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After Sandy Hook, Senator calls for violent video game probe

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Gun control remains a politically fraught issue in the US, even after such events as the December 14 mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, but one top lawmaker has proposed legislation that could lead to tighter restrictions on firearms – at least the imaginary kind.

On Wednesday, Senator Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, introduced a bill that would require the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct a study into the impact that violent video games have on children.

"This week, we are all focused on protecting our children," Senator Rockefeller said in a statement, alluding to the nation's lingering shock at the events in Newtown. "At times like this, we need to take a comprehensive look at all the ways we can keep our kids safe. I have long expressed concern about the impact of the violent content our kids see and interact with every day."

Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old gunman who killed 26 people during his rampage through Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, including 20 children, was reportedly a die-hard video gamer, though which titles he enjoyed is not known. The withdrawn and reclusive Lanza also killed his mother and himself in the incident, leaving details of his background sketchy.

Rockefeller said his bill would require NAS to study the connection between violent video games and programming and "harmful effects" on children, and specifically to examine whether violent games might cause children "to act aggressively or otherwise hurt their wellbeing."

Also on Wednesday, President Barack Obama announced that in light of the recent incident, he planned to make real-life guns a "central issue" of his second term, adding that his administration would submit proposals to Congress for new legislation to restrict firearms sales and improve access to mental health care no later than January.

So far, however, Rockefeller's bill is the only actual national legislation to have been proposed specifically in response to the Newtown tragedy.

In his statement, Rockefeller said, "Recent court decisions demonstrate that some people still do not get it. They believe that violent video games are no more dangerous to young minds than classic literature or Saturday morning cartoons. Parents, pediatricians, and psychologists know better."

Supreme Court precedent disagrees

By "court decisions," Rockefeller refers primarily to a 2011 case in which the Supreme Court struck down a California law banning the sale of violent video games to children on grounds that games were free speech protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Following that 7–2 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the California law was "unprecedented and mistaken," noting that, "California's argument would fare better if there were a longstanding tradition in this country of specially restricting children's access to depictions of violence, but there is none ... Grimm's Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed."

Furthermore, Scalia wrote, "Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively."

Given the specific wording of that decision, it's unlikely that Rockefeller's call for a new investigation into whether games cause children to act aggressively will have much effect. Even if the NAS study's findings completely contradicted Scalia's judgment of earlier evidence, it would likely take a Constitutional Amendment to overrule the Supreme Court's decision.

But then, it has always been easier to champion legislation that claims to protect children than to tackle tougher issues, such as gun control.

For example, the 2005 law banning sales of violent video games to minors passed the California Assembly by a near-unanimous vote of 66–7.

By comparison, a 1989 California law banning the sale of high-capacity firearms it termed "assault weapons" – introduced partially in reaction to a mass shooting at an elementary school in the state that left five children dead and 29 wounded – only just passed with a split vote of 41–35. ®

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