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The Pictures: Guns, Violence and the Movies

Reel concerns ... or real ones?

By James Rocchi May 10, 2013 3:20PM

"Obviously ... we have a gun problem in the United States and a political climate ... too timid to do anything about it. But we also have a culture problem, and we know this." -- Mick La Salle, "Violent Media Poisoning Nation's Soul," Jan. 2, 2013

"Hollywood is a culture of violence." -- 'Mike Hunt,' "Demand A Plan? Demand Celebrities Go F*ck Themselves," Posted to YouTube Dec. 23, 2012

"There's so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?" -- Dick Cavett

I was recently talking with some friends about what I like to call the American conversation -- not a conversation about America or a conversation about American things, but, rather the idea that at heart, America is a conversation, one whose words get turned into laws and roads, speeches and schools, principles and actions, deftly-stated ideas and drone-strike executions. And perhaps one of the biggest parts of the American conversation -- where it starts and where it echoes, where it goes quiet in contemplation or shouts in celebration -- is the movies.

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Like all conversations, our ongoing discussion of what America means changes, or moves beyond certain settled points. The rights of African-Americans were, at first, not a part of the American conversation or the Constitution. Then, they were. For a while the idea that we shouldn't have access to alcohol was part of the American conversation. Then it wasn't. Times, and people, and nations change, all the while guided in part but their roots in history and heritage and by their hopes for a better future. 

One of the biggest conversations we've been having lately is about guns. After Newtown, after Aurora, after Columbine, and so on and so on, there's a palpable desire to talk about America and guns. Some want to talk about how empowering responsible individuals to go armed, as outlined in the 2nd Amendment, would keep us safer, and that the actions of lunatics shouldn't be used against responsible people exercising and enjoying a protected right. Other want to talk about how better regulating guns -- background checks, or constraints on ammo type or magazine capacity -- might fill out the 28 words of the Second Amendment with more nuanced and complex responses to advances in technology and circumstance.  (As a side note I used to be very, very pro gun control, but I've changed my opinions and beliefs; now, I think the best we could do as a country is, say, treat guns like we do cars -- as an important part of the social contract where rights are balanced with responsibilities and where individual desires are balanced with a common-sense desire for a greater good.)


But the one conversation that always comes up in the wake of gun violence is about our media, specifically movies, and if violent American media causes violent American action. And while you can't really ever say that one opinion is wrong, or that one opinion is right, there are facts. Nate Silver's didn't guess who would win the 2012 election; it looked at data. And while I'm not a policy-maker, a criminologist, or a sociologist, I love movies; I've been thinking about movies for a long time; and I can do math. 

And in another personal-and-irrelevant sidenote, I have to say that I feel more than a little bit qualified to discuss American and movies in part because I lived in Canada for the first 26 years of my life. Now, I'm an American citizen. back as a kid -- living, as 75% of Canadians do, within 100 miles of the U.S. border -- I saw a lot of American TV and movies. I saw "E.T." at a mall multiplex; I saw "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" in a run-down rep theater  when I was 16; I saw "Aliens" in a glorious movie palace, The Tivoli, with Lucy Tenace clutching at my arm so hard I still have bruises. In fact, growing up in Canada may have been the gateway to being a critic; when the first thing you're told about 90% of the films you see/books you read/music you listen to is "That's not yours" -- or, in the terms above, "That's not part of your conversation" -- you ask whose it is, and why, and what conversation it's part of.


So, with that said, let's look at another fact  -- in 2010, 92.7% of Canada's box-office revenue was American-made films. By and large, Canadians consume the exact culture as Americans, with the exceptions in the occasional screening of "Starbuck" or "Continuum" or listening to Sloan.  So if American culture is having an effect on Americans, it should be having that specific similar effect on Canadians, as well.

Except it doesn't.

