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.
By cutting off federal funding for research and stymieing data collection and sharing, the National Rifle Association has tried to do to the study of gun violence what climate deniers have done to the science of global warming. No wonder: When it comes to hard numbers, some of the gun lobby's favorite arguments are full of holes.
Myth #1: They're coming for your guns. Fact-check: No one knows the exact number of guns in America, but it's clear there's no practical way to round them all up (never mind that no one in Washington is proposing this). Yet if you fantasize about rifle-toting citizens facing down the government, you'll rest easy knowing that America's roughly 80 million gun owners already have the feds and cops outgunned by a factor of around 79 to 1.
Myth #2: Guns don't kill people—people kill people. Fact-check: People with more guns tend to kill more people—with guns. The states with the highest gun ownership rates have a gun murder rate 114% higher than those with the lowest gun ownership rates. Also, gun death rates tend to be higher in states with higher rates of gun ownership. Gun death rates are generally lower in states with restrictions such as assault-weapons bans or safe-storage requirements. Update: A recent study looking at 30 years of homicide data in all 50 states found that for every one percent increase in a state's gun ownership rate, there is a nearly one percent increase in its firearm homicide rate.
Myth #3: An armed society is a polite society. Fact-check: Drivers who carry guns are 44% more likely than unarmed drivers to make obscene gestures at other motorists, and 77% more likely to follow them aggressively.
• Among Texans convicted of serious crimes, those with concealed-handgun licenses were sentenced for threatening someone with a firearm 4.8 times more than those without.
• In states with Stand Your Ground and other laws making it easier to shoot in self-defense, those policies have been linked to a 7 to 10% increase in homicides.
Myth #4: More good guys with guns can stop rampaging bad guys. Fact-check: Mass shootings stopped by armed civilians in the past 30 years: 0
• Chances that a shooting at an ER involves guns taken from guards: 1 in 5
Myth #6: Carrying a gun for self-defense makes you safer. Fact-check: In 2011, nearly 10 times more people were shot and killed in arguments than by civilians trying to stop a crime.
• In one survey, nearly 1% of Americans reported using guns to defend themselves or their property. However, a closer look at their claims found that more than 50% involved using guns in an aggressive manner, such as escalating an argument.
• A Philadelphia study found that the odds of an assault victim being shot were 4.5 times greater if he carried a gun. His odds of being killed were 4.2 times greater.
Myth #7: Guns make women safer. Fact-check: In 2010, nearly 6 times more women were shot by husbands, boyfriends, and ex-partners than murdered by male strangers.
• A woman's chances of being killed by her abuser increase more than 7 times if he has access to a gun.
• One study found that women in states with higher gun ownership rates were 4.9 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than women in states with lower gun ownership rates.
Myth #8: "Vicious, violent video games" deserve more blame than guns. Fact-check:So said NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre after Newtown. So what's up with Japan?
Myth #9: More and more Americans are becoming gun owners. Fact-check: More guns are being sold, but they're owned by a shrinking portion of the population.
• About 50% of Americans said they had a gun in their homes in 1973. Today, about45% say they do. Overall, 35% of Americans personally own a gun.
• Around 80% of gun owners are men. On average they own 7.9 guns each.
Myth #10: We don't need more gun laws—we just need to enforce the ones we have.
Fact-check: Weak laws and loopholes backed by the gun lobby make it easier to get guns illegally.
• Around 40% of all legal gun sales involve private sellers and don't require background checks. 40% of prison inmates who used guns in their crimes got them this way.
• An investigation found 62% of online gun sellers were willing to sell to buyers who said they couldn't pass a background check.
• 20% of licensed California gun dealers agreed to sell handguns to researchers posing as illegal "straw" buyers.
• The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives did not have a permanent directorfor 7 years, due to an NRA-backed requirement that the Senate approve nominees.
This article has been updated.
Icons in gun ownership chart: Handgun designed by Simon Child, rifle designed by Nadav Barkan, shotgun designed by Ammar Ceker, all from the Noun Project
When they're not coming for yours, presidents love their guns. Below, photos of modern presidents enjoying their right to bear arms. (And scroll down for some bonus shots featuring Eleanor Roosevelt, Dick Cheney, and Joe Biden.)
A young Theodore Roosevelt, back when being into fringey gun stuff meant something entirely different, 1885.
