One media commentator did provide an astute assessment of Thomas Hamilton
and the search for deeper meaning that his butchery provoked. "We
seem to think a monstrous effect must arise from a monstrous cause.
But not much evidence turned up to make the eruption possible,"
suggested Lance Morrow in an essay in Time magazine. To depict Hamilton’s
abominable act as a "pedophiliac-itch-gone-violent" was,
Morrow wrote, "inadequate, trivializing...almost sacrilegious
in its asymmetry." In point of fact no one knows why Thomas Hamilton
snapped. The headmaster at the school where the shooting occurred got
it right when he said, shortly after the slaughter, "We don’t
understand it and I don’t think we ever will."
Which is not to say that these deaths are inexplicable. Actually, four
causes of the bloodbath in Dunblane can readily be identified. That
the American news media barely managed to mention them is shameful.
They were at once the most proximate and the most verifiable factors
in the children’s death.
I refer to the two revolvers and two semiautomatic pistols Hamilton
used to carry out the carnage. Without his guns Hamilton never would
have been able to slay so many people. More rigorous enforcement of
Britain’s gun licensing laws unquestionably had been warranted
in Hamilton’s case. At the local gun clubs Hamilton had a reputation
for being unstable, and he was refused membership by one of the clubs
five weeks before the killings. And several years before the bloodbath
at the school, when a mother accused him of molesting some boys, Hamilton
reportedly threatened her with a gun.
Yet many American reporters brushed all this aside. "There were
demands for even tougher gun laws in a country where gun homicides are
about as common as water buffalo," Newsweek brusquely remarked.
"In the days after the bloodletting, there were the predictable
calls to toughen the country’s gun control laws even further,"
Some of the European press, however, got the point. An editorial in
the British newspaper the Daily Mail asked the question that by rights
should have been at the heart of all of the news media’s coverage
of the Dunblane massacre: "Why should any private individual be
legally allowed to own hand guns that can cause such carnage?"
Their answer: "Whatever gun club apologists and sporting enthusiasts
may say, there was nothing sporting about the caliber of the weapons
which Hamilton was licensed to hoard in his own home. These were not
small bore pistols for target practice. They were not suitable for shooting
game birds. They are the macho tools of the killer’s trade."
Some American reporters and editors have swallowed so much baloney
fed to them by the gun lobby they cough up explanations for gun deaths
that credit everything except guns. They even blame their own industry.
A columnist in Newsweek wrote of the Dunblane massacre, "Onanistic
solitude, lived out in a fantasy world ruled by terror and thrilled
by incessant gunfire, poses a lethal combination. Media moguls, enriched
by promoting these fantasies, deny any blame for society’s degradation.
They are only giving society what it demands, they say."
Blame It on the Tube
In other words, it is the guns on TV that cause people to die in real
life. Numerous American journalists, including some of the most intelligent
among them, have actively endorsed the dizzy proposition that television
creates "a reality of its own that may crowd out our real reality,"
as Daniel Schorr, a network news correspondent for twenty-nine years
before he moved to National Public Radio, put it. In an essay in the
Christian Science Monitor Schorr gave as a case example John Hinckley,
who "spent many hours alone in a room with a TV set, retreating
into a world of fantasy violence" before his attempted assassination
of President Ronald Reagan. Interviewed by the Secret Service after
the shooting, his first question was, "Is it on TV?" Schorr
also rehearsed familiar statistics about the average eighteen-year-old
having witnessed 200,000 acts of violence, including 40,000 murders,
on the tube. At these levels of exposure, Schorr contended, young people
"no longer know the difference between the bang-bang they grow
up with on the television screen and the bang-bang that snuffs out real
He may be right, but some of the historical antecedents of this line
of reasoning are worth noting. During the golden age of radio scholars
produced studies showing that listening impaired young people’s
capacity to distinguish reality from fantasy. And centuries earlier
Plato cautioned against those who would tell stories to youngsters.
"Children cannot distinguish between what is allegory and what
isn’t," says Socrates in Plato’s Republic, "and
opinions formed at that age are difficult to change."
That society survived both the radio and the scroll should be of some
reassurance. So should a recent study from UCLA’s Center for Communication
Policy, which carefully analyzed 3,000 hours of TV programming on the
major networks in the mid-1990s. The study found that a large proportion
of the most sinister and decontextualized acts of violence on TV appear
in cartoon shows such as "Batman and Robin" and on goofy
prime-time programs such as "America’s Funniest Home Videos,"
neither of which is likely to be confused with real life. By contrast,
some of the most homicidal shows, such as "NYPD Blue" and
"Homicide," portrayed violence as horribly painful and destructive
and not to be treated lightly.
In a discerning op-ed piece in the New York Times author Patrick Cooke
made a parallel observation: If young Americans have seen tens of thousands
of murders on TV, surely, he commented, they have seen even more acts
of kindness. On sitcoms, romantic comedies, movies of the week, soaps,
medical dramas, and even on police shows, people are constantly falling
in love and helping each other out. The characters on most prime-time
shows "share so much peace, tolerance and understanding that you
might even call it gratuitous harmony," Cooke observes. Why not
conclude, he asks, that TV encourages niceness at least as much as it
Yet social scientists who study relationships between TV violence and
real-world violence, and whose research journalists, politicians, and
activists cite in fear mongering about crime on TV, do not make niceness
one of their outcome measures. They also neglect to pursue some important
Some of the most seemingly persuasive studies relate what people watched
as children to how aggressive or violent they are as adults. A heavy
diet of TV brutality early in life correlates with violent behavior
later on, the researchers demonstrate. Whether these correlations truly
prove that TV violence provokes actual violence has been questioned,
however, by social scientists who propose as a counterhypothesis that
people already predisposed to violence are particularly attracted to
violent TV programs. Equally important, when researchers outside the
United States try to replicate these studies they come up empty-handed.
Researchers in several countries find no relationship between adults’
levels of violence and the amount of TV violence they watched as kids.
One widely quoted researcher who has made cross-national comparisons
is Brandon Centerwall, a professor of psychiatry at the University of
Washington, who has estimated that there would be 10,000 fewer murders
each year in the United States and 700,000 fewer assaults had TV never
been invented. Centerwall based these numbers on an analysis of crime
rates before and after the introduction of television in particular
towns in Canada and South Africa. But what about present-time comparisons?
David Horowitz, head of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture,
a conservative advocacy organization, correctly points out that viewers
in Detroit, Michigan, see the same TV shows as viewers in Windsor, Ontario,
just across the river. Yet the murder rate in Detroit has been thirty
times that in Windsor.
TV shows do not kill or maim people. Guns do. It is the unregulated
possession of guns, more than any other factor, that accounts for the
disparity in fatality rates from violent crime in the United States
compared to most of the world. The inadequate control of guns often
accounts for the loss of life in dramatic crime incidents outside the
United States as well-the massacre in Dunblane, Scotland, being
a case in point. A difference between there and here, however, is that
they accept the point and act on it. After the Dunblane tragedy the
House of Commons strengthened Britain’s already ardent gun laws
by outlawing all handguns larger than .22 caliber.