Staying on target

Violence in popular entertainment is a serious problem, but not an excuse to do nothing about gun control


Vice President Joe Biden, a month after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., is expected to issue broad proposals today on curbing gun violence. The Obama Administration and Congress should focus on the root of the problem — too-easy access to guns, including military-style assault rifles.

They should not get sidetracked by attacks on the entertainment industry, or by proposed restrictions on mentally ill Americans that would prove unnecessary and unworkable.

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A broad debate on reducing violence will inevitably include the video game industry and other media. A 2009 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that high exposure to violent video games increased physical aggression, at least in the short term.

Still, researchers have come to no real consensus that playing such games triggers violent acts. Violent crime among young Americans has dropped since the early 1990s, even as video games have become more popular.

Critics have long used violence in video games, movies, and television — even certain rap lyrics — as a scapegoat for America’s social ills and an excuse to do nothing about gun control. That can’t be allowed to happen again.

The National Rifle Association predicts that Congress won’t approve a ban on assault rifles, a central part of any sensible package on gun control. Instead, the NRA and others blame a culture that glamorizes violence.

On Sunday, the NRA said the focus also should be on preventing mentally ill people from buying guns. Much of the recent discussion of mental illness stems from reports that the Connecticut shooter, Adam Lanza, had Asperger’s syndrome.

But Asperger’s is not associated with violence. Nor is it, as an autism spectrum disorder, considered a mental illness.

The debate on guns and mental health ought to focus on improving mental-health care and treatment, not imposing sweeping new restrictions on the mentally ill. Some forms of untreated mental illness, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, slightly increase the risk of violence. Most mental illnesses do not, however, especially if they are treated.

Moreover, identifying every American with a mental illness would be impossible. Tens of millions of Americans show some symptoms of a mental illness at some time. Should the government, for example, restrict someone who was hospitalized for depression 15 years ago?

“We’re further ahead improving mental health care and treatment services than trying to find everyone who has been treated for a mental illness,’’ said Mark Reinstein, president of the Mental Health Association in Michigan.

The most effective measures to reduce gun violence include universal background checks for firearms purchases and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says that through gun shows and private transactions, about 40 percent of gun sales occur with no background checks.

The debate on gun violence ought to be a broad one. But Congress and the White House should not let gun control opponents steer them from the most urgent problem: easy access to weapons of war.