On December 14, 2012, a young man named Adam Lanza broke into a primary school and fatally shot 26 people in the small village of Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Twenty of them were children, aged 6 or 7. On that day, no matter where I went or what I did, I couldn’t stop thinking about the tragedy of that event, the inhumanity of it. Evidently, I wasn’t the only one.
Ann Coulter, the incendiary pundit and bellicose mouthpiece for America’s most radical right wing, said this on her Twitter account, just hours after the tragedy in Connecticut: “Only one policy has ever been shown to deter mass murder: concealed-carry laws”.
Amongst many things, what she said got me thinking about gun violence in Canada. Earlier this year in Toronto, where I live, a gunman shot and killed two men at the Eaton Centre shopping mall, injuring five innocent bystander in the process. In 1989, a lone gunman roamed the hallways of Montreal’s École Polytechnique and killed 14 women; it was and still is the deadliest mass shooting in our country’s history. Regrettably, gun violence is nothing new in Canada.
After each aforementioned shooting, the Canadian public has always, and overwhelmingly, called for stricter gun control, and we’ve largely been placated. When it comes to the statistics (% of homicides by firearm, # of homicides by firearm, homicide by firearm rate per 100,000 population), Canada proves to be more stable and safer environment when compared to the States, in this regard, and at large part of this seems to stem from the fact that we have fewer firearms per 100 people, and fewer firearms as a country, period.
As a result, we haven’t had a similar incident since the École Polytechnique massacre, at least not at that scale. In fact, according to one gun expert, Canada’s tougher gun laws have likely helped to “insulate this country from U.S-style massacres.”
However, at no point did anyone (politician or otherwise) suggest that the crime could’ve been prevented if the victims were all armed with handguns themselves. The same can’t be said for the US, unfortunately. Why did Canada adopt a stricter gun control mentality after the worst mass shootings in its modern history while our comrades down South call for more guns?
To me, this is a very American response, and I put it down to a difference in cultures. Namely, they have a gun culture and we largely don’t. To encourage a proliferation of guns after a mass shooting is a foreign response up here in Canada, and although I don’t suggest that every American feels this way, this point of view does feel distinctly American. We can point to America’s Second Amendment, the one guaranteeing the right to bear arms, but that’s only a starting point.
“England, where no one has a gun, 14 deaths. The United States… 23,000 deaths from handguns. But there is no connection there – you’d be a fool and a Communist to make one. There’s no connection between having a gun and shooting someone with it, and not having a gun and not shooting someone. Some of you are probably trying to make a connection out there. There is none. It’s futile. Cut it out.”
So what makes the US so peculiar in its approach to firearms? Well, I believe the root cause for America’s gun culture (not the root cause for gun crimes, mind you) has to do with one of their largest culture industries, Hollywood, and to understand why I think this, it’s important to first dispel the myth of a ‘Liberal’ Hollywood.
Ever since the Communist witch-hunt and blacklisting fiasco of 1950’s McCarthyism, the popular consensus amongst social conservatives is that Hollywood is full of bleeding-heart liberals looking to push their bleeding-heart agendas. This is a fairly specious view. Never mind the fact that the GOP’s poster boy President, Ronald Reagan, started his career in tinsel town, or that Cinema’s two most cherished cowboys, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, are conservatives.
People tend to believe that Hollywood is dominated by the likes of Richard Gere or Sean Penn, and even if it were, so what? What would that prove? The actors don’t determine the content of Hollywood films; by definition, they just act. I could do a survey about the political leanings of NASCAR drivers, and I’m nearly positive that the results would lean to the right.
No, Hollywood is and always has been a business, and as such, the strongest and purest driving force is profit-motive, not politics. Hollywood’s largest and most lucrative audience has always been the American domestic market, and to capitalize on said market, Hollywood films have always been crafted to match their sensibilities (for example, it’s been speculated that the popularity of the Western genre was largely due to America’s nostalgic love affair with Manifest Destiny, an expansionist idea that reappeared with conviction during the Cold War).
