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The role of Washington in curbing youth violence

In wake of the Colorado shootings, can tougher gun control or other

Spurred by America's worst school shootings ever, Congress is lashing out against a culture of guns and violence that many blame for encouraging mayhem by youths.

"We are absolutely in a culture war for the hearts and minds of our children," said Sen. Max Cleland (D) of Georgia in one of several crowded Capitol Hill hearings probing causes of youth violence this week.

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Waving ultraviolent video games such as "Doom," reading death-laced lyrics from Marilyn Manson, and screening scenes of school-room killings from the movie "Basketball Diaries," lawmakers and experts denounced what Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut called "the culture of carnage surrounding our children."

Yet parents might wonder, following the mass murder of 13 people by two students (who also killed themselves) at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., will Congress move beyond the hand-wringing and scolding?

Many in Congress readily rule out any sweeping legislation to ban the popular tools or images of violence - or deny them to adults. The Constitution's first and second amendments, providing the rights of free speech and bearing arms, prohibit such actions, they say.

"We all know that there is no effective legislation we could pass" that would comply with the First Amendment, says Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington.

It is "not realistic ... to eliminate all temptation," agreed Sen. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana.

These and other lawmakers place the primary onus on parents to raise children with strong morals who can resist violent impulses. "It's not just video games," says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona. "We are not parenting our children."

Yet others in Congress are adamant that the government can do more to help parents shield their children in a society rife with guns and virtual-reality killing. "It is hard to be a good parent with all this coming at you every day," bemoaned Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota. "We must empower parents to make the right choices for their family."

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Such sentiment is growing in the wake of the Littleton, Colo., tragedy last month and a string of similar school-shooting incidents in the past year - "a recurring nightmare" for the country, said Senator Lieberman in testimony Tuesday before the Senate Commerce Committee.

"People are angry enough here in Congress that they might consider something they didn't before," said Lieberman, a leading Senate voice on youth-violence issues, following the hearing.

Next steps

What concrete steps are likely to be taken by Congress?

On gun control, advocates expect no major new legislation from a Republican-led Congress that in recent years has rejected bills to limit firearms and in 1996 voted (in the House) to repeal the assault weapons ban. "At a nation-level, gun control has been at a stalemate," says one Washington-based advocate.

Congress is highly unlikely to embrace the full package of gun-control legislation announced by President Clinton last week. That proposal would limit handgun purchases to one a month, raise the age of the youth handgun ban from 18 to 21, and widen the scope of background checks for certain gun and explosives purchases.

Still, advocates are hopeful that public outrage over Littleton may persuade Republicans sympathetic to gun proponents such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) to take some smaller steps. "It would be politically expedient to pass a few measures going into an election," the advocate said.

For example, lawmakers may consider Mr. Clinton's proposal to require background checks for firearms purchased at gun shows. That would close a legal loophole that allegedly enabled the Littleton teens to buy a powerful, semiautomatic handgun.

On curbing cultural and media violence, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress appear enthusiastic, although they are struggling to define a role for themselves.

National dialogue

Lawmakers from both parties are attempting to promote a national dialogue on youth culture and violence.

A White House meeting including Internet and entertainment industry leaders is scheduled for Monday and the Republicans have created a body to generate dialogue on the issue.

Other steps are under way to goad the movie, video-game, music, and television industries to clean up what Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas called "cultural pollution."

Pending legislation

These steps include:

*A bipartisan joint resolution calling on the surgeon general to undertake a one-year review of the impact of media violence on youths and issue a report with recommendations on how to mitigate harmful effects.

*A bipartisan Senate amendment to a youth-violence bill to reach the floor as early as next week. The amendment would require the administration to investigate possible illegalities by the entertainment industry in marketing violent products to youths.

*Possible legislation to strengthen the enforcement of the rating systems for movies and video games.

*Efforts to improve the voluntary television rating system for use with V-chips, which will be mandatory on all television sets with screens 13 inches and larger by 2000.

*Bipartisan legislation to require that libraries and schools receiving federal funds filter harmful material from the Internet.

Nevertheless, industry resistance to such steps remains strong.

"I am totally opposed to the government getting involved in any way that infringes on the First Amendment," says Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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