Last week, a boy in a small Louisiana town shot his 87 year-old grandmother in the back of the head as she watched television. The town was Slaughter, Louisiana. The woman’s name was Marie Smothers. The gun was a .38 caliber pistol she owned. Her grandson, whose identity has been withheld, is eight years old. Shootings like this are an all-too common tragedy, but it probably wouldn’t have been more than a local news story except that before shooting his grandmother, the boy was playing Grand Theft Auto IV.
Predictably, the media focused on games as the cause, as they often have before. The fact that these arguments make little sense when judged on their logical merit fell by the wayside. Normally in the games press, our instinct during a time like this is to bunker down, not fight back, comment on the story and wait until it blows over. I’m tired of doing that. I want to show you the arc of this media frenzy, from gunshot to closing, as a record of how the press jumps to conclusions and spins its own narrative in the vacuum following a tragedy.
Let’s Remember What Happened Here
As we discuss this case, I want you to remember that we’re talking about real people. Marie Smothers was a woman with four grandchildren who, according to her neighbors, enjoyed cooking. Neighbors would sometimes bring her groceries. Her family must now deal with her loss and sort through her belongings. I can’t imagine the anguish that her grandson feels, and will continue to feel, every day for the rest of his life. People won’t, on the whole, be able to understand the guilt and regret he will carry until he’s as old as the grandmother that was taken from him.
I am trying my best not to speculate on personal matters this case. There has been enough speculation already, from every talking head imaginable, and not enough understanding that at the center of it all is a family whose orbit has permanently changed.
The Child Should’ve Never Had Access to the Gun
This case turns on the child’s access to a loaded .38 revolver, not to Grand Theft Auto IV. Anyone who disputes that has something to gain by claiming otherwise, whether it’s viewership or support for a moral crusade. While I don’t like the idea of an 8 year-old paying Grand Theft Auto, it’s undeniable that the gun’s presence is what allowed this crime to occur. No matter what effect you believe games have on young children, without a loaded firearm there would’ve been no shooting.
Unsecured firearms should always be considered a danger to children, especially when they are kept loaded. This is doubly true for models like a .38 revolver that generally do not have a safety catch. Children should never, under any circumstances, be left unsupervised in the presence of firearms. In fact, 27 states have passed Child Access Protection (CAP) laws making it illegal to store a firearm in a place that children can reach them. Louisiana does not have CAP laws on the books, though its neighbors Mississippi and Texas do. In fact, had the event occurred in Texas Ms. Smothers would’ve committed a Class C misdemeanor by allowing her grandchild access to a readily dischargeable firearm, upgraded to a Class A misdemeanor because the child then used it to kill or injure another person. (In other words, most states in this instance would rule that the fault lay with the victim’s negligent firearm storage, not the child, and certainly not whatever videogame the child was playing beforehand.
This is not to put the blame on the shoulders of Ms. Smothers, or say she was a bad caregiver – from all we know, she was doing her best. It’s possible that the gun was tucked away in some corner of the trailer, perhaps even in a box, and that she had forgotten about it. It’s not uncommon for children to find forgotten guns that are still loaded, and sometimes it ends in tragedy.
But the Kid Probably Shouldn’t Have Had Access to GTA IV Either
In case you’re not aware, Grand Theft Auto IV is rated M for Mature, meaning you can’t purchase it if you’re under 17. That’s not an idle prohibition either. Videogames have the highest compliance rate for its rating system across all media, it’s much easier for kids to buy an R-rated movie or PAL CD than a game meant for adults.
Of course, retailers can’t do everything. Parents are ultimately responsible for the games their children play. Not only is Grand Theft Auto IV blatantly a game about car theft, but even glancing at the cover tells you it’s not a game for 8 year-olds. There are four men with guns on the front cover, plus a woman suggestively licking a lollipop. The rating box on the back says that the game contains “Blood, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Strong Language, Strong Sexual Content, and Use of Drugs and Alcohol.” Plus, anyone bothering to read the back cover would probably come to the conclusion that a story about an immigrant’s disillusion with the American dream isn’t a topic for kids. Basically, there’s no reason a child should’ve been playing GTA IV and no reason an adult would’ve mistaken it as age-appropriate.
