WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a bill Thursday that started off as an effort to reform the juvenile justice system and ended up becoming the focus of a national debate on whether the media or the gun industry should be blamed for a rash of high school shooting sprees that have plagued the country during the last 2 1/2 years.
Democrats and gun control advocates emerged as victors after eight days of debate, but the entertainment industry was also dealt some blows in the legislation, approved on a vote of 73-25, including a proposal approved 98-0 that calls for a joint Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department investigation into the degree to which Hollywood markets violent movies to children.
The Juvenile Justice Bill, which had been kicking around the Senate more than two years, was sent to the floor by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in reaction to the April 20 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where two teenage shooters killed themselves after murdering a teacher and 12 fellow students.
The Senate showed up Thursday for the final day of debate only to be greeted by the news that a teenager at a suburban Atlanta high school had gone on yet another such rampage. No one was killed at Heritage High in Conyers, Ga., but six people were injured including four who were shot.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) originally wrote the legislation in an attempt to reform the juvenile justice system with an eye towards making it tougher for young people to commit crimes without facing the threat of serious punishment. But as soon as the legislation became the designated platform for Senate reaction to the Littleton massacre, it also provided a stage for politicians to denounce the entire entertainment industry for allegedly saturating the nation’s youth with a flood of violent images in movies, television, video games and the Internet.
Republicans led the fight against the entertainment industry, at least in part, to deflect some of the blame away from the gun industry in the wake of the Columbine shootings. But legislators from both sides of the aisle, not to mention the White House, have been tough on the entertainment industry, insisting that it is time for it to accept some accountability for the negative influence it has on media-saturated kids.
“There is still too much violence on our nation’s screens, large and small,” said President Clinton in his May 15 radio address, adding, “There are still too many vulnerable children who are steeped in this culture of violence, becoming increasingly desensitized to it and to its consequences and, therefore, as studies show, hundreds of them are more liable to commit violence themselves.”
Clinton toned down the message when he addressed his Hollywood fundraiser last weekend, which raised more than $2 million. Clinton’s ties to Hollywood and his appearance in Los Angeles as the debate was going on in the Senate appeared to infuriate his Republican rivals.
In addition to several amendments that will tighten access to guns in the U.S., the bill also:
- Requires the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission to investigate the entertainment industry’s marketing practices. The goal is to determine if violent movies or videogames with adult-rated content are marketed to kids.
- Gives entertainment companies a limited antitrust exemption to allow them to discuss the creation of a “voluntary code of conduct” to govern the amount of sex and violence on movie, television and computer screens.
- Requires the movie theaters and video stores to enforce the movie industry’s age-based content ratings.
- Requires the National Institutes of Health to conduct a study into the effects of violent images and song lyrics on the behavior of children.
In addition, the Senate passed an amendment that bans the filming of “wanton and gratuitous violence” on federal property. It also bans federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard and NASA, from cooperating with shoots that feature “gratuitous” violence. The proposal passed 66-34.
The bill now goes to the House of Representatives.