The emotionally charged legislative and policy debate over gun control is morphing into a fight between adherents of the First and Second amendments to the Constitution.
The gun lobby, looking to deflect some criticism in the wake of the Connecticut school massacre, has been quietly working its talking points with lawmakers and staff to focus on broader societal influences, such as violent video games and entertainment.
“This is exactly what the gun lobby and conservative senators will do to deal with this problem,” said Mark Glaze, a lobbyist at the Raben Group, who represents Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “They will want to blame this on a culture.”
The National Rifle Association, which has been publicly silent since the shooting and has refused requests for comment, is holding a news conference in Washington on Friday to tout what it calls “meaningful contributions” to prevent future tragedies.
Members of Congress, including some who support a ban on certain assault-style rifles, have targeted the entertainment and video-game industries as part of the problem. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., an ardent gun rights supporter who early this week said it was necessary to look at all options, turned his focus to video games later in the week. He noted a specific game — “Grand Theft Auto” — and singled out its New York City maker, Rock Star Games, in an interview with West Virginia Metro News.
Some argue that the game “glorifies these horrible crimes,” Manchin said, adding that maybe the games should be banned. His home-state colleague Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has introduced a bill to study the effects of violence in video games on behavior.
The Supreme Court has ruled that a California ban on selling or renting video games to minors was unconstitutional. Gabe Rottman, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that “absolutely yes,” video games are covered by the First Amendment’s free-speech protections.
“Violent video games are kind of a convenient scapegoat, and I think the industry and, more generally, people who care about free expression would get engaged,” Rottman said.
In a statement responding to the tragedy and specifically to Rockefeller’s proposal, the Entertainment Software Association said: “The search for meaningful solutions must consider the broad range of actual factors that may have contributed to this tragedy. Any such study needs to include the years of extensive research that has shown no connection between entertainment and real-life violence.”
Cheryl Olson, co-founder of the Center for Mental Health and Media at Harvard University and co-author of “Grand Theft Childhood,” said that playing violent video games is statistically normal behavior for the 13- and 14-year-old boys she studied through a Department of Justice grant. “When you have a really common behavior,” she said, “it’s hard to link it to something uncommon.”
She added that video-game violence doesn’t approach the level of violence in some movies and even in Grimm’s fairy tales. But more research is needed, she said, particularly on kids who have committed crimes, to determine whether their media exposure is somehow different.
The video-game lobby has a team of outside lobbyists that includes tech-focused firms such as Monument Policy Group and the Franklin Square Group, as well as the Smith-Free Group, Venable and Kilpatrick Stockton, according to lobbying disclosures. The ESA spent $3.6 million on federal lobbying during the first three-quarters of the year, according to lobby reports.
A free speech/gun rights fight could attract a huge groundswell of activists. The NRA is known for its grass-roots outreach, a tool it uses to wield its considerable influence over members of Congress.
But the tech community is fully capable of using supporters to influence a debate, as it did with the largely online backlash to the Stop Internet Piracy Act and similar legislation.
“I do think the same ingredients that caused the perfect storm of SOPA/PIPA are present again,” said Maura Corbett, who runs the tech-focused Glen Echo Group. “Whether the technology players are directly involved or not, they’re able to communicate in real time, and stuff goes viral in a way you’ve never seen.”
If Congress takes up a proposal to ban certain video games or other entertainment content, Rottman noted, a SOPA-style backlash could soon follow.
Janie Lorber contributed to this report.