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The association between the rise of gun violence in popular US primetime television dramas and homicides attributable to firearms, 2000–2018

Injuries and fatalities due to firearms are a major burden on public health in the US. The rise in gun violence in popular movies has been suggested as a potential cultural influence on this behavior. Nevertheless, homicide rates have not increased over recent decades in the US, suggesting that media portrayals have had little influence on gun violence. Here we challenge this interpretation by examining trends in the proportion of violence that are attributable to firearms, a measure that should be more sensitive to media violence. In addition, we examine trends in the portrayal of guns in popular television (TV) dramas, which are viewed more frequently than movies. We ask (a) whether gun violence has increased in these TV shows not only on an absolute basis but also as a proportion of violent scenes and (b) whether trends in gun portrayal on these shows are associated with corresponding trends in the proportion of real-world violence attributable to firearms in the US from 2000 to 2018. To answer these questions, we coded annual instances of violence, gun violence, and proportion of violence involving guns for each 5-minute segment of 33 popular TV dramas in the police, medical, and legal genres from 2000 to 2018. Trends in annual rates of violence, gun violence and proportion of violence involving guns were determined over the study period and were compared to annual rates of homicide attributable to firearms in three age groups: 15–24, 25–34 and 35 and older. Although violence on TV dramas peaked in 2011, gun use steadily increased over the study period both in absolute terms and in relation to other violent methods. The latter metric paralleled trends in homicides attributable to firearms for all three age groups, with the strongest relationship for youth ages 15–24 (R2 = .40, P = .003). The positive relation between relative amount of TV violence involving guns and actual homicides due to firearms, especially among youth, is consistent with the hypothesis that entertainment media are contributing to the normative acceptance of guns for violent purposes. Future research is needed to study the influence of media violence on gun acquisition at the individual level.