Guns, Politics, and Freedom
June 2, 1999

Teen violence a ‘shared obligation?’

Ante up, Mr. & Mrs. Media


The following column appeared in The Charlotte Observer on June 2, 1999 under the title “Media responsible for copycat teen violence.”


“Oh my God.  I’m so scared,” pleaded T.J. Solomon as he hugged his high school principal, his plea punctuated by having just shot six of his schoolmates.


Not that T.J. is a violent lad, mind you, nor even rebellious.  He’s even a Boy Scout.  Reflecting teenagers’ recent preference for expression, a fellow student explained: “He was just trying to be heard and not trying to kill anybody.”


God, guns or Goths; Marilyn Manson, Mortal Kombat or “The Matrix” – everybody has a pet theory about school shootings.


However implanted, the germ of violence is spreading.  Last year in Pearl, Paducah, Jonesboro, Edinboro, and beyond, each shooting followed hard upon the last.  Since Littleton, the National School Safety Center reports at least 200 school cancellations due to real or rumored bomb threats. Recently, police found a propane tank rigged with wires in a Matthews high school.


Even in Canada, gun control advocates’ paradise, a 14-year-old recently shot two schoolmates.  Not coincidentally, T.J.’s outburst in Conyers fell exactly one month after Littleton.


Like epidemiologists, we must trace the routes by which the contagion spreads.  After each school shooting, television coverage begins before spent shell casings have even cooled and stretches until victims are in the ground.  Thoughtfully, CNN provides theme music. With their eyes fixed on profits, CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC fueled teen shootings with live coverage of Littleton. 


Discussing copycatting after Jonesboro, criminologist Thomas Blomberg described “copycatting”: “Right now there are kids out there taking this in.  They’re saying ‘Man, those kids in Arkansas were 11 and 13 and they blew those people away and they were in camouflage, man.’”


Says sociologist Jack Levin, “There is a fad [sweeping] the country, and it goes beyond sneakers or leather jackets.  It is now murder.  Maybe 20 years ago, teen-agers would have imitated other teen-agers down the block.  But now they imitate other kids in other towns, thanks to television.”


Nor does television alone exploit body bags for bucks.  Huge color photographs of hysterical, bloodied victims garnish newspaper covers under headlines screaming, “Teen guns down classmates.” Only the Chicago Sun-Times abstains from front-page gore.


Beyond occasional hand-wringing (“Coverage is watched closely—by media,” declared USA Today) the news and entertainment industry seems content to motivate juveniles to mayhem. Consider my exchange with a television reporter who asked, “What should be done about school shootings?”


“Reduce coverage during hours when teens are likely to watch,” I answered.


“Yeah, but that’ll never happen. What do you think should be done about the shootings?”


And what of Mr. Clinton?  “The president has spoken very bluntly to Hollywood,” scolded the White House press office.  Clinton then unveiled his latest round of gun bans and trotted off to raise $1.5 million from – you guessed it – Hollywood. 


“Several of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Saban Entertainment, which have been criticized for producing violent movies and television programs, are among the biggest soft-money contributors to the Democratic Party,” revealed The New York Times.


Elsewhere, filmmaker Spike Lee set a stunning example when he suggested we combat violence by shooting NRA president Charlton Heston.


Since neither media machine refuses to police itself, Congress should pass a “Responsibility in Media Act” – perhaps as an amendment to the current juvenile justice bill. Television programming could be evaluated for violent content and rated accordingly.  Violent images—including graphic coverage of shootings—could be restricted to hours which minimize exposure to adolescents.


We should prohibit studios from marketing ultraviolent movies to teenagers, and restrict access to film “trailers” depicting gratuitous brutality. Similar restrictions should regulate video games and music. Finally, we should regulate graphic content likely to inspire violence to the inside pages of newspapers and magazines.


Their profits threatened, media moguls will proclaim the inviolability of free speech.  But in drafting the First Amendment, could the Framers possibly have foreseen the pervasive impact of merging news and entertainment on children? Courts have repeatedly upheld restrictions on commercial speech.  And what is body-bag news—marketed to blood lust—if not commercial speech?


To those who protest the inconvenience of restricting violence to late-night television, isn’t saving children’s lives worth a little inconvenience?


As I’ve oft been reminded, no right is absolute.  Just as you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, CNN shouldn’t suggest “Murder!” to a crowded schoolyard.


Ironically, Clinton said it best: “We have a shared obligation to save children’s lives.”  Gun owners are sacrificing rights under the banner of denying adolescents the tools of slaughter. Now it’s time for the news and entertainment industry to share the obligation by denying them the inspiration.


Ante up, Mr. And Mrs. Media.