check out the book of Ecclesiastes and some of the dark Psalms in the Bible if you doubt this.)
By the way, there are studies suggest that people who attend church regularly are happier. (This study from the Pew Research Center suggests this.) However, the study notes that these benefits come from people who participate in church regularly, not just who are affiliated with religion, which indicates that people likely feel happier when they are a part of a community and are engaged in positive social activities. This suggests that belonging and purpose may influence happiness more than religious belief. For instance, if someone believed in God but was not engaged in any kind of community, they would likely be less happy than someone plugged in to a meaningful community.
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We need to retire the extremely unreasonable claim that “godlessness causes gun violence.” There is no rigorous, methodical research that shows a strong (or even a weak) causal link between godlessness and violence. (You can read more about this here). Too often, this argument is made from prejudice, impulse, or from a desire to look moral and responsible while avoiding careful thought about the changes we need to make, individually and collectively, in our nation.
Proposed Cause #2: Mental illness cause gun violence.
Various people have suggested that mental illness causes gun violence. It is important to note that most mentally ill people never commit a violent act and that the majority of gun violence cases are not directly linked to mental illness (you can read more about this here).
While it is true that many of the school shooters have suffered trauma and perceived social rejection (you can read more about this here), this in itself does not constitute mental illness. There is an increasing need in schools for trauma-informed educational practice, as schools are seeing an increase in traumatized students, but note that suffering trauma is different from suffering from a mental illness, and most traumatized students never commit any type of crime either.
In addition, research suggests that the rate of mental illness is consistent around the world, but that most countries have dramatically lower rates of gun violence than the U.S. does. If mental illness was a major contributing cause to gun violence, we should see consistent rates of gun violence around the world. We do not see this. This suggests that mental illness is neither a sufficient nor a necessary cause for gun violence.
A recent statement by Mental Health America noted that “Violent ideation and mental illness are two different things” and “people with mental health conditions are only slightly more likely than anyone else to commit violence.” In addition, the statement noted that “95% to 97% of gun violence is not caused by mental illness.
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One recent study seems initially to contradict the idea that mental illness does not cause gun violence. This article details research done from 2005 to 2018 on communities that suffered mass shootings, and it found four characteristics that almost all the communities had in common. One of the characteristics was that almost all of the communities did not adequately address the mental health of its citizens and the mental health needs of the citizens in that community far outpaced the availability of mental health services.
At first this study seems to indicate that mental illness is indeed a major contributing cause of gun violence. It is important to note, however, that this study does not indicate that mental illness in itself is the problem. (Remember, the majority of people with mental illness never commit a crime.) Rather, it seems to indicate that the problem is people suffering from mental illness that live in communities with a lack of services and support for mental illness. This suggests that if we want to reduce gun violence, and if we believe that mental illness is at all connected to it, we need to make sure that we as a nation increase support for mental health services all across our country.
Mental health is incredibly important, and we need to do more to address rising mental health needs in U.S. We also definitely need to provide trauma and mental health support to schools and to communities nationwide, and doing this may prevent some acts of gun violence. However, we cannot use mental illness as a type of excuse ourselves from looking further into the issue of gun violence.
It appears that at best, untreated mental illness is sometimes a weak contributing cause to gun violence. There are stronger contributing factors we need to examine.
Proposed Cause #3: Violent Video Games
Recently people have suggested violent video games increase gun violence. Research does not support a strong link between violent video games and gun violence. Evidence does suggest that there is sometimes a link between violent video games and a slight and temporary increase in aggression (you can read more about this here), but this slight increase in aggression does not escalate into the levels of aggression needed to commit a mass shooting.
In fact, there is enough doubt about the link between playing violent video games and violence that when California tried to ban the sale of violent video games, the Supreme Court struck down this law and the conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “These studies have been rejected by every court to consider them, and with good reason: They do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively…They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.” (You can read more about this here.)
In seeming contradiction to these claims, the American Psychological Study has noted a link between violent video games and increased aggression. But once again, they note that there is a distinction between increased aggression and violence. (You can read more about this here.)
The distinction between aggression and violence becomes apparent when we remember (as I mentioned above) that most cultures have violent video games and have drastically lower rates of gun violence. This article has a helpful chart that notes the prevalence of video games and gun violence in different countries around the world.)
In addition, if violent video games were to blame for gun violence, we should have seen a dramatic increase in gun violence in the last few decades as video games have become prevalent and a major part of mainstream culture. However, the rate of gun violence has not increased. Rather, the number of high fatality mass shootings has. (This article discusses the issue.)
If there was indeed a link between violent video games and gun violence, we would expect there to be a great deal of gun violence in Japan and South Korean, two countries in which violent video games are prevalent, even more so than in the U.S. However, gun violence in these countries is extremely low. (You can read more about this here.) In fact, almost every country has violent video games, and the U.S. still has far more gun deaths than any other country but Brazil. (Weirdly enough, this article suggests that violent video games actually leads to a slight decrease in violence.)
Even so, a preoccupation with graphically violent entertainment is, generally speaking, not good for anyone, and such a preoccupation probably does little to increase emotional intelligence and compassion. It is important that we continue public discussions about why many teens and young adults become obsessed with violent entertainment.
In terms of reducing gun violence, however, violent video games are neither a necessary nor sufficient cause of gun violence, and it appears they may be a weak contributing cause***. (Please see double asterix note below for an update on this item.)
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You might also like these posts about thinking in general:
If you would like to learn more about how to think clearly and well, you might enjoy reading Everyday Debate, a book I wrote with Classical Academic Press to help people think, discuss, and debate (in normal everyday settings) effectively. While I wrote the book for middle and high school students, it is also a good introduction to critical thinking for college students and adults who wish to learn more about this topic. You can find the book at Classical Academic Press here or at Amazon here.
*I put the word “godlessness” in quotes because I think it is generally unwise for people to go around identifying who they think is godless or godly. The people who usually do this in the Bible are the pharisees, and usually its in parables where Jesus rebukes them for being prideful and spiritually blind.
**Since writing this post, I have discovered that there are different ways to determine how the U.S. rates in terms of gun violence in comparison to other countries. The picture can change whether one is measuring total deaths in a country or the ratio of deaths per person in the country. This article and this article explore some different ways of looking at this issue and also suggest that however one measures gun violence, violence in the U.S. is considerably higher than other wealthy, developed countries.
***Since writing this post, I have run across this study which suggests that violent video games increase violence temporarily in adults and increases it long term in some children who then act violently when they get older. The study does not address gun violence but does indeed suggest that violent video games pose a public health risk. The study also notes that violent video games are, at most, a contributing cause to violence in some children, as many people play violent video games and never act violently.
 As an example of this, many Buddhists are agnostic, but they are very peaceful. (Many people consider Buddhism more of a philosophy than a religion). This is because compassion, mindfulness, and non-violence are at the focus of Buddhist philosophy, and this focus helps relieve depression. You can read research about this here.
 I personally think the President is an amoral opportunist with poor impulse control who uses racist tropes to garner attention and votes. Had it benefited him politically and suited his mood to rhapsodize about civil rights, I believe he would have just as easily done that. I have written more about the President’s amorality here.
 Some people may argue, “Well, crazy people will be violent no matter who is President.” Once again, we should note that the majority of mass shooters, including recent ones, are not insane or mentally ill. Almost all of the recent shooters are sane but angry white men, many of whom who express a hatred of immigrants and minorities and use language or express ideologies similar to the President’s. It is possible, even probable, given his power and the authority of his office that his reckless speech both empowers and emboldens people to act violently. Indeed, the research I mentioned above suggests this.