Putting aside that Canada has a tenth of the U.S.'s population, let's just look at per-capita rates.  In America, there were 10.20 deaths-by-firearm per 100,000 people in 2011, as reported in a United Nations study.  In Canada, during the same year and according to the same study, it was 2.13 firearm-related deaths per 100,000 people. Same culture; significantly different death-by-gun rate. And even if you were to argue that Canadians, whose firearms regulations are more strident than ours, are equally compelled by violent media to kill but instead have to do so with brick, knife, or curling stone ... well, that isn't supported, either. America had a intentional homicide rate of 4.8 murders per 100,000 in 2012, again from a United Nations study; Canada, meanwhile -- with the same violent media -- had 1.6.

So maybe Canadians are just smarter about media, or less impressionable. But the 2012 death-by-firearm rates in England,  Australia and Germany, all avid consumers of American media, and all democracies,  were .25 per 100,000 in England;  1.05 in Australia; 1.0 in Germany.

So populations in America, Canada, England, Australia and Germany  have wildly different death-by-firearms rates -- and yet, consume movies avidly. Never mind the percentage of the box office in England, Australia and Germany who watch first-run films; factor in piracy, home video and streaming, and you'll recognize that American movies are global, but American-style firearms deaths are clearly not.

So why does this matter to me?

Because if there's one thing I learned on the debate club in my youth, it's this: The person who defines the argument wins the argument. Every time. If you say "Inheritance tax," people shrug; if you say "Death tax," that sounds awful. The YouTube clip quoted above was posted -- anonymously -- by someone who cut a PSA from with actors talking about a need to change gun policy with clips of those actors in films with violent scenes. The effect was to call them, and the movie-making industry, hypocrites.

But any reasonably intelligent person can recognize that while Ian McKellen directed and starred in a great version of "Richard the III," he does not, necessarily, approve of killing the royal family to seize the throne. Movies are, essentially, make-believe, and we often find it enjoyable to watch things we do not, and would not want to happen to anyone, and the people acting those things out don't really want those things to happen either. Stephenie Meyer writes about Vampires; she does not approve of them, or death by bloodletting, but she finds them dramatically interesting to look at in the confines of fiction, if Ms. Meyer were confronted by vampires in her streets, that would be a different story. (And, off-topic, hilarious.)  

I guess I wanted to briefly talk about this for two reasons: One, we've been talking about violent media as a cause of violence since Eurpides wrote "Madea"; we're still talking about it in an age when Tyler Perry writes about a very different "Madea." And yes, I will suggest that the gun-violence debate in America needs to talk about mental health, and 3D printers and even violence in media. But the first thing the gun-violence debate in America should be about is guns. Anyone suggesting that we need to talk about culture and movies and TV and rock music and videogames more than we need to talk about access, availability and capacity is wrong. They're either wrong from a place of good intentions or deliberately trying to change the topic to get you talking about Bond movies instead of bullets, "The Matrix" coats instead of magazine capacity, 24 frames a second up onto the screen instead of 4-to-6 bullets a second into a human being.

The Dick Cavett quote above is from 1995 -- " There's so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?"  It doesn't, of course. But the fact that we're still talking about violence in media causing gun violence -- which can be debunked with a matter of minutes -- and not the ways guns cause gun violence is the wrong discussion to be having. The question isn't just why we're still having it. The better question is who benefits when we talk about violent movies and media instead of guns and ammo?  I have a few thoughts on that, too. But I know that if the American conversation -- if America -- is going to change anything we have to get real about the facts and quit worrying about fantasy.

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May 13, 2013 12:27PM

What changes an attitude?  A thought?  An idea?  A communication?  An inanimate object? 


Which is more likely to elicit a violent response?  Seeing a knife on the ground, or getting slapped in the face?


Which is more likely to cause someone to have dark and violent thoughts?  Holding a gun, or watching a movie where one man mows down thousands of people who in the movie "deserved it?"


It may be wrong to blame entertainment, but it's wrong to blame inanimate objects such as a gun.


So while the article was doing pretty good, it lost its way in the last paragraph:

"But the fact that we're still talking about violence in media causing gun violence -- which can be debunked with a matter of minutes -- and not the ways guns cause gun violence is the wrong discussion to be having."


