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.
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.
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."
"He didn't think the evidence was there, and if there was something it would be just a tiny piece of the puzzle. It really wasn't the most significant issue," he says.
Biden did warn the industry executives present in the meeting that they had a PR issue on there hands, says Ferguson. And so far it appears they and the movie industry are taking his advice. Both have emphasized giving parents the tools to supervise their children's habits, with the MPAA and the ESRB (which regulates video game ratings) touting a FTC study that found an all-time high compliance with their ratings systems.
Yet the N.Y. Daily News reports that the video game lobby has put pressure on another legislative attempt to research violent video games. Earlier this month Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, offered a Department Justice study of violent video games' connection to mass shootings as an amendment to gun control legislation. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., then proposed an amendment to Grassley's proposal that would expand the study to 13 additional areas associated with violence like bullying, mental illness and child abuse. According to the Daily News report, Senate sources say video game lobbyists were behind Coon's move in attempt to water down the study.
Even if Grassley's, Rockefeller's or any study proved a conclusive and significant link between violent media and violent behavior, the legislative steps to be taken next are unclear. In the wake of Columbine, some states passed laws to regulate the video game industry, all of which were knocked down by courts on First Amendment grounds. Most notably, in Brown v. Electronic Merchants Association, the Supreme Court struck down a California law prohibiting the sale or rental of violent video games to minors, rendering a number of other such state laws unconstitutional.
For its part, the FTC examines the ratings systems within various entertainment industries, their marketing strategies, and if retailers are abiding by said ratings. But the FTC cannot regulate those industries themselves; it is up to industries to punish those who disobey their ratings guidelines.
Rockefeller also has said he would like to give the FCC more authority to address violence in the media. The FCC, which is concerned primarily with television and not movies or video games, declined to comment on the issue. Considering the troubles gun regulation efforts—an issue with far more visibility and momentum—have met in Congress, it's hard to imagine legislative attempts to address violent entertainment getting very far either.