President Donald Trump’s stated response to a mass shooting at a Florida high school last month was initially broad in scope. But in recent days, he and his aides have begun slimming down their ambitions, with a particular focus now on shifting more blame onto video games.
On Thursday, the White House is planning to meet with envoys of the video game industry to discuss how violent imagery on their platforms may desensitize young people to firearms—and even train them to be more effective killers. Industry sources tell The Daily Beast that they are worried the session will be an ambush—an effort to scapegoat them for shootings in schools.
The meeting comes after weeks of internal White House wavering on gun-related policy items, with the president endorsing a Democratic gun control wish list on live television, only to have the White House walk it back after Trump’s closed-door meeting with the National Rifle Association shortly thereafter.
Press secretary Sarah Sanders mentioned offhand at a press briefing last week that the president would be meeting with gaming industry representatives, signaling yet another shift in the internal policy discussion. But even that effort has been marked by disorder and internal confusion.
Industry leaders were caught off guard by the announcement, with the leading trade group, the Entertainment Software Association, saying in a statement shortly after that it had received no invitation to such an event. Planning since then has been described as haphazard. Industry executives and envoys and lawmakers on Capitol Hill were eventually contacted, but when they tried to get specific details out of the administration, they ran up against roadblocks.
Knowledgeable sources says that the Trump White House has scrambled to cobble together some semblance of a serious policy meeting. And much of the heavy lifting for putting the session together, according to those briefed on the matter, has fallen to White House Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short and Director of Strategic Communications Mercedes Schlapp. But as of Tuesday afternoon, it was not clear who, exactly, would attend, who was invited, and whether the Thursday meeting would be televised or not, according to multiple sources in and out of the Trump administration.
A White House spokesman insisted to The Daily Beast that a list of attendees would be released on Wednesday. Schlapp and Short did not respond to requests for comment. Other sources spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
By Wednesday morning, the full guest list was still unclear, but two sources with direct knowledge told The Daily Beast that conservative figure L. Brent Bozell, head of the Media Research Center and video-game critic, was set to attend the Thursday summit.
Among the video game industry and its allies, frustration and fears have grown as the disorder became clearer. In particular, there is concern that the White House will insist on cameras being allowed to broadcast from the session so that the president could create a video-ready culture-war moment on the causes of school shootings.
Words such as “pointless,” “stunt,” and “dog and pony show” were regularly thrown around during tense exchanges involving video-game industry reps and administration officials over the past week. Industry and administration sources conceded that whatever meeting happens on Thursday, it is unlikely to yield concrete, effective policy or legislative measures. Gun control groups themselves framed the session as largely superficial to the larger debate.
“I think you only have to look at Canada,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “They see the same video games that Americans do. They get all the same cultural signals and they don’t have a problem with gun violence as we do. In the end it is not about video games.”
As Feinblatt noted, the link between video games and gun violence has little empirical basis, as studies have repeatedly shown. And the planned White House meeting, the gaming industry worries, appears to be a way to shift a national conversation on gun violence away from gun control measures anathema to Trump’s conservative base and onto an industry with far less political clout in the administration.
“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,” said the Entertainment Software Association, the industry’s leading trade group, said in a statement on Monday. The ESA said it will attend Thursday’s meeting in order “to have a fact-based conversation about video game ratings, our industry’s commitment to parents, and the tools we provide to make informed entertainment choices.”
The president would take issue with the sentiment that gory video games are “not the issue.” He has held several other meetings personally with stakeholders in the gun control debate since the Parkland shooting. And in one of them, a summit with mayors at the White House last week, he singled out the video game industry in particular.
“We have to look at the internet because a lot of bad things are happening to young kids and young minds, and their minds are being formed,” Trump said. “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.”
It’s a common talking point for the National Rifle Association—a key Trump ally—as well. In the wake of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, took aim squarely at the video game industry.
“There exists in this country, sadly, a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people, through vicious, violent video games with names like ‘Bulletstorm,’ ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ ‘Mortal Kombat,’ and “Splatterhouse,’” he said.
“Guns don’t kill people,” LaPierre declared. “Video games, the media, and Obama’s budget kill people.”
—with additional reporting by Sam Stein