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Md. House Panel Hesitant On Video Game Restrictions

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page B09

As the two-minute segment of the video game "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" began rolling yesterday in front of the Maryland House of Delegates committee, lawmakers looked impassive, even bored.

After the decapitation, dismemberment and multiple shootings, though, looks of shock and disgust swept the committee room.

Lawmakers watched a segment of the video game "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," which features decapitations and dismemberment. (Jennifer S. Altman -- Bloomberg News)

Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association, discussed video game ratings and the industry.
D.C. Councilmember Adrian Fenty discussed a proposed ban on the sale of violent games.
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"What I saw there had no redeeming social qualities," Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. (R-Cecil) told the Judiciary Committee. "I would say it's pornographic."

Even so, Smigiel and other legislators stopped short of advocating a bill that would ban the sale of such video games to minors. Lawmakers expressed concerns about the constitutionality of such a measure and questioned whether it is necessary, since the industry has been establishing policies to keep youngsters from buying the games.

Proponents of the sale restrictions, similar to those in a measure proposed in the District, argued that the games have incited a wave of violence across the country, contributing to such killings as the slayings at Columbine High School in 1999 and Lee Boyd Malvo's shootings in the 2002 Washington area sniper killings.

The bill would penalize the sale of violent and sexually explicit video games to minors with a fine of as much as $1,000 and six months in jail -- a misdemeanor.

Similar bans are pending before state legislatures across the nation, including those of California, Washington, Georgia and Alabama.

The increasingly realistic graphics and overwhelming popularity of such violent games as "Halo" and the "Grand Theft Auto" series, and games such as "Doom" before them, have given rise to concerns among consumer groups and law enforcement officials that the games are contributing to violence by minors.

They point to the fact that Malvo played Halo regularly before the sniper shootings, according to a witness at Malvo's December 2003 trial. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters, were obsessive players of "Doom."

Opponents say the Maryland measure, sponsored by Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's), runs afoul of the First Amendment. They point to several court rulings in recent years that say the government has no right to prohibit the sale of violent or sexually explicit material, regardless of how distasteful it is.

Several legislators said yesterday that although they may support the idea of keeping children from violent games, they are uneasy about banning them, even just for minors.

"When you start talking about freedom of speech, you need to be very careful," said Del. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Baltimore County). "There's a lot of things we don't want kids to do. . . . Is the next step prohibiting kids from watching movies where kids drink?"

Proponents believe that the Maryland measure would probably withstand a test in court because the games pose a "public safety hazard," according to Jack Thompson, a lawyer representing the families of several Alabama police officers killed in a shooting by a teenager who Thompson said modeled the killings on a popular video game.

Although federal courts have knocked down similar measures in recent years, the Maryland proposal is different because the games have become so advanced technologically that they are much more potent than older video games, Thompson said.

New studies, he said, have shown that the brains of adolescents and children are particularly susceptible to the interactive violence found in those games.

"This is not a question of taste," Thompson told the committee yesterday. "It is a question of public safety. . . . Nobody among the [nation's] founders would have suggested that children somehow have a right to purchase materials that are harmful to them."

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