“You guys did it here in one fell swoop, and I wish that could happen in my country,” Damon said. “But it's such a personal issue for people that we cannot talk about it sensibly. We just can't."
That summer, nobody could. Three weeks prior, a man had walked into an Orlando nightclub, armed with two semi-automatic weapons, and shot 49 people to death in a matter of minutes. With gun control once again at the forefront of US news media, many left-leaning celebrities were speaking up to demand policy change, and express outrage at the conservative establishment which seemed to value weapons over human lives. Yet, not much has changed since Damon concluded: “People get so emotional that even when you make a suggestion about not selling AK-47s to people on terror watch lists, that's a non-starter. I don't know what needs to happen.”
In fact, the Pulse nightclub shooter had not used an AK-47. He used a SIG Sauer assault rifle and a Glock 17 handgun. Damon used the same handgun himself, in the film he was promoting on this junket: Jason Bourne.
Of course, Damon is hardly the only actor to advocate for reformed gun laws, while simultaneously making an enormously lucrative living wielding the weapons on screen. Charlize Theron has long been openly anti-gun, having almost been shot by her own father, who was himself shot and killed in self-defense, by her mother. In 2014, she even convinced then boyfriend Sean Penn to scrap his massive collection of "cowardly killing machines." Last year, Theron starred in Atomic Blonde, as the armed an lethal heroine, "with a body count higher than her chain-encrusted high-heeled boots." This month, Liam Neeson will open yet another Taken-esque thriller wherein a middle-aged guy in a suit unwittingly winds up a one-man killing machine. Yet Neeson, perhaps more than any celebrity, has declared himself not only pro-gun control, but anti-Second Amendment, full stop. "It is the right to bear arms that is the problem," he claimed. America's gun culture, "[is] a fucking disgrace."
Neither of these action stars, nor any of their peers, has ever publicly expressed a conflict in demanding fewer guns in America, while promoting even more of them in Hollywood. It's rare they're even asked to consider it, and when the issue does arise, the answer is typically a resounding "no comment." Even Damon — who's proven himself unable to withhold commentary on many issues — saw nothing amiss in calling for a gun ban while sitting beside a poster of himself with his finger on the trigger. “I would hate to see [the movie] be politicized.”
That’s fair. Film is fiction, one of our country’s most treasured arts (and exports), protected under one of its central tenets: Freedom of expression. Pitting the First Amendment against the Second has so far gotten us nowhere. Research indicates violent media has little, or no effect on behavior — or at least, it does not cause it. But set aside our behavior, and consider our perception, our reaction, and the gravity — or lack thereof — with which we think of guns and what they do to people. How have our hearts and minds been shaped by a hundred years of Hollywood?
We are accustomed to arguing the import of responsible representation elsewhere. We righteously and correctly decry the insidious objectification of women on screen, and the hateful erasure of queer characters and performers of color, under the simple, unassailable argument that representation matters. Those images bleed into our cultural consciousness, swaying both our individual beliefs and our societal norms; that is the power of art, as we like to say. Except when we’re talking about guns — in that conversation, representation means nothing. It’s “just a movie.” Let’s not “politicize” it.
Fine. But if we are sincere in the desire to quell our country’s endless nightmare of gun violence, then we cannot ignore our gun culture. We can’t talk about that without examining our culture in general — at least, we won’t get very far if we don’t. And what is American culture without Hollywood?
The US is home to both the largest percentage of guns per capita and the most influential entertainment industry on earth. And while there is ceaseless debate over the violence in our nation, there is no question that, on our screens, it is at an all-time high — no more so than in PG-13 films
. Since that rating was created in 1985, depictions of guns on screen has more than tripled. Movies are more violent, ratings more lenient, and overall gun-use in film has risen approximately 51% in the last decade.
The latter data point was analyzed by The Hollywood Reporter, based on information gathered from IMFDB — the Internet Movie Firearms Database, a massive, searchable compilation of gun-usage on screen. IMFDB is clearly catering to gun fans — the site gets over a million unique visitors per month, 98% of which are reportedly males between 18 and 30 — but it’s remarkably dry in its presentation. The writing is technical and the screenshots feature the guns themselves, rather than people being shot. Some may find the very existence of IMFDB unsettling, but there are far more graphic spaces on the internet devoted to guns and killing on screen. Body Counters is another online database, this one listing the people and animals killed in a given movie (“Fresh bodies only,” reads their FAQ. “Pre-existing bodies do NOT count.”). Carnage Counts is one of several popular YouTube channels featuring compilation videos of on-screen kill scenes. You won’t just find action and horror films, either. There’s a whole category devoted to Disney and Pixar movies.
