Former Time Warner chairman Jerry Levin occasionally lends his point of view to Deadline on issues that move him. Those have ranged from questioning the wisdom of Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to take over Time Warner, to revealing in the wake of Robin Williams’ death that Levin too had Parkinson’s disease, and what role it might have played in Williams’ state of mind when the entertainer ended his own life. Like many, Levin is right now processing the latest shooting massacre, in which a gunman opened fire at a screening of the film Trainwreck in Lafayette, LA, killing two before turning the gun on himself. Levin has a connection to the tragedy that most thankfully do not. In 1997, his 31-year-old high school English teacher son Jonathan was murdered, a gunshot to his head, by a former student. The memories come boiling back up with each senseless gun murder, and he hoped to use the latest tragedy as a rallying cry for Hollywood to lead the way toward a reckoning on how to stop the free flow of guns into the wrong hands.
DEADLINE: Yet another incident of senseless gun violence in a movie theater happened last night. As one who held a position of stature in media, and who had a child taken away by a gun murder, how do you process each one of these tragedies that no one seems to be able to do anything to stop?
LEVIN: It is the trauma and the tragedy all over again, and it’s unspeakable. It doesn’t matter if it happened yesterday, or 18 years ago. What is hard for anyone to understand is, the stark suddenness of when a bullet takes the life of a member of a family. You are haunted for the rest of your days, wondering what it must have been like for your loved one, in that last moment of impact or the instant searing shot from a gun aimed at them. You live with that vicarious trauma without any answers or emotional resolution.
DEADLINE: This sounds horrible, a parent’s worst nightmare.
LEVIN: You put it in a context that is just startling because in every case, a family member was either going to work, or going into the movie theater in Aurora or Lafayette, or going to pray in a church in South Carolina, and then with a single bullet, that life is taken. For my son, he was simply welcoming a former student. It’s… so hard for the system to even relate to it. Once it has happened to you, every time it happens to someone else, your heart bleeds and you cry internally because, here’s another example of where a family member doing something so innocent in daily life, and it taken away by a gun.
DEADLINE: This is a complex problem. I see it one way, call me a liberal, but this is about gun control and not about security in theaters or other places where violence is being perpetrated. Is there a larger lesson here, coming from someone whose child was murdered?
LEVIN: The issue of gun control for the Hollywood community, and not just because there are theaters involved, but because everybody a member of a family and a society, it’s all about standing up and making a change. Whether you’re a liberal, a conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, or what part of the community you’re in, it’s time. Time for leadership to not take away anybody’s constitutional right, but to just be sensitive to the fact that guns should not be easily available or in the hands of those who have mental health issues. There has to be a way where everyone comes together. My suggestion is the Hollywood community, which has such impact on the world, stand up and take the leadership on this issue and not back down, because it’s hard or difficult. And it is also important to raise the profile on mental health issues. Why is there such a stigma attached to mental health issues when we can understand physical diseases of the body. It’s time for us as a society to do something about it. Those two issues are joined: recognition that mental health needs to be addressed, and gun control.
DEADLINE: Attempts at reform always seem to run into charges of infringing on Second Amendment rights to bear arms.
LEVIN: I have a view that the Second Amendment was never intended to allow the free acquisition, for whatever purpose, even though that’s the way it has been interpreted. If the Founding Fathers were alive today, and saw what is happening, they would make clear that they were talking about a collective right for states to have a militia. They were not talking about this kind of violence and individuals using it to their advantage to have a gun. It’s time to stand up and do something. It’s one thing to stand up and express sentiments to the grieving family. I think at this point it just goes so much deeper. Let’s take the leadership on this issue.
DEADLINE: When Harvey Weinstein spoke publicly on this issue, it caused him problems. As evidenced by the way rival studios let Sony Pictures twist in the wind, alone, after the studio got hacked, Hollywood is not by nature a brave industry. Realistically, what are the chances that Hollywood as an entity would show courage here and what could it do?