To sell a product to the American public, Hollywood has to wrap it in a red, white and blue package, and nothing taps into the collective mindset of the American population like their Revolutionary War; after all, there’d be no US of A, otherwise.
But why, you may ask, aren’t there more movies about the American War of Independence if this is true? Well, to constantly make straight-up Revolutionary War movies would be too conspicuous and repetitive (even by Hollywood standards), so a lot of movies try to capture the essence of that revolution instead.
You know, the one where a small group of ragtag, freedom-loving, armed-to-the-teeth heroes fighting back against the tyrannical, evil, and out-numbering group of baddies; the very essence that created America’s Second Amendment in the first place.
You might also ask, “don’t most action movies follow this underdog narrative”, and you’d be right to because they mostly do. Although this kind of storytelling has been around for years (see: the Battle of Thermopylae and its many retellings), it seems to hit a particularly strong nerve with American audiences.
“Action films are like Westerns – they’re morality plays, albeit with cursing, a lot more blood and tits. The heroes are all underdogs, and in America, people love to root for the underdog.”
And Mr. Willis should know; his whole career was basically built on this concept. In his most celebrated and breakout role as John McClane in Die Hard, he plays an off-duty NYPD detective who singlehandedly, with this help of various firearms, takes down a group of terrorists led by the very sophisticated and English-accented Hans Gruber (played by the equally sophisticated and English Alan Rickman), thus saving his family and Christmas.
His The Expendables co-star Sylvester Stallone shot to the status of action movie folk hero in First Blood, wherein he played John Rambo, a former Green Beret and emotionally damaged Vietnam War veteran who defends himself against an overbearing cavalry of government forces – with guns, of course. The film was meant to be an allegory of the Vietnam War, a war in which a small country fought for independence against a larger army of foreigners.
Sound familiar? It should. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Việt Minh independence movement, likened his struggle with that of the American Revolution, and even directly quotes Thomas Jefferson and the United States Declaration of Independence.
One of the most obvious examples of what I call the ‘American Revolution Narrative’ (or David and Goliath, if you substitute the sling with a gun) is 1984’s Red Dawn, where a group of high school kids use guerilla tactics and the Second Amendment to purge their beloved country of invading Soviets, Cubans, and Nicaraguan Communists; the baddies are from North Korea in the 2012 remake. Although Red Dawn was hilariously melodramatic, overly self-serious, and obnoxiously jingoistic, it’s considered a classic by a group of conservatives for its portrayal of the American fighting spirit, embodied in automatic firearms and hand grenades.
In fact, there are a whole host of action movie stars that thrive on the ARN narrative (flip that acronym backwards for a slight scoff). Actors like Kurt Russell (Escape from New York), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Commando), Liam Neeson (Taken), Steven Seagal (Under Siege), Jean Reno (Léon: The Professional), Jason Statham (Safe), Mark Wahlberg (Shooter), and even Angelina Jolie (Salt), among a long list of others, have all played characters that surmount overwhelming odds with the help of their firearms. Even the ultra-liberal Matt Damon made his career as the pistol-wielding rouge in the Bourne series.
Speaking of the Bourne series, the latest installment, The Bourne Legacy, is a great example of the ARN and of Hollywood’s perpetuation of gun culture. The film, which stars Jeremy Renner as yet another rogue agent being tracked by the government, has a scene in which a predator drone is chasing him down on the snowy mountaintops of Alaska. He proceeds to shoot it down with a sniper rifle. We then cut to inside a command center, where one person asks, “what kind of weapon system is this guy operating”, to which he’s answered, “he’s probably got a rifle… a high-powered rifle”.
In a later scene, a doctor (played by Zeljko Ivanek) goes into a locked laboratory and shoots a group of unarmed scientists. It’s then revealed that he was chemically brainwashed to kill them all. After that, there’s a scene where Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz thwart a home invasion with their handguns.
So, to summarize, the film features a rough-and-tumble hero who uses his gun expertise to ensure his own liberty and freedom, a woman who defends herself with the help of said rough-and-tumble hero and by their collaborative use of handguns, and a mass shooting that’s portrayed as a government conspiracy to sway public perception and opinion. Gee, I wonder how a pro-gun moviegoer would interpret this big-budget film from ‘Liberal’ Hollywood?