Police: No Motive, No Details, Just GTA IV
Because the boy is under 10 years old, we cannot – and likely will not – ever know the exact circumstances behind the shooting. Because of the way juvenile cases go through the legal system, any court appearances are confidential and even the boy’s name was withheld. As a result, news reports in the aftermath of the shooting had very little to go on except a statement from police. As we’ll see, this proved a breeding ground for speculation.
East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Department didn’t release much information after the shooting, except that they believed it to be an intentional and that the suspect had played Grand Theft Auto IV mere minutes before shooting his grandmother in the back of the head. Originally the boy said that the gun discharged accidentally while he was playing with it, noted the Sheriffs, but after probing his story they decided to investigate the incident as a homicide.
However, the element the news media latched onto wasn’t the fact that a child had unimpeded access to a handgun, it was the presence of GTA. The Sheriff’s Department didn’t help matters, since it provided the following statement to the media: “Although a motive for the shooting is unknown at this time investigators have learned that the juvenile suspect was playing a video game on the Play Station III [sic] ‘Grand Theft Auto IV,’ a realistic game that has been associated with encouraging violence and awards points to players for killing people, just minutes before the homicide occurred.”
The Sheriff’s Department’s statement has a number of problems, not least that it misspells “PlayStation 3.” More troubling is the claim that GTA IV “has been associated with encouraging violence” and that it “awards points to players for killing people.” First of all, anyone who’s played Grand Theft Auto IV knows that the game doesn’t award “points” for anything, much less for killing people – it’s a myth that was created on talk shows and circulated until it was considered a fact. As for the game being “associated with encouraging violence,” there have been about a half-dozen killings and crimes that were supposedly “inspired” by the GTA series, but when you look closely, at least four cases distinctly look like blame-shifting attempts by either the suspects or defense attorneys, and the rest seem to involve severe mental illness. To date, no plea of insanity involving Grand Theft Auto has ever held up in court. To say the game is “associated” with violence is a weasel word – a way to suggest a link where a link has never been proven.
It is, frankly, a strange thing to tell the media, particularly in a case involving children. The statement seems calculated to be flashy and draw national attention to the case: We believe a boy killed his grandmother intentionally. We don’t have a motive and can’t release any details, except that the suspect was playing Grand Theft Auto IV. Never mind that neighbors said the boy and his grandmother seemed to have a “loving relationship” and slept in the same room. Never mind that the child was playing, unsupervised, with a loaded gun. The statement about GTA was like a dinner gong for the cable news networks.
Uninformed Reporting Twists the Story
On August 24th FoxNews.com picked up the story and ran with it. This early report had most of the relevant information, but misstated Ms. Smothers’s age as 90 rather than 87 (a mistake that would carry on in Fox News cable programming days later). However, the most problematic part was a quote from Kristopher Kaliebe, a child psychologist from LSU:
“From a behavior therapy perspective, I would say that’s practicing,” added Dr. Kaliebe, speaking about the incident. “So if you have a video game where someone shoots at a target, that’s sort of practicing shooting at a target. When you have a video game that is shooting at a human being, that is practicing shooting at a human being.”
It’s a good quote and seems to hit the nail on the head for the GTA-blamers, but it has a few issues. First, Dr. Kaliebe was working on incomplete, secondhand information. He did not examine the boy in question in a clinical setting, he simply made a comment on the information given – that a boy had shot his grandmother after playing Grand Theft Auto. In other words, it’s not necessarily an uninformed comment, but it’s based on severely limited information and assumes a link between the game and the shooting that hadn’t been conclusively established. (In Dr. Kaliebe’s defense, I would not be surprised if the full interview was loaded with caveats that were cut out.)
