There were a lot of things that were ridiculous and offensive about yesterday’s hearings on gun control, from the Independent Women’s Forum Gayle Trotter’s articulation of a fantasy world in which women defend themselves with guns more often than they’re killed by them, to the National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre’s representation of himself as an advocate for individual gun owners rather than the giant companies that manufacture weapons. But for the most part, we were spared one of the more ridiculous features of our debates over gun violence, the sight of gun control opponents throwing out video games as a distraction like a moldy steak in a piranha tank. What the hearing did reveal, though, is that the people who tend to blame video games for violence have some of the same fantasies about using weapons in real life that make the abstracted violence in first-person shooters so attractive.
That’s not to say that video games were completely absent from yesterday’s hearing. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) took himself to MSNBC to declare that “I think video games is a bigger problem than guns because video games affect people. But the First Amendment limits what we can doing about video games.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) lamented “Where is the artistic value in shooting innocent victims?” And LaPierre, listing what he described as common-sense solutions to gun violence, included “Stop putting out violent video games that desensitize.”
But at the same time that they were lamenting the idea of young men sitting at home working themselves up to kill by playing video games, both witnesses and senators were engaging in some of the same fantasies of heroic deployment of guns against imaginary enemies. Trotter imagined a Mr. and Mrs. Smith-like fantasy of a housewife brandishing high-caliber weapons in defense of her family: “An assault weapon in the hands of a young woman defending her babies in her home becomes a defense weapon and the peace of mind that a woman has as she’s facing three, four, five violent attackers, intruders in her home with her children screaming in the background, the peace of mind that she has knowing that she has a scary looking gun gives her more courage when she’s fighting hard and violent criminals.”
LaPierre’s fantasies justifying gun ownership were more post-apocalyptic, including dreams of a national disaster or a sudden breakdown in government, scenarios Baltimore Police Chief Jim Johnson called “scary, creepy and just not based on logic.” But Sen. Lindsey Graham backed up LaPierre’s argument, saying that the risk that “You could find yourself in a lawless environment in this country,” like the 1992 Los Angeles riots, justified the continued legality of higher-capacity magazines. LaPierre and Graham may not have gotten idea of emerging as a hero when the world descends into chaos from media like AMC’s zombie show The Walking Dead, but their arguments for minimal gun regulation and the reason people enjoy watching Rick Grimes go from mild-mannered sheriff to zombie-killing badass are one and the same.
Maybe there’s a difference between pretending to shoot targets in Call of Duty and going to the firing range, feeling the recoil of a weapon, and learning to appreciate what Walter Kirn, in an essay for The New Republic, calls “the power over the power of the gun.” But if yesterday’s gun control hearing proved anything, it’s that you don’t need to pick up a console to fantasize about emerging a hero by using guns to kill people who you believe are victimizing you. And when it comes to setting policy, the fantasies of people like Gayle Trotter and Wayne LaPierre have far more impact in the real world in the form of things like Stand Your Ground laws than the dreams of people who pick up pixelated weapons and head off into battle.