Hollywood, Newtown, and Obama’s showdown with the gun lobby

By Kevin Bloom 21 December 2012

While media determinists have for decades been trying to establish a link between gun massacres in reality and in film, tragedies like the one that occurred last week in Connecticut can best be prevented by legislation. So in January 2013, President Barack Obama will be taking on the gun lobby in Congress. What are his chances of success? By KEVIN BLOOM.

Last week, when the rest of the world learnt the news of yet another gun massacre in the United States, the immediate response was overwhelmingly an emotional one: shock, dismay, a feeling of profound pity for the victims’ families. But then, without much of a lag, reason kicked in. How, we with our more effective gun control laws asked, could something so meaningless and avoidable keep on happening? What was the sense in a nation’s citizens enjoying wide-ranging personal freedoms if the cost of those freedoms was a higher likelihood of their children getting shot? Why were such events and issues so emblematic of modern-day America?

The very point of these questions, of course, was the fact that they’d been asked many times before. The most recent occasion was in July, when 24-year-old James Holmes opened fire in a crowded cinema in Aurora, Colorado, during a premiere of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. By later identifying himself as “The Joker”, Holmes afforded non-US citizens the opportunity to once again contemplate the tangled interplay between media and violence in America, and to surmise that the references and self-references from film to reality and back again pointed to a pop culture with a deeply disturbed heart. 

From Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once in 1937 to Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway appearing as Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker in 1967, from Terence Malick’s masterful Badlands in 1973 to James le Gros and Drew Barrymore performing in Guncrazy in 1992, the country’s enduring romance with gratuitous and inexplicable gun violence has been reinforced since the earliest beginnings of its media age.

Still, if there was one question that media determinists both within and without the US could never adequately answer, it was this: what sort of person would be so adversely affected by the romanticisation of mass gun violence that he would go out and try it for himself? 

Just as Holmes was an enigma to psychologists, so was Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old man who killed 26 people, including 20 children, last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut. Where the former foiled the experts by failing to commit suicide, the latter (who did commit suicide), destroyed the hard-drive on his computer, and left no note explaining his actions. 

Meaning, all we know about both Holmes and Lanza is the same old thing we know about the vast majority of their bullet-spraying predecessors – they were intelligent and withdrawn personalities who had difficulty associating with others. 

Which brings us, by an oft-repeated process of elimination, back to the gun control laws. Will Newtown be like Aurora and Columbine, in that the hand-wringing will be kept confined to opinion pieces in the news media? Is the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms destined to forever remain an issue that no politician will touch?

Up until a few days ago, the answer might have been a resounding “yes”. On Wednesday, 19 December, President Barack Obama declared that he intends to make gun control a “central issue” as he opens his second term. Obama promised, according to the New York Times, “to submit broad new firearm proposals to Congress no later than January and to employ the full power of his office to overcome deep-seated political resistance.”  

In an op-ed on the newspaper’s website directly opposite that lead piece, Richard W Painter, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota, explained exactly where the “deep-seated political resistance” stems from. Entitled “The NRA Protection Racket,” the piece wasn’t exactly breaking news, but it did neatly summarise Obama’s core challenge.

In the last federal election cycle, noted Painter, the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful lobby groups in Washington, spent almost $19 million in an attempt to silence not only Democrats but also Republicans who refused to toe the Second Amendment line. The NRA’s modus operandi, he wrote, works like this: “We will help you get elected and protect your seat from Democrats. We will spend millions on ads that make your opponent look worse than the average holdup man robbing a liquor store. In return, we expect you to oppose any laws that regulate guns.” 

For decades, continued Painter, Republicans went along with the racket, if not willingly then because they knew that any resistance would be futile. But then came the last election cycle, when the cost to the Republican Party of the extremist views within its own camp was made manifestly clear.

“Gun violence in particular frightens voters in middle- and upper-income suburbs across the country,” Painter pointed out. These areas, once Republican strongholds, still have many voters who are sympathetic to the economic platform of the Republican Party but are increasingly worried about their own safety in a country with millions of unregistered and unregulated guns. Some suburban voters may keep a hunting rifle locked away in a safe place, but few want people bringing semiautomatic weapons into their neighborhoods.”

Here, however, is where things get complicated. When the 113th Congress begins in January 2013, there will be 234 Republicans in the House, 16 more than are needed for a majority. Fifteen Democrats are expected to vote against a gun ban, leaving Obama at 31 votes short. Two Republicans, Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and New York’s Peter King, are currently expected to vote with the ban, placing the Obama camp at a deficit of 29 votes.

As Alex Koppelman observed in the New Yorker on Wednesday: “Anything is possible, especially in the wake of something like the Newtown shooting, but it’s difficult to see the political calculus that leads to a few dozen Republicans switching sides on this. Just as the makeup of the House Democratic caucus has changed, becoming more liberal, the GOP side has become filled with members who don’t have to fear a Democratic opponent but need to be concerned about a primary challenge from their right.”

Which implies that, on a pure mathematical level, Painter’s “frightened” Republican faithful in America’s middle- and upper-income suburbs aren’t going to have much of an effect on their elected Congressmen. Or not yet, at least.

What is clear, though, is that the wheel has started to turn. Newtown was different from Aurora in that three of the four victims were children, and Obama’s visibly emotional address on the weekend seemed to speak directly to the nation’s grief. While a poll conducted this week showed that nine out of 10 Americans continue to voice support for the right of individuals to bear arms, it also showed that dissatisfaction with existing federal firearms regulations rose by five points, to 48%. Moreover, the call for stricter firearms laws jumped seven points, to 56%.

Then there’s the fact that given it’s almost his last term in office, Obama has nothing of a political nature to lose. And if this US president knows one thing, he knows that his nation’s unconscionable and perennial gun tragedies cannot be brought to an end by going after Hollywood. DM

Read more: 

  • “Obama Vows Fast Action in New Push for Gun Control,” in the NYTimes
  • “The NRA Protection Racket,” in the NYTimes
  • “Can Gun Control Survive Congress?” in the New Yorker

Photo: Lowell Bohn, of Boulder, CO, checks out a Bushmaster 50 caliber rifle during the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) 141st Annual Meetings & Exhibits in St. Louis, Missouri, April 13, 2012. REUTERS/Tom Gannam


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