Question: President Clinton has asked movie theater owners to screen teenagers seeking access to violent movies rated for adults' eyes only. Republicans in Congress are working on a bill that would, among other things, hold videotape rental firms liable for renting extremely violent videos to underage purchasers. Are these good ideas?
Bonnie Erbe: Neither President Clinton's proposal nor those of Republicans in Congress will do much harm. But if either side in the post-Columbine political debate thinks marginal efforts to stamp out mass shootings are the answer, they are wrong.The downside of President Clinton's proposal is that moviegoers can anticipate longer lines to get into hot new flicks. But perhaps that's a small price to pay for keeping young teens from imbibing Hollywood's most violent fare.
The ironic downside of the Republicans' proposal is that it will create a bureaucratic nightmare. Republicans not only want to hold store owners liable for selling violent movies, games and books to minors. They also want all Internet Web site operators to disclose whether they sell e-mail addresses to other vendors. Pardon me, but isn't the GOP the party of less red tape, less paperwork and pared-down federal regulation? Aren't Republicans the ones who fought the Brady law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court because the federal government was heaping more work on local law enforcement officers?
Nevertheless, Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., are not the only ones to overreact in the post-Columbine era. The American Civil Liberties Union reports it is swamped with calls, e-mails and letters from students (and their parents) who have been arrested, suspended and punished for such offenses as wearing black trench coats, maintaining Goth Web sites and dyeing their hair odd colors.
Justice Department and Education Department figures released after the Columbine massacre show school violence is actually down. Between 1992 and 1993 (the latest year for which such figures are available) incidents of school violence dropped precipitously. The only difference is that one incident, perpetrated by a kid armed with an automatic weapon, causes a lot more damage than one perpetrated by an unarmed kid. The sooner lawmakers address that issue effectively, the better off we'll all be.
Josette Shiner: My colleague argues that the recent alarm over youth violence is based on "one incident." But her contention doesn't hold up: Juvenile crime has gone up during the 1990s. It has dropped slightly since the mid-1990s, but it still is more than double the rate from 25 years ago.
And during this same time the popular culture has turned even bloodier. Between 1992 and 1995 the number of violent scenes on television increased 74 percent.
My colleague fails to see any connection whatsoever between the two things. But there is a growing bipartisan consensus that there is a link between these images and the actions of our children. President Clinton's former top domestic policy adviser, William Galston, said recently that "a pretty strong link has been established between violence in films and on television on the one hand, and the propensity for youthful violence on the other."
So what is to be done about this problem? Is a government crackdown on the entertainment industry the answer? I think the National Commission on Civic Renewal struck the right tone when it argued that the spirit of limited self-government requires that we seek nongovernmental solutions. In its final report the commission stated: "While many of us applaud modest public steps such as the Children's Television Act, the V-chip and voluntary ratings systems, we believe that the problems of contemporary mass media are best addressed through high-profile moral suasion."
Political leaders, consumers, parents and stockholders need to encourage corporations to take voluntary steps to help curb the problem.
Clinton deserves praise for successfully persuading most movie theater owners to require proof of age from teenagers seeking access to R-rated movies. In Congress, the bipartisan proposal from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., makes good sense: It would create a new universal rating system for video games, movies and music. Any other congressional measures should aim toward the same goal: not to pass more counterproductive federal laws but to find ways to encourage entertainment executives to act voluntarily.
Bonnie Erbe is host of the PBS program "To the Contrary." Josette Shiner is president of Empower America.