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Dr. Brad Bushman, 2017 Kurt Lewin Award Winner

Deadly Child’s Play:

Exposure to Gun Violence in Movies Increases Interest in Real Guns 

Kelly P. Dillon & Brad J. Bushman


The United States (US) is the most heavily armed country in the world. Although the US is only about 4% of the world’s population, US citizens possess nearly one-third of the world’s guns[1]. Some estimates indicate that there are more guns in the US than there are people.

Nearly 60% of American households with guns do not secure them.[2] If children find these guns, the consequences can be deadly. American children are 10 times more likely to die by unintentional gun shootings than children from other developed countries.

There are many factors that can influence children’s interest in guns. One possible factor is exposure to movie characters with guns. There are plenty of guns in some Hollywood movies. Movie actor Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “I have a love interest in every one of my films – a gun.” Gun violence in movies is increasing, especially in movies that target younger viewers. An analysis of top selling films found the depiction of guns in violent scenes in PG-13 films (for ages 13+) that target youth has more than doubled since 1985 when the rating was introduced, rising from the level of G (“General Audience”) and PG (“Parental Guidance Suggested”) films to the level of R films (for ages 17+) by 2005[3]. A follow-up study found that the amount of gun violence in PG-13 films continued to increase through 2015[4].

Previous research has shown that children exposed to movie characters that smoke are more likely to smoke themselves[5], and that children exposed to movie characters who drink alcohol are more likely to drink themselves[6]. This experiment tests the hypothesis that children exposed to movie characters that use guns are more likely to use guns themselves[7].

Participants were 52 pairs of children (N=104) ages 8-12 from central Ohio who were friends, siblings, cousins, etc. Children were recruited using advertisements and were each paid $25.

Participants were told: “This study is about what kids like to do in their spare time, such as watching movies, and playing with toys and games.” Each pair watched a 20-minute edited version PG-rated movie with or without guns. As expected, the movies with guns were rated to be more violent than the movies without guns, but they did not differ on other dimensions (i.e., how fun and exciting the movie was, whether the child felt part of the action, and whether the child wanted to see the rest of the movie).

Next, participants went to a different room with a cabinet containing toys (e.g., Lego bricks, Nerf guns) and games (e.g., checkers). They were told they could play with any of toys and games in the room. One of the cabinet drawers contained a real .38 caliber handgun that was modified so that it could not fire. An infrared counter was installed to count the number of times the trigger was pulled with sufficient force to discharge the weapon. The play session was videotaped.

The two main outcomes were trigger pulls and time spent holding the gun. Control variables included gender, age, trait aggressiveness, exposure to violent media, interest in guns, and number of guns at home. The adjusted median for number of trigger pulls among children who saw the movie with guns was 2.8 versus 0.01 among children who saw the movie without guns (adjusted odds ratio=22.3, 95% CI=6.0, 83.4, p<.001). The adjusted median for number of seconds spent holding the gun among children who saw a movie with guns was 53.1 versus 11.1 among children who saw the movie without guns (adjusted odds ratio=3.0, 95% CI=0.9, 9.9, p=.065).

In conclusion, children in the US frequently have access to unsecured firearms and frequently consume media with guns. This experiment shows children who see movie characters use guns are more likely to use guns themselves. These findings are consistent with other research showing that children who see movie characters smoke are more likely to smoke themselves, and children who see movie characters drink are more likely to drink themselves. Although adults may legally use tobacco, alcohol, and guns, children should not.


[1] MacInnis, L. (2007, August 28). U.S. most armed country with 90 guns per 100 people. Reuters News. Retrieved from

[2] Schuster, M. A., Franke, T.M., Bastian, A. M., Sor, S., & Halfon, N. (2000). Firearm storage patterns in US homes with children. American Journal of Public Health, 90(4), 588-594.

[3] Bushman, B. J., Jamieson, P. E., Weitz, I., & Romer, D. (2013). Gun violence trends in movies. Pediatrics, 132(6), 1014-1018. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-1600

[4] Romer, D., Jamieson, P. E., & Jamieson, K. H. (2017). The continuing rise of gun violence in PG-13 movies, 1985 to 2015. Pediatrics. 2017; 139(2): e20162891. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-2891

[5] Dal Cin, S., Stoolmiller, M., & Sargent, J. D. (2012).  When movies matter: Exposure to smoking in movies and changes in smoking behavior. Journal of Health Communication, 17(1), 76-89.

[6] Wills, T. A., Sargent, J. D., Gibbons, F. X., Gerrard, M., & Stoolmiller, M. (2009). Movie exposure to alcohol cues and adolescent alcohol problems: a longitudinal analysis in a national sample. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 23(1). 23-25.

[7] Dillon, K. P., & Bushman, B. J. (in press). Effects of exposure to gun violence in movies on children’s interest in real guns. JAMA Pediatrics


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