With that erroneous leap in logic, the point of the article was reduced to mush.

it's never been an issue with movies, comic books (even though they tried in the 50s), or videogames. It's parents not doing their gdamned jobs raising the kids to know right from wrong, reality from fantasy, or even make sure if they have issue they're taken care of. Parents just have kids these days as a status symbol for someone else to deal with and let the nanny state raise them.
May 13, 2013 1:21PM
Dick Cavett must not have listened to people on the street. I have heard people quote  movies and media jokes from high school, college and throughout every job I have been in, for as long as I can remember. The fact is people do pay attention to what they see. The ones that carry it overboard like the shooters or the guy at the party that can't quit telling every line they heard at the movies are the ones that we should be addressing not everyday people. Dick's comments to try to prove the media does not affect people is so completely wrong I don't understand how it is relevant. Next we will hear jokes don't kill people but more fights have been started over stupid jokes than any other reason. I think its called bullying.       

BS!  The combined total of many different ingredients is what makes the culture violent, and the media is a very large ingredient!  Those other countries mentioned have stronger family ties, more inter-dependence of one human person with another so of course the value of human life is better appreciated.  In order for violence to drop in America you'd need parents to put marriage and families FIRST, instead of financial accumulation of assets and selfish "personal happiness."  Wheresoever education/wealth are prioritized above and beyond love of family/love of neighbor you'll be stuck with violence.  Violence is anti-Christian, one could safely call it the true "AntiChrist."  By that I mean the AntiChrist needn't be a singular person, s/he could appear en masse as a supernatural event known as cultural violence.  To resolve the issue of the "AntiChrist" (violence / lack of appreciation for redemptive suffering / lack of Love) all we need to do is Love, but Love *rightly*.  By rightly, I mean you don't allow your 4 year old to cook hot soup unaided on the stovetop, right?  There is a logical ordering to the universe that does not include do whatever makes you happy.  Until we appreciate the natural order of things we will have jealously and violence.  God is sovereign.  Submit to His will will and pray for his blessing. 

May 13, 2013 12:33PM
Really, until you have read some material on the subject, your spout above is nothing more than opinion. And, an ill-informed one at that. We have, by far, the most media violent culture on Earth. Nobody else is even close. Does it make everybody killers? No more than having the most stand up comedians makes everybody funny, but it does tip a few, and that's all it takes.
May 13, 2013 12:30PM
Read, Teaching Our Children to Kill
When we view graphic violence over and over again it looses its shock value and after time becomes a viable option. When we see criminals and criminal acts glorified, after time we don't see them for the horrible people they are. Our children as well as ourselves are bombarded with movies depicting massive violence and bloodshed with our government and police depicted as corrupt.  We start to believe that there is no reprisal if your cause is just (in your own mind). It is our social media that perpetuates this. Even our newscasters fall over themselves to report the most grisly details of a crime - while ignoring human interest stories that put humanity in a better light, because it doesn't improve ratings. It is not the gun, or the knife, it is the path we take to pick up the gun or knife.
May 13, 2013 2:03PM

QUOTE: [DICK CAVETT]  ""There's so much comedy on television. Does that cause comedy in the streets?" 


Probably...  It's called 'programming.' Trouble is, good comedy requires a lot of talent, murder does not.  A talented guy like you should know that Dick.

May 13, 2013 2:16PM

The fully functional family with a father who works a job every day and provides discipline and direction for his children is critical. Single parent families by in large headed by women present more responsibility and activity than one parent can handle. In the middle class where both parents have jobs outside the home so they can buy "stuff" the parents are just too busy to interact psychologically with their kids. They believe their responsibility is to give their children "stuff" not social values.  Then one day little Johnnie gets busted for drugs or worse and the parents are apalled. They feel that they did a good job and it must be a negative outside influence.


The poor (blacks in particular) are having something like 80% of children out of wedlock and there's no father or functional family in almost all of those cases.  The kids are raised, tended to, by others while the mother tries to live her life as if they didn't exist. Bingo.  Little Johnnie gets busted again w/o the benefit of $ to pay for good legal representation.


Our social system is totally messed up, rich or poor, and the next generation(s) will be worse yet from learned behavior from their parents.  What is the solution?  Back to basics is all that comes to mind and the way that will happen is something none of us want to contemplate.  Its called economic depression a la the 30's.  God help us...........................

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