The proliferation of sites like these perhaps help answer one of the questions that always comes up in the debate about guns on screen: Have we become numbed by watching so much violence? Given the evidence at hand, we certainly haven’t become more sensitive. But, with the onslaught of shootings on screen, combined with the rise of real-life carnage, it’s worth asking ourselves why we’re still so entertained.
Guns have been a part of movies since the earliest days of the medium. Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film, The Great Train Robbery famously ends with a shot of the lead bandit character, Barnes, firing his gun directly at the camera, as if shooting the audience. “The shot added realism to the film by intensifying the spectators’ identification with the victimized travelers,” wrote film historian Charles Musser. It was undoubtedly effective, in this era when moving picture was still a brand new and astonishing technology. Legend has it that a few years earlier, audiences had fled in panic at the Lumière brothers film, The Arrival Of The Mail Train, as if frightened that the locomotive might come right through the screen.
As with any great technological advancement, a backlash soon followed. In 1929, the Payne Fund Studies began, launching what would become the first — and widely lambasted — study on the media’s influence on behavior. Specifically focusing on children, the researchers reported that movies were turning young viewers into “delinquents,” with girls becoming promiscuous and boys aggressive (or at least they pretended to be, when playing) thanks to what they’d seen on film. There was virtually no scientific methodology applied during the research, and thus the studies were immediately and consistently criticized as a scare tactic designed to create moral panic. Nevertheless, it worked. Shortly thereafter, the Hays Code was created, essentially eliminating sensuality, violence, crime — or even the slightest implication of these things — from film for over 30 years.
Today, the Paynes Fund Studies and the Hays Code are upheld as cautionary tales — reminders of what happens when we let panic and puritanism guide our choices. In 1968, newly elected MPAA president Jack Valenti acknowledged the code had, “the odious smell of censorship” and abandoned it for a new rating system (a version of which we still use today). The move ushered in a new era of American cinema, generating some of our most iconic films: The Godfather, Network, Jaws, A Clockwork Orange — stories which simply could not be told without the use of violence — as well as beloved action classics like Die Hard, The Terminator, and virtually all Clint Eastwood films, which centralized gun violence specifically. In many ways, the industry is still recovering from the Hays Code — or perhaps, reacting to it.
Twenty years later, Martin Scorsese directed Goodfellas. In it, he replicated the iconic shot from The Great Train Robbery, concluding the film with Joe Pesci firing his gun into the camera. By this point, cinematic violence was still a subject of debate and regulation, but it was permissible, and Scorsese had already created some of Hollywood’s most legendary shooters. It is worth noting, however, that Goodfellas contains far more guns than it does gunshots. There are only four gun deaths on screen, nearly all of which are committed by Pesci’s character, Tommy (who then becomes the final victim, himself). Moreover, Tommy is written as a loose cannon, his trigger-happy habits frowned upon even by his fellow gangsters.
This is not to say that Goodfellas did not earn its legacy as a film which romanticizes crime and violence. It absolutely does. Fired or not, Scorsese centralizes guns throughout the film — sometimes quite literally, filling the frame with a handgun. This could be interpreted as glorification or as fearful respect of the weapons, but either way, it stands in stark contrast to the way Scorsese uses guns in later films.
Consider 2006’s The Departed, the entire last third of which is essentially one long shoot-out, leaving most of its main characters unceremoniously executed (the movie’s final body count: 24). Goodfellas seems almost adolescent in comparison, with its close-up ogling of old-school, wood-handled pistols, its relative lack of gunfire, and above all, its reaction to death. Characters express fear, grief, rage, and shock; Scorsese allows the camera to linger on the deceased, giving the audience a moment to process. In The Departed, it’s just a big bang, a blood spatter, and then on to the next.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of the industry’s post-code rebound, or else just the natural evolution of the medium. Guns, like everything else on film, have become more amplified as technology advances and audiences grow less impressed with the same old shoot ‘em ups. But they have always been there, because, as Dr. Joe Pierre puts it, “Shooting is fun.” Pierre is a Clinical Professor of Psychology, and Psychology Today columnist, as well as an advocate for gun policy reform. Still, he writes, “If you want to understand the appeal of guns, you need to hold one in your hand and shoot it.” It’s not always — or even often — a homicidal thrill, he argues. Shooting is also a sport, and people enjoy getting better at it, which is why target ranges and skeet shooting (and even first-person shooter video games) are so popular. “There’s also an addicting quality to improving your accuracy,” Pierre writes.
