Randomized Trial: Kids Shown Movie with Guns Pulled Trigger On Disabled Weapon 17 Times More

A JAMA Pediatrics study demonstrated that kids who watched a movie with a "gun scene" were more likely to hold and pull the trigger of a disabled gun afterwards. 

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A curious kid is a wonderful thing, but not when it comes to firearms. About 20% of gun deaths in children and adolescents are accidental – they occur when children find guns and play with them. Personally, I sort of assure myself that my kids know better. My kids would never play with a gun they found in a drawer somewhere.

But after reading this study, appearing in JAMA Pediatrics, I am quite a bit less confident.

The study was a small, randomized trial, enrolling 104 kids from 8 to 13 years old in 52 pairs of two. The partners would watch a scene from a movie – either the 1991 pulp schlockfest The Rocketeer starring not Matthew Modine or the 2004 Nic Cage disaster National Treasure. There's no accounting for taste.

The original rocketman.

The original rocketman.

Hey, is that Ned Stark?

Hey, is that Ned Stark?

The pairs watched about 20 minutes' worth of each movie. Group 1 saw some scenes involving guns, while group 2 saw scenes without guns.

Then the kids were sent into a play room to play.

In a cabinet in that room was a real 0.38 caliber handgun. Unloaded and disabled, of course, but real.

That most of the pairs, 83%, found the gun isn't very surprising.

But what happened when they found the gun was disconcerting.

The researchers counted the number of times the children pulled the trigger. The median was 2.8 trigger per kid pulls among those who watched the scene with guns. That's 2.8 too many in my opinion. There were almost no trigger pulls in the control group.

After adjustment for factors like age and sex, the researchers found that those exposed to the scene with guns pulled the trigger 17 times more often than those who watched the more benign scenes. 

Children exposed to the movie with guns also held the gun longer – an average of 53 seconds vs. 11 seconds.

But there was quite a range in these measures. The authors report one pair of kids who gave the gun to study personnel right away, but then voiced regret about not keeping it to play with longer. In one pair, a child held the gun for 18 minutes and pulled the trigger 26 times, once against the temple of his partner's head.

The kids who had guns in their home were no more or less likely to play with the gun in the study. Nor were the kids who reported watching more aggressive media outside of the confines of the experiment.

Dr. Brad Bushman

Dr. Brad Bushman

I asked lead study author Dr. Brad Bushman if he'd like to see anything change as a result of this study.

"Kids who see movie characters think those characters are cool and if those characters are smoking, or drinking, or using guns they are more likely to behave accordingly. In movies there are already content codes for smoking and drinking. Why not have a content code for guns?"

This may make a difference, but it's no silver bullet.

I think we need to realize that everyday our kids are being exposed like group 1 in this study. There is little hope of sheltering them. In a world like ours, the secure storage of firearms becomes absolutely necessary.

A study of US homes with children found that 43% of those with firearms had at least one unlocked gun.

This is unacceptable. Remember – you may think your kids are safe and respectful around firearms, and they may be. But my kids might not be. And when they come over, they may go exploring.