While Democrats clamored for stricter gun regulations and Gov. Greg Abbott discussed measures to tighten school security following Friday’s mass shooting at Santa Fe High School, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick set his sights on another target: the makers of violent films and video games.
Patrick spent the weekend on national television talking about what was to blame for the tragedy in southeast Texas that left 10 people dead, the latest in a spate of mass shootings across the country. It wasn't the ready availability of guns in this country, Patrick said. Instead, the bloodshed was the result of a "violent culture where we've devalued life," Patrick told ABC's George Stephanopoulos.
"We have devalued life, whether it's through abortion, whether it's the breakup of families, through violent movies and particularly violent video games, which now outsell movies and music," he said. "Psychologists and psychiatrists will tell you that students are desensitized to violence, have lost empathy for their victims by watching hours and hours of violent video games."
But many of those games are at least partially produced in Texas — including “Prey,” a first-person shooter horror game rated for mature players age 17 or older, and “Doom,” another mature-rated first-person shooter that depicts "mutilated corpses with exposed organs/viscera strewn in the environment," according to the Entertainment Software Rating Board. And the state government has given millions of dollars in incentives to some of their creators.
Patrick has supported those state-funded incentive payments to lure film, television and video game creators to Texas, but on Wednesday he said those payments should be barred from certain projects or he would withdraw his support for the incentives program.
"The lieutenant governor does not support using state taxpayer dollars to make violent films or video games that are harmful to our children," spokesman Alejandro Garcia said in an email, noting the Texas Film Commission may decide which projects get reimbursed. "If this is the direction they are going, the lieutenant governor will not support their funding requests in the future."
The Texas Film Commission, which reports to Abbott and administers the Texas Moving Image Industry Incentive Program, can dole out reimbursements to film, television and video game makers to cover some of the costs they incur locally. The program's goal is to make Texas an attractive state for creative businesses, and it has backing from the governor, as well as film, television and video game producers.
But it's a source of heartburn for Tea Party lawmakers, who are quick to pillory the incentive payments as corporate welfare for Hollywood. State Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, who last year filed a bill that would have defunded the program, declined to comment for this story but said her previous legislation speaks for itself.
Lawmakers have scaled back funding for the moving image program after it received a record-high $95 million two-year budget for 2014 and 2015. Though Abbott last year hoped lawmakers would allocate $72 million for film and video game makers, the final appropriation came to about $22 million.
At the time, Patrick vowed to support the incentives program, diverging from the more conservative lawmakers of the Senate he presides over. Patrick told a gathering of the Texas Cultural Trust that he'd work to find funding for the program, according to a Texas Monthly report from February 2017, during the early days of the legislative session. "I am disappointed that we are not the film capital of the United States," he was quoted as saying.
As of January 2015, the most recent month for which data was readily available, video game companies had received $9.7 million in state incentive payments, receiving payouts for shooter games such as “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” which received $10,000; “BioShock Infinite,” which received $19,000; “Section 8,” which received $250,000; and “Loadout,” which received $1.1 million.
A spokesman for the Entertainment Software Association, a video game trade group, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
In the same time period, Texas had given out about $16 million for feature films since the program began in 2008. (The governor's office directed a Texas Tribune reporter to file an open records request for more recent data.)
Mindy Raymond, a board member of the Texas Motion Picture Alliance industry group, said the vast majority of film projects that received incentive payments were not violent and that a significant number were "faith based." She said it was up to the Texas Film Commission to decide which films and video games received funding.
"I think they do a wonderful job as far as spreading the love, so to speak, of the limited funds that we do have, to various projects," Raymond said. "I think lumping in our program with a horrific act and saying that our program shouldn't incentivize violent film and video games … I don't think that it's fair necessarily to bring in our incentive program into that conversation."
After a 2016 court ruling involving the film “Machete,” the Texas Film Commission has broad authority to deny funds to projects if it finds they portray Texas in a negative way. The 2010 Robert Rodriguez film starred Danny Trejo as a former Mexican federal officer-turned-vigilante who accepts a hit contract from a corrupt Texas state senator before being used as a pawn in the senator's hardline immigration policies. Filmed in and around Austin, the movie was theoretically eligible for a financial grant from the state's film commission to partially reimburse costs, but the claim was denied upon a final review.
The court ruled the commission could decide, after the film's release, that it ran afoul of a state law that denies such incentives to any movie including "inappropriate content or content that portrays Texas or Texans in a negative fashion." Critics warned the ruling could lead state officials to effectively practice censorship by denying funds to projects they dislike.
The Film Commission directed questions to the governor's office. A spokeswoman for Abbott did not immediately respond to emailed questions.
Not everyone thinks the lieutenant governor's fixation on video games is justified.
"We also have violent video games in other developed countries," Stephanopoulos fired back at Patrick during the Sunday interview. So how could Patrick explain the high rate of shootings in the U.S. compared to other countries?
Patrick declined to make the comparison, saying there were too many differences between the U.S. and other countries. "We cannot sit back and say it's the gun," he said. "It's us as a nation."
Disclosure: The Texas Cultural Trust has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.