Hollywood Bashing and the Gun Debate

by Neil H. Buchanan

Proposals to arm teachers or create larger security presences in schools are highly unpopular, opposed by teachers themselves (who would presumably be among those with the most self interest in this debate) as well as those who study school violence.

Even in Florida, where gun love has always run to extremes and where one might have expected the public response to the Parkland shootings to include calls to give teachers guns, the public at large -- by a decisive majority (56-40) -- is against arming teachers and school officials.

Actually, of course, some opportunistic politicians have been calling for arming teachers and adding (more) armed guards to American schools.  And the unpopularity of that idea is, as is always true in American debates about guns (and taxes, and the environment, and ...), not stopping Republicans from moving forward with bad proposals.

When the Republicans who dominate Florida's government surprised everyone by passing a modest but nontrivial gun-control law (while still failing to ban assault weapons or high-capacity magazines, of course), they excluded teachers from their new "school marshal" program, but they did move forward with that program, in spite of (because of?) the warnings from experts that such programs inevitably target students of color for harassment and worse.

There is also the possibility that, in the chaos of a school shooting, armed school staff -- again, especially those who are from minority groups -- would be seen by police as perpetrators and not protectors.

It is nonetheless not a surprise that, having recovered from his brief flirtation with actual gun control, Donald Trump has decided to push for more guns in schools as his administration's only semi-specific proposal to deal with mass shootings.

This is consistent with Trump's longstanding enthusiasm for the idea of a hero with a gun saving the day.  Although he was rightly mocked for claiming that he would have run into the school in Parkland even without a gun, Trump embraces implausible scenarios in which good people shoot bad guys dead, making everything right again.

Trump is, of course, hardly alone in his faith in a hero on a white horse solving all problems with a "peacemaker."  But where does this fantasy come from?  Yes, I am going to blame Hollywood.
I need to be careful here, of course.  The standard inane argument on the political right when discussing gun deaths, after all, is to blame violent movies and video games for real-life violence.  The usual story -- aggressively promoted by the NRA -- is that entertainment depicting violent stories causes people to become violent themselves.

This argument is anything but new, and it is similar to claims that media portrayals of sexual freedom cause serious social problems that can only be solved by returning to "traditional values" or some Victorian notion of chastity.  A former Second Lady of the United States blamed the late rock star Prince for something bad (apparently, she felt "embarrassed" when her daughter listened to the song "Darling Nikki") and then led the charge to put warning labels on records.  Frank Zappa testified before Congress that this was "the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation."

In short, there are always pearl-clutching old people who are convinced that "kids today" are being destroyed by popular culture.  Such people can be easily manipulated by con men.  ("We've got trouble, right here in River City, with a capital 'T' and that rhymes with 'P' and that stands for 'Pool'!")  In the current environment, the con men are using the distraction of pop culture not only to push people to buy things (like guns) but also to prevent legislators from supporting real solutions.

Given how common it is to blame Hollywood or the media for social ills, it should come as no surprise that such claims have been the subject of intensive study for decades now.  And researchers consistently and overwhelmingly fail to find connections between the bad behavior that they are studying and the media catalysts that right-wingers prefer to blame.

Why, then, am I willing to assert here that there is a connection between what Hollywood does and the public's reaction to the gun debate?  The difference lies in the fact that the real damage from Hollywood entertainment springs from its effects on people's political attitudes and beliefs, not from its supposed ability to change people's propensity to commit violence.

The basic idea behind the Trump/NRA claim is that boys and young men play a lot of "shooter" video games that portray graphic violence, that they also watch movies with high body counts that glorify violence, and some of those impressionable males end up moving the violence off of their screens into real life.

It might seem like a plausible story, but the evidence demonstrates that it is simply wrong.  Among the more potent bits of evidence against the gamers-equal-killers theory is that Japan has one of the most active game cultures in the world but no mass killings.  (In fact, there was exactly one death by gunshot in the entire country in 2015.)  And that is hardly the only refutation of the theory.

But as a consumer of movies and television, I do see a direct connection between what people see on their screens and the opinions that they form about violence, crime, and policing.  Unlike the theory that people can be turned into cold-blooded killers by being entertained in dangerous ways, my claim here is that entertainment -- especially of the sort that Hollywood heavily promotes -- makes people ever more likely to believe that the world is a violent place and that only guns can solve the violence.

As TV's content has become more violent over the last half century, people's fear of crime has increased.  For example, to watch "CSI" reruns or any of that show's many imitators is to be drenched in the idea that happy families are killed in home invasions on a regular basis.  The NRA and Republicans, of course, exploit that fear and the foment worries that "the police can't save you."

Simplistic solutions are, of course, the coin of the realm in standard Hollywood entertainment.  It was not a surprise that a popular show aired in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, "24" on Fox, would portray torture by a supposed good guy as the key to preventing disaster.  And it was even less surprising when Republicans tried to use that show to criticize liberals who would dare to defend the rule of law.  One also-ran Republican presidential candidate actually said during a 2007 debate that rather than wondering about the wisdom of waterboarding, he would be "looking for Jack Bauer," the violent hero of "24."

But even that is in some ways a distraction.  Yes, there are people who draw specific conclusions from such TV shows and movies -- "I saw a guy get beaten up by CIA agents and then he told them where the bomb was hidden, so torture works!" -- but the more pervasive problem is the Hollywood-reinforced idea that guns are much more effective (and lacking in collateral damage) than they actually are.

That attitude arises from the complete suspension of reality regarding the accuracy of gunfire, where the fantasy actually diverges in both directions.  On one hand, we see depictions of hails of machine gun bullets that somehow fail to hit every major character (some of whom actually manage to duck out of the way between the time the guns are fired and the bullet approaches their body -- at over 1000 miles per hour).  So guns are not all that dangerous, apparently.  To good people.

On the other hand, Hollywood also depicts expert marksmanship that is simply absurd.  Need examples?  How much time do you have?  I recall watching a western from the mid-Sixties in which a bad guy needed to disable three telegraph wires at the top of a pole fifty yards away and 25 feet in the air.  Out comes the six-shooter, and bang-bang-bang, all three half-inch wires are severed.  Similarly, the Sundance Kid could shoot anything with deadly accuracy without aiming and while holding the gun at his hip.  These examples are remarkable only in that they are utterly unremarkable by Hollywood standards.

Again, this is not the same as a specific cause-and-effect notion of guns solving specific problems, although such notions have also filled TV and movie screens forever.  What is relevant here is that people like Trump and his followers can so easily imagine that a person can simply pull out a gun and shoot at a bad guy, hitting him and ending an ongoing tragedy.  No deaths from friendly fire, no through-and-throughs killing innocents.  Trump, like all of us, has seen it a million times.

The difference is that most people still are able to understand that it is all a fantasy.  Unfortunately, there are enough people who believe the simplistic narratives to change the political debate.

It is not that watching Hollywood fare causes people to become violent, which would imply that entertainment can change people's fundamental values.  The problem is that people use movies and TV shows partly as unconscious methods of information gathering.  And if one is repeatedly told that gunshots do no harm to good guys and always harm bad guys, it becomes easy to believe, as Trump does, that we would all be safer if, say, someone in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando had pulled out a 9mm and saved the day.

Standard Hollywood productions cannot cause people to become violent, but they do distort our sense of what guns can and cannot do, inspiring demagogues to exploit our oft-reinforced wishful thinking.  Hollywood is a problem, but in the exact opposite way that conservatives claim.