LEVIN: By speaking up, in a unified way, not necessarily getting caught up in the political action that surrounds what are the details of some sort of regulation, but just saying it’s time. It’s just time for something to happen, and that the issue is much bigger and deeper than any political division or the right to carry a gun. The issue is about the violence in our society. As storytellers, we have an obligation to stand up and tell the world that it’s just time to put a stop to this. We want America to be the leading teller of stories, we want America, and Hollywood, to be worldwide. Why is it that our country has this disease of gun violence? It needs to stop. I know you’re saying the community has to be careful, given its position and desire to distribute films and television. But this is a nonpartisan issue. It’s about family members being struck down by guns. It’s as simple and stark as that. It’s just time. I can’t think of an issue more important for the community to come together and stand up and not divide on something so significant as the right to prevent this from happening to other families.
DEADLINE: If I’m overstepping here, tell me and we’ll move on. You went through a parent’s worst nightmare. When your son was murdered, how did you process it at the time, and are you still processing it?
LEVIN: It is something that is a horror and a shock and it persists to this day. The only solace that I can give is, every day, I visit with my son and I’m inspired to do important things, to not only keep his memory alive, but to try and make his death not be in vain. But to serve a purpose, and that is, to enlighten a father to do something important, to take a personal tragedy and elevate it to a societal level. And then to call on the institutions in our country to operate in public interest and not just in the interest of making money or whatever the short term is. That is the best testament I can give to my son, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t visualize him and that we don’t visit together.
DEADLINE: Approach this as an executive for a moment. Is there something here you think can mobilize Hollywood to not sit passively after another tragedy has touched the movie business?
LEVIN: There’s probably some kind of bipartisan call to be made to the president, to the Republicans running for president, to the congress. To come together and find an acceptable solution to show we won’t put this behind us after the media stops covering it. A call to action that is totally bipartisan, that is not coming from any self-interest from the Hollywood community, other than a feeling of compassion for families and a notion that the exceptionalism of America depends on taking on an issue like this one.
DEADLINE: To play devil’s advocate here, I would have thought that if such a move were to happen, it would have followed the murder of 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut preschool by a shooter who had autism and should never have had the weaponry and artillery used to massacre those kids.
LEVIN: That’s precisely the point. It touches a raw nerve, and the better part of our compassion. And then we go back to work, and the media goes on to the next story. How about in South Carolina, when people were praying and were gunned down? That’s why this is so important. How can we make this different? Let’s stop, with this one. Not because it’s more egregious than any of the others, but because it’s time to stop putting it away and going back to business as usual. That courage, that clarion call is not partisan, or self-interested. It’s just saying, stop. Let’s do something. We don’t have the answers, but…stop. Don’t let this one fade away. It’s not about Obama’s legacy, it’s not about the Republicans running for president, or congress or those states who honor the carrying of guns for recreation. It’s not about any of those issues. It’s about what can we do stand up and say, enough, we’re going to take this as a key to make a change and show how America can be unified and not divisive as it is on so many issues. If that can be promoted by the Hollywood community, which usually doesn’t stand tall and combined and unified. If the Hollywood community can do it, then perhaps our government can do it.
DEADLINE: Even with special interest and all the money that politicians rely on and which prompted them to indemnify gun makers for these kinds of acts? It just seems an insurmountable thing given that loyalties of legislators on this issue don’t seem to be with their constituents as much as the lobby that gets them elected or hurts them if they show defiance?
LEVIN: Money, unfortunately, dominates the political scene and there are advocacy groups for guns who put a lot of money out. Again, that’s another reason for standing up on a simple position, and just saying, enough. Let’s finance a campaign, where the theme is, stop, let’s make a better society in this country. I think this applies across the board for all corporations who are in business for shareholders. Our American corporations, whether it’s the movie studios, Apple or the tech giants. They have worldwide effect, enormous effect on the daily lives of citizens around the world. To stand up and take a position on an issue that is much deeper and affects humanity more than the specifics of the business would signal that in America, our American companies stand for values.
DEADLINE: It seems difficult for America to present itself as the model to the world, when you find a fraction of the gun massacres in countries where guns are not so readily available…
LEVIN: OK, so there is something going on in the culture. What you just described suggests clearly that there is something in our culture that needs to be addressed. It’s not out of the question…you know how commissions are usually appointed by governments to study something? I’m not necessarily suggesting this, but since this is such a deep seated set of complicated issues, from mental health to fundamental freedoms, maybe there is some commission that should take a look at it. One that is bipartisan, that could come up with recommendations and continue to exist so this doesn’t fade when the headlines fade. It would be highly unusual for the private sector to arrange that, it’s usually government work. But maybe it’s time for the private sector to be publicly oriented here.