Wolf Releases NSF Report on Mass Shooting Risks

photoRep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) today released a report compiled by an advisory committee to the National Science Foundation (NSF) that details three major risk factors associated with mass shootings, including exposure to violent media, mental health, and access to guns.

Wolf said the report, “Youth Violence: What We Need To Know,” will be discussed at a hearing later this spring before the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee.

Wolf, chairman of the CJS subcommittee, requested the report following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.  It is the latest in a series of steps Wolf has taken to address mass violence, including a recent request that Attorney General Eric Holder use existing funds to improve the nation’s background check system and create a national center for campus public safety.  The campus safety initiative came at the request of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, a group made up of families and victims of the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.  To date, the Obama administration has failed to respond to either request.

Last year, the House-passed FY 2013 CJS appropriations bill increased funding for the background check system to levels higher than those proposed by both the Senate and the White House to keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill and violent criminals.  Wolf also supported the Brady Bill.

The research described in the NSF report supports Wolf’s belief that rampage shootings are a result of multiple factors, including access to firearms, mental health issues, and exposure to violent media, including violent video games.  The report drew on “reliable evidence and a stable of theories to explain youth violence that have emerged from decades of research, including research supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Research Council, and other federal agencies.”

Complicated puzzle

Wolf said he was expecting to hear President Obama’s plan to address the role of media violence and mental health in episodes of mass violence during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, but was disappointed those topics were left out.

“To only focus on one piece of a large and complicated puzzle is irresponsible,” he said.

Wolf has advocated for measures that prevent health insurers from placing discriminatory restrictions on mental health and addiction treatments, and has repeatedly cosponsored legislation aimed at protecting children from violent and sexually explicit video games and Hollywood films.

“While I recognize the potential constitutional issues involved in tackling media violence, mental health parity and gun control, I am disappointed that mental health issues and media violence were left out of the president’s address,” Wolf said.  “The president said that the victims of mass shootings, including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the college students at Virginia Tech, the children at Sandy Hook, the high school students at Columbine, and the movie-goers in Aurora all deserve a vote for gun control proposals.

“How can he in good conscience call for that, but not acknowledge the fact that each one of the shooters in those events was mentally disturbed?  How could he not acknowledge the role that violent media played in some of their lives?  The president has failed the American people and the families of the victims by remaining frustratingly silent on these crucial issues and ignoring the other central factors related to mass violence of this kind,” Wolf said.

Expert opinions

The 41-page report was the work of the Subcommittee on Youth Violence of the Advisory Committee to the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate within NSF, a group comprised of respected experts in this field of study from the following universities and institutions: The Ohio State University, VU University in Amsterdam, Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, Columbia University, University of Oregon, Penn State University, University of Minnesota, University of California at Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pennsylvania.  NSF selected the participants.

Exposure to violent media, including video games, movies, television, apps, music and comic books, was examined in great depth.  Violent video games increase aggressive thoughts and behavior, angry feelings and physiological arousal, and decrease helping behavior and feelings of empathy for others, according to the report.  It also said that rating systems have not kept up with the increasingly violent content of popular media, and there is no standard rating system in the U.S.

Exposure to violent media is “one of the easiest risk factors to change,” according to one study in the report.  It included possible solutions such as more warning labels, establishing a universal rating system that would make ratings among all types of media uniform and easier to understand, and educating parents.

Wolf also is considering legislation that would require reduced-violence versions of video games with less-realistic images (i.e. blue-colored blood), similar to measures that are already in place in Europe.

Media coverage

The report also questioned whether the extensive media coverage that takes place following a shooting negatively affects adolescents.

“The news media cover rampage shootings heavily, but very little is known about the effects of such coverage on adolescents and young adults,” one study said.  “Does such coverage increase thoughts of imitation, as it seems to in suicide?  Is it more likely to influence thoughts of imitation among youth who already have thoughts of suicide and homicide?”

Another study the report cited dealt with mental health, examining “signaling behavior” among rampage shooters.  Perpetrators are generally at the early onset of severe mental illness, with symptoms they find frightening, but often go entirely undiagnosed or untreated, according to the report.  Those who survive into their 20s often develop full-blown mental disorders that are immediately recognized, but at the age of 12-14, these conditions are often just beginning, but lead the shooter to magnify slights and feel severely depressed by rejection, the study showed.

Still another study found that there might even be a link between these three main factors, with a particular tie between mental instability and consumption of violent media.

“We have found that depressed and hopeless youth migrate toward gaming and Internet activity in general,” the author wrote.  “There is already some suggestive evidence that online violent gaming is associated with cyberbullying.  This may increase the exchange of rejecting messages, thereby further exacerbating hostile feelings among suicidal youth.”

In addition to further investigating the topic when members of NSF appear before his subcommittee in hearings this spring, Wolf also plans to send a copy of the report to every member of Congress and the nation’s governors.



About the Author

Truman Lewis
A former reporter and bureau chief, Truman Lewis has covered presidential campaigns, state politics and stories ranging from organized crime to environmental and consumer protection.