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The Cricket: Changing America's gun culture may require a media shift

Published December 20, 2012 9:11 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

At the end of "The Great Train Robbery" (1903), one of the first narrative films ever made, a Western outlaw aims his pistol at the camera and shoots. The image was so jarring to audiences of the day that people jumped and screamed.

So guns — and gun violence — have been a part of the movies as long as there have been movies.

Moviegoers tend not to think about that until a violent tragedy — such as last week's shooting deaths of 20 children and six school staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. — causes people to remind us of the issue. This time, one of those people doing the reminding was Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz.

"You put violence and death and gore in a movie, you're not going to get an R rating," Chaffetz observed on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" on Sunday, a mere 48 hours after the murders occurred. "I think the movie ratings are terribly misleading when it comes to violence, death, gore, and glamorizing it."

As someone who watches movies for a living, I hear this argument about the media's glamorizing of violence every time a mass shooting happens. I heard it a lot in July, when 12 people died in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater at a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises."

For years, I've dismissed that argument as a smokescreen put up by people trying to divert the debate away from stricter gun laws. (On "This Week," Chaffetz mentioned that he owns a Glock pistol and a shotgun and has a concealed-carry permit.) I've also dismissed the argument because the scientific studies seeking a link between make-believe violence (in movies and video games) and real violence have been inconclusive.

But after the shooting in Newtown, and the barrage of media coverage surrounding it, I'm wondering if the violence shown in pop culture doesn't have some influence on society as a whole.

That influence isn't felt exerted directly on sociopaths and killers like Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who killed his mother with her own guns before shooting his way into Sandy Hook to kill 26 innocent people. Sometimes there's no explanation for crazy, and someone who could do such a horrible thing might be triggered by "The Smurfs" as easily as by the violent video games with which Lanza reportedly was "obsessed."

Pop culture's influence on real-life violence shows up more indirectly, in the proliferation of guns among America's populace.

Consider what the guns you see in movies and video games — and it's almost always assault weapons and handguns, not hunting rifles or shotguns — symbolize: power, masculinity, freedom, justice and protection. Why wouldn't people want to own something that conveys all that?

And a lot of Americans do want to own something like that. According to Max Fisher in The Washington Post this week, some 270 million guns are in private hands in the United States — about nine guns for every 10 people living in America.

Surely the media-created symbolism of guns influences people's desire to buy guns. Those buyers then support weapons manufacturers, who bankroll lobbyists, who pressure lawmakers to keep gun regulations loose. That, in turn, leads to further proliferation of such weapons — and with proliferation comes easier access by those who would commit terrible crimes such as the Sandy Hook shooting.

If there is to be any change in America's gun culture, it will come in part through a change in pop culture's treatment of guns as a symbol.

That may be a hard sell for the makers of culture, as well as audiences. Generations of action thrillers, war movies, cop dramas and Westerns have made the gun an integral part of the plot. And will video-game players go for a "first-person-talker" format? Probably not.

But other cinematic symbols have been transformed over time, in response to societal pressure.

Decades ago, smoking in movies signaled sophistication, whether it was Bogart and Bacall or Paul Henreid lighting two cigarettes for himself and Bette Davis in "Now, Voyager."

That was before anti-smoking campaigns pressured Hollywood to stop glamorizing smoking — and urging studios to stop accepting product-placement money from tobacco companies. Today, if you see someone smoking a cigarette in a movie, it's either a Eurotrash villain or a neurotic woman (for example, Leslie Mann's character in the new comedy "This Is 40") for whom the cigarette symbolizes her insecurities.

Alcohol has taken a similar journey as a movie symbol. Once upon a time, William Powell and Myrna Loy could guzzle martini after martini in "The Thin Man" movies and still be the icons of frivolous fun. But the lovable drunk is long gone, his last gasp coming from Dudley Moore in "Arthur." Now if you see a drunk on screen, it's in the form of the recovering alcoholic like Denzel Washington in "Flight" or Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "Smashed" or Russell Brand in the "Arthur" remake.

Filmmakers and video-game programmers have to be reminded that it's possible to make an action movie without guns. Jackie Chan has made plenty in his career, and some of the biggest-grossing action films of the past couple of years — including "The Avengers" and the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" franchises — relied less on gunplay than on other superpowers,

Such a shift in mindset doesn't let Congress or state legislatures off the hook, and the horrible events in Newtown may at last stop lawmakers from dodging the debate over effective gun laws. But to change gun culture in any permanent and meaningful way, America must change its thinking — fostered by mass-media icons — that the solution to violence is more violence.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans.