OPINION: Is anyone surprised that, following a one-week waiting period since 20 children and six others were gunned down in a Newtown, Conn. elementary school, the National Rifle Association would surface to pass the buck and blame the carnage on violent Hollywood movies and video games?
It has only been a few months since the last gun massacre, when 12 were killed and 58 wounded by an assault weapon-wielding madman during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. In the aftermath, I asked a number of filmmakers — and even studio moguls assembled at our The Contenders panel — if that tragedy caused them to re-evaluate the violence they depict onscreen. It’s a no-win question for studio moguls, and they were circumspect; they said they understood the responsibility of movies that project into the culture differently than other forms of media. But they haven’t dramatically changed the decision-making process on the movies they finance and distribute to the masses because they feel they already exercise responsible restraint. Quentin Tarantino — whom I interviewed before the Connecticut massacre — flat out rejects the notion that movie violence leads to the real thing.
“I think that guy was a nut,” Tarantino told me in Playboy Magazine, referring to the Aurora shooter. “He went in there to kill a bunch of people because he knew there would be a lot of people there and he’d make a tremendous amount of news doing it. That’s no different from a guy going into a McDonald’s and shooting up people at lunchtime because he knows a lot of people will be there.” When I asked him to address criticism that onscreen violence promulgates the real thing, Tarantino pointedly said, “I make violent movies. I like violent movies. I’m on record about how I feel there is no correlation between art and life in that way.”
Some of my favorite films, from The Godfather to Heat and Goodfellas, depict violence. I hate guns, have never owned one, and do worry about gratuitously violent films — particularly in the horror genre — and I won’t watch them. I do find it disconcerting that right after the last two major shootings that studios and TV networks had to alter movies like Gangster Squad and more recently change marketing on films like Jack Reacher because of parallels to tragic events. I don’t play video games, and personally loathe those that make players participants in warfare settings. That’s mainly because I feel it is the height of disrespect to the armed forces risking their lives, only to have their soldiering reduced to a form of mindless entertainment. But for a gun lobby to point the finger at Hollywood for semi-automatic killing sprees is preposterous and it’s too bad that we are only just waking up to that.
One flaw in the NRA’s logic is this: film is more than ever a global business. Those “blood-soaked films” the NRA refers to are now digested by worldwide audiences. Spend five minutes on Google and you come away with some interesting questions. Why is it that in 2008, for instance, there were 12,000 gun homicides in the U.S., compared with 42 in Great Britain and 11 in Japan, where kids are watching the same films and playing the same games. What’s different is the rigorous constrictions those countries place on firearm ownership, down to buying bullets, especially when it comes to the semi-automatic weapons that are so commonplace here that a mother didn’t think twice about teaching her troubled son how to handle her coterie of weapons. The ones he used to kill her and slaughter a classroom full of innocent children.
If Hollywood stubbornly stands behind the First Amendment and the NRA continues to stand behind the Second Amendment, little good will come out of this tragedy and it probably won’t be long until the next one. Studios can certainly exercise better judgment on depicting violence in their films and using it to sell their movies, but the continued free flow of semi-automatic weapons and jumbo ammo clips has to be curtailed. The momentum toward that following Newtown is starting to feel very much like what happened to Big Tobacco. After years of invincibility in the courts and on Capitol Hill, the industry finally got its comeuppance. When I started in journalism and worked at Newsday, more reporters than not smoked in the newsroom; when that began to be eradicated, some of those journalists wrote incensed columns about infringement on their rights. Later, I noticed some of the same people wrote that they were wrong, as they were struggling with lung cancer. Back then, smoking on airplanes was rampant. Does anyone even remember those days?
That erosion of Big Tobacco’s invincibility was skillfully chronicled in the Michael Mann film The Insider, and tobacco-maker Brown & Williamson’s attempt to suppress whistle blowing biologist Jeffrey Wigand from spilling secrets on the addiction qualities of cigarettes. I hope I am around long enough to see the comparable film that should be made on what it took to enact a ban of semi-automatic weapons and ammunition clips that are only good for warfare or mass murder. Continued availability of shotguns and six-shooters, weapons for hunting and home protection that take longer to reload, upholds the spirit of a Second Amendment that was written by the Founding Fathers in close proximity to America declaring independence and kicking out the British. There was no contemplation of semi-automatic weapons, only survival.
America has been changed irreparably by the horrific killing in Newtown, and hopefully the momentum toward reforms won’t change after the images of those 20 angelic little faces begins to fade. And people will wonder how the NRA, representing 4.3 million in a population over 300 million, was able to dictate gun policy for so long.