"Mayor Peterson fires blanks

Mayor Bart Peterson made news not long ago by being elected president of the National League of Cities. This, presumably, is a good thing, although what it actually means for us in Indianapolis is a bit of a mystery. It’s been said that this might be a resume booster for the mayor. That seems unlikely. Let’s face it: Once you get to be mayor of a city this size you can stop worrying about trying to fit your bona fides on two pages, neatly typed.

Mayor Peterson used his new position as an opportunity to take a pot shot at one of his favorite targets: media violence and, in particular, violent video games. “All I know,” he said, “is that when I was a kid there were disaffected students, students who felt ostracized … but they didn’t shoot up their schools. Something has changed. Most don’t follow up hours of video game violence with criminal acts, but can we ignore the connection when we … see so plainly that our society is cruder and our crime rates are rising?”

The mayor tried to deal with this issue during his first term by proposing an ordinance that would have banned coin-operated violent video games throughout the city. The ordinance was passed by the City-County Council but ultimately struck down in the courts as being unconstitutional. So it’s interesting to see him revisiting the issue in a national forum.

The fact that Peterson’s city is in the midst of one of its bloodiest years on record must have something to do with this. People here have been killing one another at an alarming rate, prompting voices to be raised: Something must be done.

Police patrols have been increased in high-risk neighborhoods. Video surveillance cameras have been posted in a handful of locations. A consolidated, metropolitan police force will take to the streets in January. But so far, no one seems to be breathing any easier about crime. If anything, people are afraid things will get worse.

Peterson isn’t wrong to blame the media for having a part in this mess. Our arts and entertainment have become super-saturated with depictions of people doing unspeakable things to one another. Some, of course, will say that this simply reflects what’s happening in the real world, which is true enough. They will also say that no one yet has been able to scientifically show a cause-and-effect relationship between portrayals of violence and violent acts. But this not only denies a role for common sense, it misses the point that while graphic depictions of violence may not spark copycat behavior, they certainly grant a kind of cultural permission, turning the unspeakable into idle chatter.

In tagging media violence, Peterson is getting at a larger issue. Self-destructive entertainments, no matter how aesthetically compelling, are the symptom of a broken culture. And a broken culture is a seedbed for crime.

I applaud the mayor’s insight. But there are any number of eggheads, big mouths and wise guys like me available to make this point. From the mayor we want a more practical kind of leadership like, for example, a realistic stand on guns.

Firearms have been involved in so many of the homicides committed in Indianapolis in the past 12 months that 2006 could be called the Year of the Gun. As a few of our professional basketball stars recently demonstrated outside a local strip club, guns have become a kind of fashion accessory in this town. But then Indianapolis happens to be in a state with some of the most lax gun laws in the country.

If you think that I want to try and take your guns away, forget it. This has nothing to do with the right to bear arms. But that right has nothing to do with providing a gun to anybody who wants one, whenever they want it, in any number they choose.

Indiana, for example, does not have a one-handgun-per-month limit on gun sales. We have no limitations on assault weapons and magazines. Our police cannot limit the carrying of concealed handguns. Minors here are not restricted from possessing guns and no license or permit is required to buy a handgun. There is no waiting period on gun sales, no requirement that all guns be registered with law enforcement, no background checks required at gun shows or on private gun sales.

The mayor of Indiana’s biggest city should be the first one to say that this situation doesn’t make sense. He’s the one who has to preside over the angry public meetings, the calls to action, the visits to stricken neighborhoods and, too often, the funerals. In Indiana it’s easier to get your hands on a gun than a driver’s license. This is nuts — and the mayor needs to help change it.

Mayor Peterson’s desire to focus the attention of his fellow mayors on the effects of media violence on children sounds like a reasonable agenda for a liberal arts seminar, but for a city on the verge of breaking an all-time record for homicides it’s weak tea. To put a new twist on an old saying, violent video games don’t kill people, guns do.




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