Why Lawmakers Can't Do Much About Violence in Entertainment

Despite all the rhetoric, addressing violence in entertainment proves difficult for lawmakers.

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In the days and weeks following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, rhetoric was strong in Washington about the issue of violence in entertainment. From outgoing Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., to David Axelrod to even President Barack Obama, policymakers and pundit-types alike invoked the matter as the nation searched for meaning in the Newtown tragedy.

[REFERENDUM: Are Video Games Too Violent?]

More than three months later, the debate over gun regulations trudges on in Washington, with Obama holding a press conference pleading for congressional action just yesterday. Yet there has been little legislative action or even talk, comparatively speaking, about what Congress can and should do about violent movies, television and video games, even as search warrants revealed the Newtown shooter obsessively played the bloody video game "Call of Duty."

But one senator hasn't let go of the issue. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced the Violent Content Research Act soon after the Sandy Hook tragedy and reintroduced it again in January when the original died with the 112th Congress. The bill would require the National Academy of Sciences to undertake a study of "the impact of violent video games and violent video programming on children." It currently has five bipartisan cosponsors and is working its way through committee.

A call for more research isn't exactly controversial. Obama already signed an executive order calling for more CDC research on the roots of gun violence, including "the relationship between video games, media images and violence."

The MPAA—whose president, former Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., has adamantly denounced any measures of censorship in the name of preventing gun violence—has told U.S. News it would support Rockefeller's bill.

"We certainly understand the need for more data to inform this conversation and we certainly support the effort to explore the scientific evidence," says MPAA spokesperson Kate Bedingfield.

But the bill is not without its critics. For one, they point out that numerous federally-sponsored studies, including some by the National Academy itself, have already failed to find a conclusive link. Secondly they say other countries that consume similar or even higher levels of violent media don't have nearly as high rates of gun violence as the United States. Furthermore, they argue that focusing on violent entertainment distracts from the conversation about gun regulation and/or changes to the national mental health system.

[READ: NRA Releases Shooting Practice Game for Kids]

Addressing the "distraction" criticism, Rockefeller, who is not running for re-election and has a "D" rating from the NRA, told Variety magazine, "We need to discuss all legislative options that might prevent more innocent lives lost. I see the debate over violence in the media as part of a comprehensive discussion to take strong actions to promote gun safety."

But some worry about the parameters of the study itself.

"[Rockefeller] basically advertises as loud and clear as he possibly could what he wants the results of any study to be," says Christopher J. Ferguson, a Texas A&M psychology professor who has conducted numerous studies on the link between aggressive behavior and violence in video game and television. "Scientific objectivity cannot survive under that circumstance. That is an enormous amount of political pressure to put on the scientific community. The risk is that there will be junk science—science for hire, basically."

The research on the link between violent entertainment and behavior is mixed, at best. Even more complicated is determining the role it plays in massacres like the one in Newtown.

"We aren't going to get mass shooters waiting in line to fill out surveys," says Ferguson, pointing out that for every "Call of Duty"-playing shooter there is another mass shooter who we have no reason to believe played violent video games.

Ferguson participated in the White House "task force" talks alongside other researchers and video game executives. He described Vice President Joe Biden's take on the matter as "agnostic."