At youth violence summit, frank talk, modest plans

Entertainment, gun industries support proposed restrictions

May 11, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman and Karen Hosler | Jonathan Weisman and Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton emerged from a White House meeting on youth violence yesterday with a flurry of new proposals, from limited agreements with firearms manufacturers on gun control to a new task force to help parents screen out violence from their television sets and computers.

But beneath the harmonious surface, representatives from the entertainment and gun industries continued to insist that their businesses should not be held responsible for incidents such as the massacre at a school in Littleton, Colo., that prompted the White House session and a flurry of gun-control proposals on Capitol Hill.

And that continued resistance portends badly for a series of gun-control votes expected in the Senate this week. Legislation to prevent and punish juvenile crime was scheduled to hit the Senate floor this morning. Lawmakers scheduled news conferences to promote pet proposals they hope to attach to the crime bill.

"These are small bits of a puzzle," explained Kansas Republican Sam Brownback. "This is a broad, cultural problem. There is no one solution."

The White House's youth violence "strategy session" drew 56 participants, including gun manufacturers, gun control advocates, top television and movie executives, religious representatives, politicians and a scattering of celebrities, such as singer Gloria Estefan and television actor Andrew Shue.

The White House sought to stress the concrete plans that emerged. Firearms industry representatives, for instance, agreed to back some of the gun control measures being pushed by the president, including requiring back ground checks for buyers at gun shows, banning handgun possession for people younger than 21, barring violent juveniles from ever owning guns, and requiring safety locks on all new guns sold.

Internet- and video-game makers agreed to devise a ratings system for games accessed online and to block the online purchase by minors of games they would be too young to buy in stores.

The Federal Communications Commission announced a new task force to ensure that all new televisions are equipped with the V-chip that will allow parents to block violent programming. And the Kaiser Foundation unveiled an educational campaign to train parents how to use the new technology.

Clinton also ordered Surgeon General David Satcher to prepare the first federal report on the causes of youth violence in more than a decade.

Behind closed doors, there were some frank exchanges, participants said. Robert Iger, chairman of ABC and president of Walt Disney International, conceded that whenever a violent tragedy such as Littleton occurs, entertainment industry executives are quick to tell the public they have no influence on society, but when they pitch their programs privately to advertisers, they say the impact on viewers is profound.

Robert Ricker, executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council, the gun manufacturers' lobbying arm, unveiled proposals of his own that may go beyond even what congressional Democrats will approve and told gun control advocate Sarah Brady he was confident they could find common ground.

"This was exactly the kind of session I had hoped for, where everyone was talking about the problems and the opportunities," Clinton said afterward. "Everyone was talking about what could be done to accept responsibility. No one was pointing the finger of blame."

Long-term impact in doubt

But most participants were not exactly taking responsibility, and that left the long-term impact of yesterday's gabfest in question.

On Capitol Hill, though the Littleton shooting has made most senators more open to consider new approaches, neither party seems inclined to embrace bold steps. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott might not even permit votes on the most controversial gun control items.

Nor are the Democratic leaders planning to make a fight of it. They don't want to further endanger vulnerable Democratic senators representing states where gun rights are sacred, aides said.

Rep. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, predicted one proposal likely to be adopted is Brownback's plan to grant an anti-trust exemption so that the movie, music and video-game industries could voluntarily adopt a code of conduct.

The goal would be for these industries to set a minimum standard for violence below which they would not sink.

"We want to see if we can slow down this rush to the bottom," Brownback explained.

Some minimal gun control measures, such as a ban on possession of semi-automatic weapons by minors, may also gain favor -- at least among Democrats.

But proposals to require automatic trigger locks on handguns and to prohibit gun sales over the Internet were considered too politically risky to gain support from either Democrats or Republicans.

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