Watching movie characters use guns may not necessarily make kids more likely to pick up a weapon themselves, but it may mean children who play with guns are more apt to fire them, a new experiment suggests.
For the experiment, researchers had children watch a 20-minute clip from the PG-rated films "The Rocketeer" or "National Treasure." The kids were randomly assigned to watch either an unedited version of the clip, or a version in which scenes showing guns were edited out but the action and narrative of the film were not altered.
After watching the movie, the children were taken to a different room with a cabinet full of toys and were told they could play with any of the toys and games in the room. One drawer of the cabinet contained a real 0.38-caliber handgun that had been modified so it could not fire, although the gun's hammer and trigger were still functional.
During 20 minutes of playtime in the room, the movie scene kids saw didn't appear to influence whether they found the gun or handled it, researchers report in JAMA Pediatrics.
It's not clear why the movies didn't appear to influence whether children picked up the guns to play, said study co-author Brad Bushman, a psychology researcher at Ohio State University in Columbus.
"But those who did handle the gun held it longer and pulled the trigger more times if they saw a movie with guns than if they saw a movie without guns," Bushman said by email.
"Past research has shown that kids who see movie characters smoke are more likely to smoke themselves, and kids who see movie characters drink alcohol are more likely to drink alcohol themselves," Bushman added. "Movies with alcohol have a warning, and movies with cigarettes also have a warning, and I think movies with guns should have a warning too."
When kids did grab the gun, the ones who had seen movie characters with a gun pulled the trigger roughly three times on average, the study found. By contrast, the children who hadn't see a gun in the movie rarely, if ever, pulled the trigger at all.
In addition, half of the kids who had observed movie characters using firearms held the gun for 53 seconds or more, the study found. When kids had not seen a gun in the movie scene, half of them held the gun for about 11 seconds or less.
The experiment included 104 children between 8 and 12 years old who were either related or friends. They watched the movie scenes in pairs and then went to the playroom together afterward.
Overall, 43 pairs of kids, or about 83 percent, found the gun in the cabinet drawer.
Children in just 14 of the pairs gave the gun to a research assistant or told them about it when they found it.
In 22 of the pairs, one or both children handled the gun.
Beyond its small size, other limitations of the study include the fact that only one modified handgun was available in the playroom, and the results might have been different if more firearms were in the room, the authors note.
"Keep in mind that kids have plenty of exposure to guns in many other settings, TV news, other movies, social media streams etc., plus they have an innate interest in them, so it is NOT surprising that they all handled them," said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, author of an accompanying editorial and researcher at the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute.
"Having just seen some being discharged however, did impact their likelihood of FIRING them," Christakis said by email.
Because gun ownership and violent images in the media are widespread in the U.S., the study results underscore the importance of safe gun storage, Christakis added.
This can include storing firearms unloaded and locked, separate from ammunition, doctors advise.
"This is not about gun control," Christakis said. "It's about responsible ownership."