AT an age when boys used to point toy guns and say, "Bang!," they now aim real guns and shoot one another. Nearly 4,200 teenagers were killed by firearms in 1990. Only motor vehicle accidents kill more teenagers than firearms, and the firearms figures are rising. The chance that a black male between the ages of 15 and 19 will be killed by a gun has almost tripled since 1985, and almost doubled for white males, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Who could disagree with Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala when she pronounced these statistics "frightening and intolerable"? In the shameful light of this "waste of young lives," in Ms. Shalala's words, an often-asked question seems urgently due to be raised again: Would less violence on television - the surrounding environment for most children and young adults - make violence in actual life less normal, less accepted, less horrifyingly habitual?
It may be difficult to prove an exact correlation between the viewer of fantasized violence and the criminal who acts out violence after turning off the set. But if the premise of education is granted - that good models can influence the young - then it follows that bad models can have an equivalent harmful effect. This is the reasonable hypothesis held by 80 percent of the respondents to a recent Times Mirror poll who think that violent entertainment is "harmful" to society.
Witness enough mimed shootouts, see enough "corpses" fall across the screen, and the taking of a human life seems no big deal. Even if a simple causal relationship cannot be established between watching violence and acting it out, is not this numbed sensitivity reason enough for cutting back on the overkill in films and TV?
There are other, deeper explanations for all the blazing firearms, including poverty and unemployment. But these require major expenditures and long-range policies. Taming the flagrant brutality in shoot-'em-up scenarios - this reform can be undertaken promptly at little cost. Modest self-restraint among the special-effects massacres that pass for plots would hardly constitute a dangerous restriction of free speech in the entertainment industry.