Dave Gilson

Dave Gilson

Senior editor

Senior editor at Mother Jones. Obsessive generalist, word wrangler, data cruncher, pun maker.

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Dave Gilson is a senior editor at Mother Jones. Read more of his stories, follow him on Twitter, or contact him.

"Variety" Gazes at Hollywood's History of Violence

| Thu Feb. 7, 2013 7:06 AM EST
Flick slick looks at sick pics Variety

In June 1968, Bill Bell, a writer for Days of Our Lives, penned a short open letter to the TV and film industry and printed it in Variety. Spurred by the "insane, violent" deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, Bell called upon his colleagues to "recognize our responsibilities and take decisive steps to temper and hopefully eliminate violence from our programming." Bell argued that much onscreen violence was not simply gratuitous, but artistically bankrupt. "As a writer, I know that…you can have conflict without violence," he wrote (emphasis his). "And that invariably it is finer drama."

The letter is reprinted in a new, glossy issue (digital version here) of the venerable showbiz rag that explores the claims, expressed most recently by the NRA's Wayne LaPierre, that the entertainment industry deserves some of the blame for mayhem like the Sandy Hook massacre. Instead of shrugging off the criticism, Variety editor-in-chief Timothy M. Gray embraces it and even echoes Bell's message in his opening note: "Don't underestimate your power or responsibility…When asked about violent or demeaning content, some in Hollywood shrug, 'It's what the public wants.' But there is a fine line between catering to the public and pandering to their basest instincts."

Variety asked nearly 50 "thought leaders" in the biz and on both sides of the gun debate to weigh in on the topic. Predictably, their perspectives vary widely. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan defends violence as an essential part of his creative palette, a means for developing rich characterization or doing something "funny or simply cool." Retired Army Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman insists that "very, very sick" video games and movies are driving "sick, sick kids" to commit mass murder. Variety contributor Chris Morris recommends that video game makers impose a temporary ban on releasing violent games immediately after mass shootings. Patti Davis recalls how her dad, Ronald Reagan, responded to sanitized TV bloodshed: "My father used to interrupt my viewing of TV shows like 'Gunsmoke' and 'Wyatt Earp' to tell me what would really happen if a bullet hit that cowboy in the shoulder or the leg. As I watched the wounded man grip his shoulder, my father would make sure I knew that in real life, his shoulder would have been blown off."

A recurring question is why "liberal Hollywood" churns out so much violent content. "Hypocrisy," snaps Mike Hammond of Gun Owners of America. Money is the most common answer. "I think that more than being liberal, Hollywood is capitalist," says Tim League, owner of the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain and an NRA member. Peter Debruge, Variety's senior film critic, offers a critical look at the movie rating system, which has been handing out PG-13s to intense flicks like The Dark Knight Rises, ensuring that they will become blockbusters. No one mentions Hollywood's long history of teaming up with the gun industry to make their wares seem simply cool. But Los Angeles Undersheriff Paul K. Tanaka offers reassurance that Hollywood executives "are responsible human beings. Does anyone really think they're interested in creating more violence?"   

These responses are accompanied by images from more than a century of virtual mayhem, from The Great Train Robbery to The Walking Dead. There are also plenty of graphics on media and violence—including some of Mother Jones' data on mass shootings, which is provided without a credit. (C'mon, isn't Hollywood obsessed with intellectual property rights?) There's no clear takeaway from all this except that Hollywood, or at least Variety, is taking violence Very Seriously. (A full-page photo of MLK flanking Gray's introduction brings the point home.) Yet the entertainment industry ass-covering is outweighed by an honest discussion of the tension between creative freedom, social obligations, and business models.

Gray exhorts his friends in Hollywood to "take action now," even if it takes a generation. It's not exactly clear if he's talking about pushing for more gun laws or producing more of the "finer drama" Bell called for nearly 45 years ago. Yet his sense of the pace of cultural change suggests that in a few decades, this issue of Variety may not be a relic.

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Shocker: NRA Survey Finds Its Members Love Its Extreme Policies

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 9:19 PM EST

A new survey conducted by the National Rifle Association finds that—surprise!—NRA members really, really like the NRA and its policies. More specifically, it found that 98 percent have a favorable view of the gun-rights organization and its absolutist stance. On the flip side, 93 percent have an unfavorable view of President Barack Obama; New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg squeaks by with an 80 percent disapproval rating. Moreover, the NRA finds its members overwhelmingly reject gun-control measures that nobody in Washington is seriously proposing.

Beyond the Saddam-like approval ratings, the survey of 1,000 NRA (PDF) members shows that the vast majority "are united in their desire for Washington to focus on keeping firearms from the mentally ill and to reject unconstitutional gun control measures that infringe on Second Amendment rights." More than 90 percent support keeping firearms away from the mentally ill, 89 percent oppose an assault-rifle ban, 83 percent oppose a ban on high-capacity clips, and 82 percent back the NRA's proposal to put "armed security professionals" in every public school.

And the one-sided responses keep coming as the survey tosses out some wacky hypothetical gun laws: 92 percent of NRA members say they oppose "government confiscation of certain semi-automatic firearms…through a mandatory buy-back program," and 92 percent also oppose "a new federal law banning the sale of firearms between private citizens." When presented with Obama's claims that "a balanced approach" toward reducing gun violence is needed, 79 percent say they still suspect "his real goal is to pass sweeping gun control regulation that will take away our 2nd Amendment rights." (Related: New research shows that the more informed political conservatives are, the more likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories.)

The organization says the survey is "the only legitimate survey of NRA members in existence," suggesting that external surveys, such as this one conducted for Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns—by longtime Republican pollster Frank Luntz—are bunk. That survey found that 74 percent of NRA members support requiring criminal background for all gun purchasers. (Currently, around 40 percent of gun sales are conducted without background checks due to an NRA-backed loophole.)

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