When It Comes to Guns, America Has a Culture Problem

Characters with weapons play too prominent a role in American films.

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NBC White House correspondent David Gregory reports Friday, March 17, 2006, from the White House.

There are two movie theaters in my Washington, D.C. neighborhood. One is a small theater which prides itself on serving baklava, and which shows foreign and independent films. The minilobby is decorated with posters of movies being shown there, and they tend to be like the one advertising the excellent German film Barbara, which displays the lead character on a bicycle.

The other theater is a multiplex, tending towards movies that are unnecessarily in 3-D and shown in rooms that reek of fake butter on popcorn. The movies at this site are almost all Hollywood made. And in the movie posters lining the hallways of the complex, almost every single one has a character holding a gun—usually an assault rifle.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

What's wrong with these pictures?

Americans seem to be attracted to guns; that's clear from the sheer numbers on gun ownership and the reaction of much of the country when someone talks about controlling access to weapons. But there's more to it than that. In Barbara, the title character is distinguished by a moral conundrum in communist-era East Germany. In the shoot-'em-up U.S. films, the lead characters are distinguished by the power of their weapons, their ability to eliminate the opposition by violence instead of intellect. There's something equalizing about the gun, which gives even the most foolish, awkward, and stupid characters the ability to win after all.

How do we respond, from a legal perspective, to a culture which celebrates violence as a way to resolve conflict? In my home region of upstate New York, an ex-con set fire to the house he shared with his sister, a move meant to lure firefighters to the home on Christmas Eve. He then shot and killed two firefighters, wounded other first responders, and managed  to burn down a total of seven homes—including his own, where his sister is believed to have died. The killer—who had already done prison time for beating his elderly grandmother to death—said in a suicide note that he was doing "what I like doing best—killing people." He wasn't supposed to have a gun. He was a convicted murderer. He got them anyway, which is either an argument that gun control laws don't work for someone determined to get a weapon, or an argument that gun ownership isn't controlled well enough. But while Americans debate—again–the laws on guns, the culture divide persists.

[Check out 2012: The Year in Cartoons.]

Meet the Press host David Gregory held up, on TV, what appeared to be a large-capacity magazine—something that is banned in Washington, D.C., where the show is based. Viewers—many of them, according to news reports, from the progun side—called on Gregory to be arrested for being in possession of a banned item. Meanwhile, an upstate New York newspaper ran the names and addresses of local gun permit owners. A provocative move, to be sure, but if a gun owner is unashamed of having a weapon, what does it matter? The response from gun owners was angry and chilling. Some of them posted the names, addresses and phone numbers of editors, the publisher and reporters at the Journal News, and made threatening comments suggesting they would rob or even harm the newspaper employees.

So what is the lesson here? If you hold up a large capacity magazine on national television with no intent to actually use it, you should be arrested? But if you are identified as a legal gun owner, you respond with physical threats? That certainly undermines the argument that people want guns for personal protection and sport. But then, the Hollywood movie posters never show a gun-toting character hunting deer. It's almost always people.

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