California legislators are considering making sales of violent video games to minors illegal, joining a national debate about whether the industry should be left to regulate itself, like movie theater

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -- California legislators are considering making sales of violent video games to minors illegal, joining a national debate about whether the industry should be left to regulate itself, like movie theaters -- and whether the bans will run afoul of free speech guarantees.

At stake is whether the fastest-growing segment of the entertainment industry, already worth $10 billion a year, can be regulated by governments in a way that the movie and music industries have managed to avoid.

The Entertainment Software Assn. argues that minors are not getting violent games without parental approval; parents are present nearly 90% of the time games are purchased by minors. The average game buyer, it says, is 36 years old.

Nonetheless, California Assemblyman Leland Yee, with the support of groups like the Girl Scouts and the California State PTA, on Feb. 16 announced his second attempt in two years to restrict game sales to minors aged 16 or younger. Retailers would be fined $1,000 for each violation.

The ESA said measures are already pending in Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington state and Washington D.C.

But free-speech advocates say there is little chance a ban can get around First Amendment guarantees on free speech.

Federal courts have already blocked sales-restricting measures in Indianapolis, Indiana; St. Louis County, Missouri; and Washington state.

The Federal Trade Commission, in its last report last summer on the marketing of violence to kids, said the industry could and likely would improve its track record.

Rep. Joe Baca, a California Democrat, introduced bills in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 and 2003 that would have made it a misdemeanor to sell or rent violent or sexually graphic games to minors. In a statement, Baca said he would introduce some sort of legislation this year.

Proponents of regulation say they will not be swayed despite aggressive lobbying against them.

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