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Matheson pushes video game limits amid gun violence debate

Published January 23, 2013 11:52 am

Politics • Utah Democrat wants child ratings, fines for sale to underage kids.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Rep. Jim Matheson has tried for years to require ratings on video games and levy steep fines for selling them to underage kids, and recent debate on the games' influence on gun violence could finally propel the measure out of committee.

Matheson on Tuesday reintroduced his legislation, which would also force stores to post an explanation of the ratings system for customers to see.

"As a parent of two young boys, I am a strong believer that parents are the first line of defense when it comes to supervising their children's viewing habits," Matheson said in a statement. "In a world of rapidly changing technology, parents deserve every resource available to evaluate programming to which their children might be exposed."

The Utah Democrat first introduced the measure in 2006 and has subsequently tried to push it in every session since, though the legislation has never earned a hearing.

The bill, as proposed, sets a fine of $5,000 for selling, renting or shipping a video game without a rating displayed on the outside of the box or sale of an "adult"-rated game to a child under 18. Sales of "mature" games to kids under 17 would also be subject to that fine. Most video games now already come with a voluntary rating based on sexual and violent content decided by an industry panel called the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

The industry, though, says that while they share Matheson's goal of ensuring parental control over entertainment, his legislation is wrongheaded. Already video game producers push awareness of their ratings system, parental controls on game consoles and personal monitoring of video games.

"This type of legislation was already ruled unconstitutional and is a flawed approach," the Entertainment Software Association said in a statement. "Empowering parents, not enacting unconstitutional legislation, is the best way to control the games children play."

The ESA was referring to a Supreme Court decision from 2011 that struck down a California law trying to require ratings on video games. The justices found that the measure conflicted with the First Amendment right of free speech.

"Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively," the court said in its 7-2 decision. "Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media."

Matheson says his legislation is different than the California law — Matheson's doesn't set the ratings system — but he does note that there have been constitutional issues raised about his bill.

"Let me be clear — I am, in no way, seeking to limit the constitutional rights of adults to access these games," Matheson said. "However, where children are concerned, there should be a conversation about empowering parents and making certain that gratuitous violence never becomes routine content."

After the massacre of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Conn., some gun-control opponents — including the gun lobby — have pointed to violent video games and entertainment as a possible catalyst of such rampages.

"And here's another dirty little truth that the media try their best to conceal: There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said at a news conference in December, "through vicious, violent video games with names like Bulletstorm, Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse."

Matheson, who was endorsed by the NRA, makes a similar point, saying the some games are shocking and troublesome.

"There are popular games where players advance through acts of 'virtual' murder, assault and rape," Matheson said. "Many children are able to access these games without their parents' knowledge."

Matheson has no co-sponsors for his bill yet.

tburr@sltrib.com