Fun is just one part of why people are often drawn to guns. They represent safety to some, the same way they represent danger to others, Pierre points out. “If there’s a commonality between the pro-gun and anti-gun divide, it’s that people feel the world is unsafe. On the one hand, suburban, white parents who are strongly anti-gun are up in arms about gun control because they feel their children are endangered...Pro-gun advocates have similar concerns, but they feel that arming themselves is the only way to keep them safe.” It’s a generalization, but one in which some truth lies. There is a vast amount of evidence indicating that people are less safe in homes with guns, but there are at least some studies which conclude that guns prevent serious injury, “when used defensively.” For those who live in remote areas, far from police protection (or for those who mistrust law enforcement) Pierre argues that gun ownership seems even more necessary. Either way, “from a psychological perspective, it’s less important whether guns actually make us safer and more important whether guns make us feel safer.”
All this is likely what makes guns so appealing on screen as well. Pierre highlights the fact that guns have always been entrenched in American culture, and therefore in our fantasy lives as well: “For those of us who grew up watching cowboy movies, war movies, James Bond movies, and the like, the irresistible urge to act out the hero with toy guns starts at an early age.” As an Freudian could argue, a gun is not always just a gun. It is an object laden with symbolism. Whether it’s power, potency, safety, fun, or even the threat of mortality, there is a vicarious thrill to be had in seeing one wielded on the silver screen.
“Most human beings are afraid of death,” says screenwriter and director, Ry Russo-Young. “And there’s something really fun and liberating about watching a hero face death and survive. But that’s also my issue with these movies, sometimes. Someone can jump off a cliff and survive, or have a million bullets coming at them, and then get up and walk away.”
Russo-Young has been making films since the early 2000s, some of which have explored difficult or controversial subject matter, like death, suicide, and sex. All three were featured in her most recent release, Before I Fall, which was PG-13 and based on a young adult novel. Only the sex, however, was an issue for the ratings board. “I had to cut that scene down because it was considered too explicit,” she says. In the final film, sex is only implied, but there are repeated scenes of a fatal car crash and an attempted suicide. These harrowing moments were central to the plot, and Russo-Young took great care to present them in a way she felt was both realistic and responsible to her young audience. But she was alarmed that the MPAA’s primary concern was over teenagers having sex, rather than teenagers being killed. “If we look at what’s allowed in films, and what we’re saying is ‘acceptable’ for young people to watch, it’s horrifying. Suicide Squad is PG-13, too,” she says. “We’re saying it’s acceptable for them to watch violence, but not okay for them to watch something they’re probably already doing, which is sex.”
For most of her career, Russo-Young has steered away from violent content, and she has never used a gun on screen. She says she would though, as long as it was in a realistic context. “Right now, I’m working on a film about female soldiers in Afghanistan, and that clearly has guns in it,” she told me. “But if I’m going to have violence in film, I want to talk about violence as a topic. I see it as my responsibility to make it psychologically resonant.” She points to films like Elephant, A Prophet, and even the Bourne series, which explore the causes and consequences of killing. “That, I think, is more interesting than just the pleasure of bang-bang.”
Maybe context can make all the difference. Schindler’s List, for example, features almost twice as many shooting deaths than all the Bourne films combined, and there is no question over the role of killing in that film. To edit out the guns in Schindler would be tantamount to Holocaust denial. That film is not an escape from real life but a reminder of a real-life atrocity.
Most films are designed to do the opposite, though. Action movies give us the thrill without the fear, allowing us to to follow the hero on a perilous journey, knowing no matter how many bullets they take, they’ll come out alive. But it’s not just the vicarious escape from death that draws in viewers by the millions. It’s the thrill of vicarious killing, too. If all we wanted was to watch our heroes survive, then none of them would have guns themselves. There would be no Jason Bourne, John Wick, or James Bond. We would lose nearly all of our action heroes, if not the entire genre, and that would be a significant loss. “Aren’t movies a form of escapism?” asks Russo-Young. “Can’t there be pleasure it watching someone kill a bunch of ‘bad guys?’ Are people not allowed to have that in today’s current reality?’’ She pauses. “Maybe the answer is yes.”
