The shock and grief generated by the Newtown shooting has generated momentum for gun control advocates. That push will fail, as President Obama conceded today in advance of the release of Vice President Biden’s proposals, to pass a new ban on assault weapons. That’s the result of the reluctance on the part of Senate Democrats as well as Republicans to support such a measure. Despite the renewed focus on the issue as well as the backlash in the media against the National Rifle Association, there is little likelihood that there will be a significant expansion of limitations on gun ownership in the foreseeable future. But there is one aspect of the fallout from that tragedy that politicians from both parties and all parts of the political spectrum seem to agree on: video games are bad and help create a culture of violence that some see as partially responsible for the murder of 20 children and six adults in Connecticut last month.
Video games deserve censure for the way they have helped desensitize the country to violence. The same can be said about other aspects of popular culture including films, television, and the music industry in which vulgarity and graphic depictions of violence are rampant. Yet despite the claims that the Newtown killer liked such games, there is no reason to believe they are responsible for his crimes, especially when you consider that millions play them without being impelled to commit mass murder. Put in that perspective, it is clear that condemning them is merely a safe outlet for those wishing to put themselves on record as being horrified by the slaughter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. However, if legislators determined to be able to say they did something in response to this incident choose to involve government in the question of what sort of games Americans play, they will have stepped over the line that separates normal political bloviating from a dangerous infringement on our constitutional liberties.
Popular culture is always an easy target for those of us who deplore the dumbing down of America and the way civilized standards of behavior as well as faith have been relentlessly excised from so much of our daily lives. Count me among those who intensely dislike this trend. Yet to jump from that position to the conclusion that they can be directly linked to crimes is a leap of faith that is not justified by any evidence. Nor is it one that is backed up by the law.
Over the course of the last century, the entertainment industry has been blamed for the spread of crime. The first silent picture that depicted bandits robbing a train in the Old West was blamed for violent crimes in much the same way we now bash video game producers. The gangster flicks of the 1930s were thought to have fueled mobsters of that era. We can laugh at those accusations and say that today’s pop culture violence is much worse, but the principle is the same. Like the accusations that rock ‘n’ roll caused teenage pregnancy or that the popular music of the 1960s and 1970s was at the root of an epidemic of drug abuse, the charges had a kernel of truth in them. But while we may well advocate for a change in the culture, a free society does not abridge basic freedom in pursuit of a more peaceful society any more than we should try to do so to have a more moral or godly one.
Like the movies, the games industry has a rating system that seems to be working well. Conservatives may seize upon this issue as one that demonstrates their desire to stand up for decency. But like them or not, disgusting rap lyrics, graphic movies and shows and even the games which allow the players to pretend to be the perpetrators of bloody violence are constitutionally protected speech. Government has no more business regulating such games any more than they have to tell us what films we can watch or books we can read.
That’s why I find statements such as the ones made by Representative Frank Wolff about the need to do something about video games, along with efforts to regulate guns and to improve mental health treatment, quite troubling. Like the loose talk about this subject from the National Rifle Association, which is desperate to deflect any attention from the use of weapons in violent crimes, any effort to defend the Second Amendment by trashing the rights enumerated in the First is unacceptable as well as unconstitutional.
Any such rhetorical excursion inevitably becomes one in which individual responsibility—a core conservative value—is de-emphasized in favor of sociological cant about the power of culture to make us misbehave. Video games make for a convenient punching bag for politicians in need of a platform from which they can pose as defenders of the innocent. But in doing so they are undermining freedom in the name of a dubious connection to crime. Any effort by Congress to further involve the government in the question of what games Americans can play or whether they can be legally manufactured or distributed must be rejected in principle.