This is not limited to just action movies, either. Science fiction films provide ample fodder for the ARN. German director Roland Emmerich, who would later helm an actual War of Independence film in The Patriot, directed 1996’s Independence Day, which tells the story of an alien invasion and the human insurgency to stop it. You may remember the famous and not-so-subtle line, “Today we celebrate our Independence Day”, said by Bill Pullman as President Thomas Whitmore. Hell, almost every film adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel (i.e. Total Recall) and every Star Wars movie follow the ARN.
But the sub-genre that most consistently follows the ARN is the zombie film. Zombies have been called the most political of all monsters, and whether you’re watching The Walking Dead or a George A. Romero classic, the story is almost always an NRA wet dream. There’s always a small group of survivors that are vastly out-numbered by the zombies, and, in turn, they always fend them off with their guns and ammo (the shotgun is the cliché). Troubles arise, you shoot them in the head, happily ever after, roll credits. Waving the star-spangled flag is optional.
With a few exceptions, mainstream, big-budget movies rarely show the negative consequences of firearms. It’s up to smaller indie films, like 2006’s Babel, to show the ugly side of gun violence. Hollywood movies don’t present guns as a facilitator of mass shootings, of which there are many real-life examples. Instead, Hollywood movies present firearms as tools for the Average Joe or Joanna to stop a group of menacing terrorists, invading Communists, mindless zombies, or any other group of freedom-fries-hating, apple-pie-despising, baseball-loathing anti-Americans – of which there are also a plethora of real-life examples (citation needed).
For Canada, we gained independence from Britain with a polite shake of the hand and a “call me, maybe”. Hence, we can easily disassociate the ARN on screen because firearms were never a part of our national fabric or identity to begin with. However, the US had to fight a bloody war to gain their statehood. Firearms are a fabric of their national experience because, without them, there would be no United States of America. The Second Amendment is a symbol of this idea, the idea that allowed a group of disenfranchised rebels to defeat the British and to create a new country that champions “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
Every time a Hollywood film depicts the gun-slinging David defeating the despotic Goliath, some Americans see this as an affirmation of the ideals that led to the founding of their republic and to their right to bear arms. Every action movie is thus a celebration of America’s independence and confirms the idea that guns can lead to freedom and safety for the individual. After all, if it worked for George Washington, it should work for every American.
In fact, go to any pro-gun-leaning website and scroll down to the comment section at the bottom. Invariably, you’ll get a comment that says, “the 2nd Amendment was created to stop dictatorships and threats to the American public ”, or, “the government wants to take our guns away so we can’t fight back when they start abusing their power.” Now, tell me this doesn’t sound like the thought process of a Hollywood screenwriter. (Also, ironically enough, the same pro-gun people are the most likely to be pro-military; the military that would presumably facilitate said dictatorship in their extreme hypothetical. Is this a case of having your cake and eating it too?)
Again, I’m not suggesting that violence or guns in movies cause mass shootings. Please don’t lump me in with the likes of CNN or Fox News, both of whom blamed the Sandy Hook shootings on the effects video games (read: blaming virtual guns instead of real ones). However, I am suggesting the idea that mass media of all forms, whether it’s video games or the movies, desensitizes the consumer from the dangers of firearms when the protagonist continually uses them to save the day. But Hollywood often conflates American values with the necessity of guns, like the ludicrously titled Machine Gun Preacher. Just try and remember the number of movie posters you’ve seen where the protagonist is holding a firearm of some sort and you’ll surely lose count.
For a country like America, this could make the legislating of gun control particularly difficult, especially when this glamorization of guns is combined with its pre-existing and inherent connection with their country’s founding history. But who knows, maybe I’m overreaching with the idea that the content in Hollywood movies can shape the temper of American culture. I mean, Jean Luc Godard, a real soothsayer in Hollywood circles, once said, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”, and it’s not like American society has shaped itself to mirror these words. And, certainly, it’s not like American politics would also structure itself to comply with this saying, too, right?
– Justin Li