After that it was open season. CNN ran an article repeating a months old quote from Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper suggesting that mass-shooters think they’re living in a video game. Not only did Governor Hickenlooper give no supporting evidence for this claim, but the quote specifically related to the Sandy Hook shootings, an event that had absolutely no connection or resemblance to the current case except that Adam Lanza was known to play videogames (like most young men his age).
Of all the major outlets, only MSNBC seemed to give a voice for both sides, calling in two psychological experts who said that playing violent games could be a “risk factor” for violent behavior, but that access to guns, domestic problems, substance abuse, drinking alcohol and even being male were also risk factors, and cautioned trying to draw a causal link between violent media and shooting deaths. However, the article then went on to drag up the game-playing habits of past shooters, as if the Sandy Hook and Aurora shootings had any bearing on a small boy in Louisiana.
Cable news got wind of it shortly thereafter. Pundits lined up like carnival barkers as they always do, trying to have the most outrageous – and therefore memorable – opinion. A pundit on Fox & Friends claimed videogames are “worse than heroin,” and claimed that games “literally” drag players “into a place where people aren’t people, where you can shoot them and get points.” He also suggested that players having virtual pets would make a their flesh-and-blood pets seem less real. CNN had Criminologist and Attorney Casey Jordan, who suggested a direct correlation between playing the game and violence “cannot be overlooked,” but added that she couldn’t conclusively say that the game caused the boy to shoot. No major outlet contacted someone from the games press or a university to offer a counterpoint, and none felt obligated to wait for more evidence. There was little suggestion that having loaded guns lying around was the main problem.
The only press outlet interested on how the shooting affected Ms. Smothers’s family and community was the local paper, The Advocate, which handled the issue with more humanity than all the national outlets combined.
On August 27th, a judge released the boy to his parents without charging him with any crime. He wasn’t a psychopath trained to kill via virtual reality. He didn’t hate his grandmother and never meant to kill her. In fact, he thought the gun was a toy.
“He doesn’t know that if you point a gun at somebody, it kills them and they’re gone forever,” said District Attorney Samuel D’Aquilla. “It’s not because he is a cold-blooded killer and he did this to kill his grandmother.” In fact, D’Aquilla added, the kid is “really shaken up.”
“Whether you can link it back to Grand Theft Auto, I don’t know,” D’Aquilla continued. “In my mind, I would say it’s something the kids don’t need to be seeing because it distorts reality.”
In other words, the boy was playing a game that had guns in it. Then when he stopped playing the game, he found a real gun that he thought was a toy, pointed it at his grandmother and pulled the trigger. Grand Theft Auto IV didn’t turn him into a mindless killer without empathy. It didn’t drag him into a virtual reality world that was “worse than heroin” or make him “intentionally” shoot his grandmother like the Sheriffs claimed. While it’s true he might’ve been modeling his behavior on Niko Bellic, his intention wasn’t to cause harm. He was just a kid, practicing imaginary play like so many kids do, not realizing that he did so with a real weapon. Would he have picked up the gun and played with it had he not played GTA? Maybe, maybe not. He’s hardly the first young man to shoot another person with a gun he thought was fake.
Everything else, every talking point and expert opinion, was just conjecture spun in the absence of any real information. A hundred straw man arguments and false assumptions, “facts” that were never true repeated ad nauseum, old quotes journalists dug up that had little connection to the circumstances, all of them were creations of the mind that did nothing but smear a poor kid during the worst week of his life. Was the boy living in a distorted reality? Perhaps – but we know cable news was.
Here’s what to take away from all this: Go home and hug your kids. If you have guns, lock them up far out of reach. Talk to the young people in your life about how guns aren’t toys, and teach them never to touch a “toy” gun they’re not familiar with until they’ve asked an adult. Know the videogame rating systems and buy them age-appropriate games. If you’re worried about them borrowing violent games from a friend, tell them they’re only allowed to play a game after showing it to you.
Or better yet: play games as a family. That way you’ll always know what your kids are into.