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State lawmakers target violent video games in wake of Newtown shootings

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published February 27. 2013 4:00AM   Updated February 27. 2013 1:25PM

Hartford - A person age 17 or younger might not be able to walk into a local arcade and pick up an imitation gun and shoot at "simulated human beings" if Senate Bill 328 is passed by the legislature and signed by the governor.

The bill would prohibit minors from using "point-and-shoot" video games in public arcades and would create a task force to study the relationship between violent video games and youth behavior.

In the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, members of the General Assembly's Committee on Children Tuesday looked at how to limit access to violent video games. Some advocated for creating a task force while others were ready to put forth restrictions.

"There is no doubt in my mind that these games can put real people at risk again in the future," state Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, said.

Adam Lanza, who murdered 26 students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School, grew up playing video games, according to news reports. Hundreds of studies have examined the relationship between games and violent behavior but, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, there is no causal relationship, said David McGuire, staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Harp said it was time once again for lawmakers to help the state restrict participation in these "ill-advised forms of entertainment." A similar bill passed the House and Senate in 2001 but was vetoed by former Gov. John Rowland because of a fear of constitutional challenges, said Laurence Grotheer, spokesman for Harp.

On Tuesday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he could not say whether he would support the bill because he wasn't familiar with it. No good has come, except to the industry, from the gaming industry de-stigmatizing violence in society, he said.

But "I probably went to a carnival as a kid and shot a BB gun as a target," Malloy said. "I need to understand what that is all about, and so I just don't want to rush into an answer."

Many legislators said they were open to examining the issue. However, it is unlikely that a law restricting access to violent video games would hold up constitutionally, McGuire said.

"The (U.S.) Supreme Court concluded there is little evidence of a link between video game violence and violent behavior in children," he said.

In 2005, California passed a law that would have prohibited the sale of violent video games to minors. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 2011, the court ruled 7 to 2, in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, that video games were protected under the First Amendment.

State lawmakers would have trouble proving that the law serves a narrow and "compelling government interest" because research does not show a "direct causal link between violent video games and harm to minors," McGuire said.

If there is a big enough public outcry, video game manufacturers might change the way they market games, McGuire said. But the major video game manufacturers already rate their games, he said.

Stephen Hanshaw, a student at Sacred Heart University, testified against the bill and said many people play video games around the world and lead productive lives.

State Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, said that while a majority of people can play video games without problems, some 5 percent of people who play may react negatively.

"We are targeting the 5 percent," he said.

Hanshaw said if it is just a small minority that is affected, the focus should be on providing services for them instead of telling everyone they can't do something.

Steve Hernandez, an attorney for the Commission on Children, said that although there is conflicting data on whether there is a relationship between violent video games and violent behavior, the commission supports creating a task force to do more research.

For example, he said there are studies from Dissociation in Traumatized Children and Adolescents that show some children who play video games can experience a healthy level of escapism or dissociation while other children experience an unhealthy level, which impairs their ability to develop socially and academically.

If a child has to cope with a confusing living situation or frightening event, video games could provide a type of escapism that keeps the child from developing normally, he said.

Numerous studies for and against the linkage between violent video games and violent behavior can be found at videogames.procon.org, Grotheer said.

Other bills the committee discussed included House Bill 6465, which proposes to help develop and create a statewide animal-assisted therapy program. Practitioners said using dogs during therapy sessions has helped children feel happier or cope.

Senate Bill 654 proposes to develop a mental health first-aid program for parents so they could better "identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness in their children" and community.

House Bill 6330 proposes to ban people from possessing "look-a-like" firearms, pellet-firing air guns or BB guns in elementary or secondary schools.

j.somers@theday.com

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