by It’s a bold answer — even a bold question to raise, in an industry still fighting regulators for full artistic liberty. Any suggestion that might be construed as censorial is perceived as intolerable, even in the wake of a national tragedy. In 2016, after the Pulse nightclub shooting, actor and filmmaker Michael Showalter tweeted: “Feeling angry at everyone including Hollywood movies that glorify violence. Liberal actors shooting guns left and right. Hypocritical.” He was inundated with furious replies, accusing him of erroneously laying blame on the media, and of attacking the First Amendment. In an op-ed, Showalter later clarified, saying that, clearly, it wasn’t Hollywood but the shooter at fault, and that meaningful gun control was an absolute imperative. But, he added, “The First Amendment does not require us to say whatever we want without regard for the effects that it will have...I am not in any way suggesting that we stop making action films, or stop depicting violence, or pretend that guns do not exist, or that Quentin Tarantino should start making rom-coms,” he concluded. “I am only saying that we acknowledge that things have changed. The country needs to do something. Can we be part of the solution?”
Tarantino himself had confronted these questions after another mass shooting, and his was a very different answer. In January 2013 — three weeks after 26 people were shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School — he appeared on Fresh Air while promoting Django Unchained. Regarding film violence, host Terry Gross asked: “Is it any less fun after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary?”
“Not for me,” Tarantino replied, annoyed by the question. “On that day, would I watch The Wild Bunch? Maybe not on that day. Would I watch a kung fu movie three days after the Sandy Hook massacre?” Tarantino continued. “Maybe, ‘cause they have nothing to do with each other.”
Three weeks after the slaughter of 20 first-graders and six school staff members, it may seem like a callous response. But it is, undoubtedly, the politically correct one. Most of his peers would likely side with Tarantino over Showalter, as would the ACLU, the NEA, and the National Coalition Against Censorship — all of which champion the First Amendment rights of filmmakers. Even gun-control policy leaders argue that Hollywood is not to blame, nor are artists responsible for solving this issue. But they sure could help. Robyn Thomas, Executive Director of the Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence, calls it a powder-key problem: “The movies don’t create the problem,” she affirms. “What’s at the core of our issue is the sheer number of unregulated guns. Everything else is additive...You stick a gun in the middle of the room on its own, and nothing’s going to happen. You add someone in there with mental illness and a violent movie, now, all of a sudden, you have a powder keg.”
Still, Thomas points out, American media exists all over the world, yet our gun-death rates do not. “They watch all the same movies as we do in most other countries. They have the same violent video games, the same rates of mental illness. The things we have here are the things they have everywhere else. It’s just, if you want to have 350 million guns floating around — well, you better be sure you’re not doing things to exacerbate the likelihood of them getting used.”
Even the high volume of guns isn’t necessarily the issue: Canada and Switzerland have gun-ownership rates nearly as high as the U.S. but much more stringent regulations. But, she says: “They have fractional rates of gun violence. They have 1/6th, 1/10th, 1/20th the rate of gun violence than we do. But they have a lot of guns. So, if you take a step back and see what’s out there in the world, and what’s in this country, blaming it on the movies is a little bit of an easy out.” Even within the US, she says, states with stricter gun laws have drastically lower rates of gun deaths than those with looser regulations. Given these statistics, both the problem and solution seem abundantly clear.
“That’s not to say we couldn’t do a damn better job of thinking about how violence is portrayed in the movies,” Thomas says, pointing out that Hollywood has been instrumental in changing attitudes on things like smoking and car safety, through very subtle changes. The same could be done with guns, she says — without even reducing the number of guns on screen. “You could just show characters locking their guns up,” says Thomas. “Or have a character say, ‘I don’t like my kids playing around guns.’” It sounds simple, “but the right character saying the right thing could make a difference.”
Maybe it’s the only difference we can make. We have a gun violence problem, and comprehensive policy change seems the best and most obvious solution. It also seems increasingly unlikely. There are approximately 33,000 gun deaths in the US every year, and 19 children are shot in this country every day. Thus far in 2017, there have been 300 mass shootings, as defined by the FBI. There is no political division on these points, and yet we remain at a stalemate. There seems to be no tragedy nor grim statistic powerful enough to end it. “We do need a cultural shift,” says Thomas. It is not Hollywood’s job to do it. “But it is a responsibility they could take on.”
Even if all the guns in America vanished tomorrow, we would still have to reckon with the millions of gun owners. We would still have a century-long cinematic record of filmmakers selling us on the notion that guns are cool. After thousands of mass murders, millions more of homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths, why does Hollywood still peddle gun violence as entertainment? But more to the point: Why are will still buying it?