Lawmakers take aim at violent video games

Newtown shootings drive legislation restricting sale of games to minors

Staff Writer

As the issue of gun control is debated nationwide, New Jersey lawmakers are considering regulating what some believe to be a major contributor to gun violence — video games.

State Assemblyman Sean Kean (R-Monmouth and Ocean) has introduced two bills that stem from reports that Adam Lanza — the 20-year-old shooter behind the Dec. 14 attack that killed 20 students and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — owned a bevy of violent video games, including games that carried a rating of “mature.”

“A lot of the rumor-mill stuff is that [Lanza] was in his basement, playing these violent video games hour after hour after hour,” Kean said. “My gut instinct … is that continued exposure to this violent behavior does desensitize young people and especially people who may have something else going on, some other mental issue.” Kean’s legislation would restrict the sale of video games rated “mature” or “adults only” to minors.

Officials in several states have attempted to pass laws that would prohibit the sale of certain video games to minors, but none have succeeded. Citing First Amendment protections, opponents of a perceived videogame ban or censorship have successfully challenged the laws in court. “Thirteen courts have thrown out similar legislation over the past 10 years,” said Dan Hewitt, senior director of communications for the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the trade association of the U.S. video game industry.

Video games rated “mature” have content that is generally suitable for ages 17 and up, according to the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a self-regulatory board established by the ESA. These games may contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.

Video games rated “adults only” have content considered suitable for ages 18 and up. These games may include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency.

Since the inception of the ESRB in 1994, only 21 video games have been published with the “adults only” specification.

The first bill proposed by Kean would prohibit retailers from selling video games that are rated “mature” or “adults only” to anyone under 18.

The second would require the presence of a parent for a minor to purchase a violent video game.

Any retailer found to be in violation of either bill would be subject to a $10,000 fine for the first offense and up to $20,000 for each subsequent instance; be forced to cover any punitive damages to the minor who purchased the game; and could be on the receiving end of a cease-and-desist order from the state Attorney General’s Office.

Although both of Kean’s bills would suggest that minors are currently able to purchase violent video games unabated, a study conducted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) yielded results that contradict that line of thought. The FTC looked at the attempts of a number of 13- to 16-yearolds to purchase restricted entertainment products at retail establishments across the country and found that in 2011 and 2012, about 13 percent were able to purchase a “mature” video game.

In comparison, 47 percent were able to purchase CDs marked with a parental advisory label, and 30 percent were able to purchase unrated and R-rated DVDs.

This is the second time in less than a decade that Kean is proposing legislation on the sale of violent video games. The first attempt failed to garner the necessary support in the Legislature.

Though both of Kean’s pending bills are currently backed by a small cadre of Republicans — such as Holly Schepisi (Bergen/Passaic), Amy Handlin (Monmouth), Chris Brown (Atlantic) and John Amodeo (Atlantic) — Assembly members from the other side of the aisle have also taken on the violent video game debate.

Democratic Assemblywoman Linda Stender (Union) is preparing a bill that would ban violent video games from public places.

“Games that are meant for older, more mature audiences have no place in places where children can easily access them,” Stender said.

Under Stender’s bill, games depicting violent acts would be prohibited from any “place of public accommodation,” such as hotels, motels, retail stores, restaurants, bus or train terminals, boardwalks, movie theaters, bowling alleys or schools, including college campuses.

“This bill would ensure that video games with graphic adult content would not be available to children who are not old enough to make a distinction between fantasy and reality,” Stender said.

As with Kean’s legislation, violations of Stender’s bill could result in fines of up to $10,000 for the first offense and $20,000 thereafter. Sellers could also face a ceaseand desist order and have to pay punitive damages to the minor’s family.

“I think that would be a little extreme. I could see limiting [violent games] to a certain time of day, but a fine like that seems kind of exorbitant,” said Ken Kalada, owner of the Yestercades retro arcade shop in Red Bank. “My dad used to own a pharmacy, and though the fines for selling cigarettes to a minor were strict and high, they weren’t as high as that.”

The regulations could harm an already endangered arcade industry, he said.

“[This legislation] would certainly hurt our business to a certain degree, but I do think the fall ultimately lands with the parent,” Kalada said. “I think once kids reach a certain age, they’ve seen it all, much like when we grew up watching R-rated movies.”

Two of the pending bills echo recommendations made in April by the New Jersey SAFE Task Force on Gun Protection, Addiction, Mental Health and Families, and Education Safety. Created by Gov. Chris Christie in the wake of the Newtown shootings, the task force was charged with examining “the root causes of mass violence” and developing recommendations in an effort to protect the general public.

The task force’s recommendations include the requirement that minors be accompanied by an adult when purchasing a game rated “mature” or “adults only.”

“Children today are exposed to violent images more than ever,” Stender said. “This bill hopes to minimize this exposure, which if prolonged and coupled with other factors can have a devastating effect.”

However, those behind the legislation face a significant hurdle in the form of a June 2011 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which voted 7-2 to reverse California’s ban on the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. The high court ruled that the state’s recent prohibition had “violated minors’ rights,” as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

“If enacted, Assemblyman Kean’s proposal would undoubtedly also be ruled unconstitutional by the courts, leaving New Jersey taxpayers to pick up the bill for an ill-fated and ill-conceived attempt at accomplishing what the video game industry already excels at — empowering parents with information and resources to control what video games are played in their homes,” Hewitt said. “Taxpayers in other states already reimbursed [the] ESA millions in court costs for similar unconstitutional legislation, and New Jersey’s citizens deserve better.”

Despite the criticism and prior rulings on the issue, Kean said public opinion has changed in recent times.

“I am confident that, eventually, the courts are going to wise up … at some level, I think it is a cop-out to just rely on the First Amendment to say we can’t regulate these violent video games,” he said. “I am hoping that we see some form of progress made, even if it is just more awareness and more understanding of the nature and extent of violent video games.”

Both of Kean’s bills are before the Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee. No formal date has been set for the introduction of Stender’s bill. It was unclear whether any of the bills would gain the traction needed to be introduced in the Legislature.

“As is the case with all newly introduced bills, the bills will be reviewed,” said Tom Hester, communications director for Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who decides which bills will be considered.