Culture crusaders: who's who in Trump's gun violence roundtable

Sabrina Siddiqui in Washington
Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House on Thursday in Washington DC. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

As Donald Trump convenes a meeting on Thursday to address violence in video games, in the wake of last month’s Florida school shooting, those in attendance will include a group that argues the Muppets drink too much, and another committed to exposing strident liberal bias on television.

The president’s round table at the White House will be the latest in a series of discussions on school safety after a gunman left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman high school in Parkland on 14 February.

And although representatives of the mainstream Entertainment Software Association and executives from other gaming parent companies are slated to attend, they will be seated across from a bevy of culture crusaders who have sought to tie mass shootings to violence in video games and movies – despite decades of research failing to produce such a link.

In attendance will be retired Lt Col Dave Grossman, the author of Assassination Generation: Video Games, Aggression, and the Psychology of Killing, a book that purports to “reveal how violent video games have ushered in a new era of mass homicide”. Grossman characterizes himself as an expert in “killology”.

Also present will be Melissa Henson, an advocate from the Parents Television Council, a group that has stood in staunch opposition to depictions of or allusions to sex and violence in entertainment.

The PTC has previously attacked TV content such as Britney Spears and Rihanna performing suggestively at a music awards show and lobbied the airline industry to protect passengers as “a captive audience” forced to witness a “barrage of adult-oriented entertainment” in in-flight entertainment.

And even the Muppets have not escaped the PTC’s wrath. In 2015, the group released a study claiming that children who watched The Muppets “were exposed to adult-themed content every three minutes and 38 seconds during the first four episodes”.

The Muppets. Photograph: Nicole Wilder/ABC via Getty Images

Meanwhile, Brent Bozell, the founder of the conservative Media Research Center, will also participate. Bozell is a longtime critic of the gaming industry, but at the same time a staunch opponent of gun control.

“Somehow, Democrats isolate the inherent evil of a gun almost as if it’s self-shooting, while denying our violent media has any influence on these under-21 shooters,” he once said.

Much of Bozell’s work has been dedicated to proving widespread liberal bias in both the media and entertainment industry.

Trump has himself pointed a finger at violence in video games and entertainment while discussing school shootings, stating days after Parkland: “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.”

Although the president has called for stricter gun measures in the wake of Parkland, he has repeatedly wavered on what proposals he would sign into law. Last week, Trump drew the ire of conservatives for embracing new age restrictions for purchasing certain firearms and universal background checks, prompting his aides to privately reassure Republicans that the president was not firmly committed to the ideas.

The only lawmakers expected at Thursday’s meeting are Representatives Vicky Hartzler of Missouri and Martha Roby of Alabama, both Republicans who oppose new gun safety measures. The Florida senator Marco Rubio, who has proposed a set of modest gun safety reforms since Parkland, will also attend.

Dan Hewitt from the Entertainment Software Association, which represents companies including Ubisoft, Nintendo, EA and Activision, said his group hopes its attendance will help steer a “fact-based conversation” about video game ratings. But he denied the games themselves were responsible for gun violence.

“Video games are plainly not the issue: entertainment is distributed and consumed globally, but the US has an exponentially higher level of gun violence than any other nation,” Hewitt said.

Other participants include Patricia Vance, the president of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), a non-profit body for the video game industry in the United States, which includes the assignment of age ratings to video games and mobile apps.

In a statement on Thursday, the White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said the purpose of the event will be “to discuss violent video-game exposure and the correlation to aggression and desensitization in children”.

“This meeting will be the first of many with industry leaders to discuss this important issue.”