When I was a little kid, I liked to play make believe with my friends. We would watch Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers, and then spend the afternoon pretending we were those super-cool heroes, acting out their often violent adventures in backyards and basements. We had to rely on our imaginations because there was no easy access to superpowers, secret underground clubhouses, or gigantic stackable dinosaur military vehicles – and eventually, we all grew out of this fantastical, childhood phase.
Unfortunately, many more violent, Hollywood-fueled fantasies are far easier to emulate, thanks to lax gun laws and the promotion of an intoxicating misnomer. As NRA president Wayne LaPierre says, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
Absent any actual statistics backing this up (and in fact, the face of many studies suggestion otherwise), the best and most influential support for this dangerous argument comes from Hollywood, and its grand tradition of stories about heroic lone gunmen swooping in to save the day.
That fantasy is one of the film and TV’s industry’s favorite tropes, returned to again and again thanks to its simplicity, versatility, and overwhelming popular success. It has appeared again and again, especially over the last 50 years, from Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name liberating entire border towns with just a smoking revolver, to Bruce Willis saving buildings and even whole cities with nothing but his grit and pistol. Now, about three times a year, The Rock and Vin Diesel protect their loved ones with bulging biceps and heat on their hips.
Even the action comedy generally puts a gun in the hands of its silly, unprepared protagonist, and when the going gets tough, turns him into a crack shot who saves the day. Keanu, the well-received and very fun stoner action flick from Key and Peele, saw its unlikely heroes come through in the clutch and fight off hordes of tough gangsters with the help of guns they had no business using.
Now, it is hard to blame individual mass shootings only on the influence of violent media, even shoot-‘em-up video games and gleefully cartoonish bloodbaths such as the cartoonishly violent Expendables series. While there seems to be a casual-but-real connection, there are too many other more immediate factors, from mental health to radical politics and — as we saw again on Sunday — the ugliest forms of hatred. But how Omar Mateen, the homophobic gunman behind the Pulse nightclub massacre, got his guns is something worth examining through the lens of Hollywood’s dangerous myth-making.
Mateen had been interviewed twice by the FBI, which looked into his alleged links to terrorist groups (before the shooting, he pledged allegiance to ISIS). But his verifiably shady past, legal entanglements, and radical sympathies did not stand in the way of his purchasing an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, which has become the weapon of choice for unhinged mass shooters. Most states, under the influence of the NRA, do not ban people who have been convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from purchasing firearms; in December, the Senate voted down a proposal that would have banned suspected terrorists from purchasing semi-automatic weapons.
This is not a logical stance for any sort of government that wants to protect its people. But there are other interests at play. The NRA advocates on behalf of gun manufacturers, who would see sales drop if any sort of restrictions were put on firearm purchases. To ensure that doesn’t happen, the organization stokes the fear of terrorist attacks, and suggests that any gun owner, at the right place and time, could turn into a John McClane or Liam Neeson in Taken, taking justice into their own hands and saving the day.
This is a ridiculous fantasy, but a pernicious, effective, and widespread one. On Monday, Geraldo Rivera even shamed victims at the Pulse nightclub shooting for not fighting back against Mateen. That’s light-years from being even a semi-coherent statement in the real world, but it does sound like a plot point from a badass action movie. When people believe that there is any small chance that they could be a hero, why give up protection?
Back in 2009, the Policy Statement on Media Violence, the American Academy of Pediatrics put out a statement that statement saying as much. “Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed,” the group cautioned.
It’s the fear of being harmed that is particularly useful for the NRA and its allies, because it fuels opposition to any suggestion that the government is trying to take away people’s guns. That’s another myth, but one with a long shelf-life; earlier this month, President Obama sounded exasperated when confronted by someone who accused him of conspiracy to round up everyone’s means of protection. The angry gentleman even suggested that the good guys” in Chicago, a city plagued by gun violence, should be permitted to carry their own guns to protect themselves.
“If you propose any [regulation], it is suggested that we’re trying to wipe away gun rights and impose tyranny and martial law,” Obama lamented, pointing to the Congressional ban on the CDC’s studying of gun violence.
The massacre on Sunday morning — the worst mass shooting in American history — brought out a parade of Hollywood stars shouting about the need for sweeping gun control. Their movies, however, often suggest otherwise.
Unfortunately, there’s a major disconnect between celebrity activism and what’s on screen; much of the country is likely to discount Matt Damon’s admirable advocacy, while flooding theaters to see his new film about Jason Bourne, a one-man weapon against tyranny and bad guys. There’s no website chronicling actor’s urgent tweets, but there is an Internet Movie Firearms Database.
This is not a call for a ban on violence in media; that sort of hysteria always looks bad in hindsight, having led to the installation of the Motion Pictures Production Code and other creativity-stifling rules. And other countries, which have the same access to violent movies and TV shows, don’t have the same plague of mass shootings. But with America’s gun laws seemingly set in prehistoric stone, miles beneath the levels at which other countries regulate firearms, it’s worth thinking about the messages embedded in our entertainment, and how they’re twisted against us.
Next time, maybe the Rock can use some of those famous wrestling moves — it wouldn’t be a bad thing if America ran out to the gym to try and live that fantasy.