Then-Senator Truman shows off a pair of pistols once owned by Jesse James to Vice President John Nance Garner, 1938. (According to the Library of Congress, "Senator Truman secured the guns in Southern Missouri from a doctor's wife, whose husband received them in payment of medical services rendered Frank James, another of the James' boys.")
General Dwight D. Eisenhower squeezes off some rounds with wartime colleagues Prime Minister Winston Churchill and General Omar Bradley, 1945. As president, Eisenhower installed a skeet shooting range at Camp David.
Keystone Pictures USA/ZUMA Press
President John F. Kennedy shoots skeet at Camp David, 1963. Watching him on the right are David Niven, Ben Bradlee, and Hjördis Paulina Tersmeden, Niven's wife. (Jackie Kennedy is likely on the bench. Watch a brief clip of her shooting skeet here.)
President Jimmy Carter (kneeling) shooting with kids in Plains, Georgia, 1978.
Arthur Grace/ZUMA Press
Former President Ronald Reagan accepts a Colt Sporter AR15 from the American Shooting Sports Council at his ranch in California, 1992. "This much was obvious—Ronald Reagan loves shooting and loves people," ACCS's executive director wrote (PDF) about the day. "The anti-gunners may have thought they co-opted our pro-gun former president for their exclusive use. No way! He believes in our industry, he believes in our products, and he shares our views about individual responsibility, accountability and personal freedom." (Bold in original.)
American Shooting Sports Council
President George H.W. Bush hunting in Texas, 1992.
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 organizationand 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.)
The National Rifle Association claims to speak for more than 4 million gun owners. But the shots are really called by a hush-hush group of 76 directors. The majority are nominated via a top-down process and elected by a small fraction of NRA members. A breakdown of the current board, based on their official bios:
87 percent are men. 93 percent are white.
25 percent are current or former federal, state, or local lawmakers or officials.
22 percent are current or former law enforcement officers. 30 percent are current or former members of the military.
24 percent are lawyers.
12 percent are entertainers or athletes.
64 percent are hunters. 71 percent are sport or competitive shooters.
At least 71 percent were nominated, endorsed, or selected by the NRA's Nominating Committee.
Some notable members of the NRA's current board of directors:
Tom Selleck The Magnum, P.I. star, gun buff, and vocal gun-rights supporter was the top vote-getter in 2008's board election. (Fellow '80s TV heartthrob Erik Estrada sought a seat on the NRA board in 2011 but eventually withdrew his candidacy.)
Ted Nugent At the NRA's 2012 annual conference, the Nuge announced, "If Barack Obama becomes the next president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year," prompting a meeting with the Secret Service.
Oliver North "I love speaking out for the NRA in large part because it drives the left a little bit nuts," says the Iran-Contra conspirator and Call of Duty pitchman.
The former NRA president helped craft and implement Florida's Stand Your Ground law, which provided a model for similar self-defense laws in 24 other states.
Karl Malone "About the only thing I'd rather do than play basketball is hunt," says the retired NBA player in an recruitment ad for the NRA.
Patricia Clark A record-holding shooter, Clark has been on the board of directors since 1999 and is currently the head of the NRA's nominating committee, which helps pick the majority of board members. She lives in Newtown, Connecticut.
R. Lee "The Gunny" Ermey Former Marine turned actor is best known for his turn as a drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket (who is gunned down by a suicidal recruit). He's also a spokesman for Glock.
Wayne A. Ross In 2009, Sarah Palin nominated the former NRA vice president to be Alaska's attorney general, but lawmakers passed on him after he was accused of making homophobic and sexist comments.
Roy Innis The head of the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights organization now known as a climate-denyingastroturf outfit. While representing the United States at a UN arms conference in 2001, Innis explained, "The Rwanda genocide would not have happened if the Tutsis had had even one or two pistols to fight back with."
Carl T. Rowan Jr.
Formerly a cop, FBI agent, and vice president for the private-security firm Securitas.* He is the son of columnist Carl Rowan Sr., who once caught a teenager swimming in his backyard pool and wounded him with an unlicensed handgun.
The former Idaho senator sponsored a 2005 law protecting gun makers from liability in connection with their products being used by criminals. The NRA spent $1.8 million on lobbying Congress that year.
Grover Norquist The president of Americans for Tax Reform is a NRA Life Member and member of the Fifty Caliber Shooters Association. After Newtown, he echoed the NRA's line: "We have got to calm down and not take tragedies like this, crimes like this, and use them for political purposes."