It’s unclear what critics expected when the National Rifle Association’s vice-president, Wayne LaPierre, took the podium last week. Bad feeling had been brewing for a week since the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Even in the early hours of investigation, when awareness of the shooting was grounded largely in rumor, the NRA was already shaping up as a villain of the public narrative, with critics rapidly honing in on their quiet cancellation of a “Tweet & Greet” event scheduled the same morning with aptly named country music singer Colt Ford.
If the backlash that erupted online was an early indication of how the Newtown story would shape public opinion about gun control, the NRA seems to have underestimated its longevity. The cancellation announcement was removed from the NRA Country Twitter account, and for a week not a peep was heard from the country’s most powerful and vocal gun lobby. Based on the tenor of LaPierre’s press conference, it seems that they expected the scrutiny to dissipate. It was not the least of their miscalculations.
The general weirdness of the prepared comments provided their critics with much to discuss over the weekend. There was, for example, NRA president David Keene’s insistence that the press conference marked the opening of a “discussion,” followed closely by the warning that no questions would be allowed from the press. Or the announcement that the NRA would provide free training for school security guards which, along with the suggestion that armed guards should be posted at each of the hundreds of thousands of schools across the nation, implies that the NRA somehow thought it might pacify gun control advocates with a strategy that actually put more guns into schools. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun,” LaPierre declared, “is a good guy with a gun”—unless, as commentators were quick to point out, the bad guys outgun even gun-packing security guards, as they did in Columbine nearly thirteen years ago.
Still, what did the critics expect? Implicitly, they demanded some show of contrition. They may have even hoped for some admission of culpability. But could any of them have genuinely expected a politically actionable change of heart? That sort of thing might have been possible a century ago, when the NRA consisted primarily of clubs for improving rifle marksmanship. Since 1934, though, when the Association formed a legislative affairs division to give it a voice in the passage of a National Firearms Act, the NRA has become more and more purely a political beast. It’s raison d’etre is opposition to gun control, and it lends support to legislation that would restrict gun ownership only when doing so seems the only way to ward off more sweeping reforms. If the solution they offered up last week was simply “more guns,” it is either because they have misread the prevailing winds—or, perhaps, read them more astutely than the masses rallying in favor of gun reform.
The press conference as a whole seemed so remote from the recent discussions, that it was difficult to avoid the impression that the NRA had simply stopped listening at some point. Some indication of how long they’ve been tuned out may be gleaned from LaPierre’s chosen scapegoat. “There exists in this country,” he said, “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and stows violence against its own people.” By which he meant the media, and specifically violent video games, music videos and movies.
It’s an old argument, and its age was reflected in his choice of examples. Several of the video game franchises he named, like Mortal Kombat and Splatterhouse, hale from the 1980s and 90s, which was the last time that line of argument really stirred much debate. It’s unclear whether LaPierre even knew of their more recent incarnations, or would have cared to know that, save for Grand Theft Auto, nearly all the games he named have underperformed in recent years, limiting their the scope of their influence, however pernicious. Their appeal as examples lay in the connection to those halcyon days of the 90s, when the blame for gun violence fell on the media rather than gun rights advocates.
Or maybe during the week it spent preparing for the press conference, the NRA did a little research. One imagines interns in at NRA headquarters rifling through sales records to find popular game franchises to demonize. The problem, they would have discovered, is that most of the major shoot-em-ups of the past decade and a half have centered on depictions of soldiers, historically one of the NRA’s biggest supporters. Given how easily discussion of those games might have slid into inadvertent criticism of the military, a group the NRA cannot afford to distance, it’s unsurprising that LaPierre quickly moved on to movies.
Some of the inclusions there were downright laughable. Natural Born Killers is nearly 20 years old—but there, too, it would have hardly helped his position to cite Zero Dark Thirty. If LaPierre and his colleagues don’t recognize the satire in both NBK and American Psycho, the only other movie he cited by name, it may be, to paraphrase Swift, because no one discovers their own face in that particular glass.
And if they could think of no more recent examples of public outcry over violent movies, it may be because we as a society have largely abandoned the notion that depictions of violence cause violent behavior. Perhaps because the other valences in LaPierre’s speech were too sinister to dwell upon, online critics seem by an unspoken consensus to single out his view of the media as particularly worthy of ridicule.
Sean O’Neal’s report for the Onion-owned AV Club is broadly representative of the fold. “Movies and video games are to blame for enabling gun violence, says man whose sole purpose is to enable gun violence,” the title declares. Many were quick to point out that media produced in the U.S. is consumed all over the world, but that you’re more likely to die of a gunshot wound in the U.S. than in any other country in the world. Surely, then, depictions of violence are a symptom of our gun malaise, rather than its cause.
LaPierre presumably cares about the right to own guns—at the very least, he has a professional incentive to speak and behave as though he cares. It’s little surprise, then, that he was loathe to take seriously the idea that the right to own semi-automatic weapons might be responsible for the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary. And when he put the blame on video games, movies and music videos, a lot of people who care just as much about arts and entertainment were just as reluctant to take the suggestions seriously. There’s the rub.
We can reasonably agree that the relationship between violent media and outbreaks of real-world violence is not one of simple cause-and-effect. The recurrence of large-scale gun violence in the U.S. is already shockingly high (even as LaPierre delivered his monologue, there was another gunman killing bystanders along a road in Pennsylvania), but if watching American Psycho were a straightforward cause of violence, we’d be in much worse trouble. Yet, those of us who care most about the arts and entertainment can’t afford to simply laugh off the suggestion that some forms of violent media contribute to violence. If we do, then we’re left with the burden of explaining how those media could have any influence at all.
Gun rights advocates sometimes argue that gun control is a slippery slope that could lead to the ban of all sorts of tools that could be used to harm others. Gun control advocates respond that, unlike guns, which are used solely for inflicting bodily harm, those other tools have constructive purposes as well. An axe can be used to kill, but that potential must be balanced against its constructive use in supplying wood for building and heating houses. More to the point, the very traits that make the axe useful as a weapon are inseparable from its utility. Blunting an axe might render it useless as a weapon, but only by making it entirely useless.
The same goes for our media. If we blunt it rhetorically, laughing off the suggestion that it might contribute to violence, then we blunt it also for the benefits we purport to derive from it. Those movies that, we profess, have made us better people—they can do so only in the same measure that other movies are capable of making us worse.
Those who best understood the implication of LaPierre’s comments, then, may have been those who claim to have felt left out by them. Through an alternate account on Twitter, author Andrew Schaffer mock-lamented,
Actually disappointed the NRA didn’t blame violent books in their press conference. Books clearly losing cultural heat.
The underlying premise there is that literature’s power to move and its power to repulse are derived from the same source. No smart writer would wish away the one in order to save the medium from the other.
LaPierre is wrong, of course, but he’s wrong more in degree than in principle. He clearly wants to shift blame away from the sort of weapons that made it woefully easy to kill not just the 27 victims at Sandy Hook, but also the hundreds who have died in what is rightfully regarded an epidemic of mass shootings. To do so, he puts undue emphasis on the role played by violent media, and because much of that violent media touches on his own concerns, he focuses oddly on examples that haven’t retained the cultural cache he attributes them.
But to the degree that we believe that the arts matter, we should not allow that overstatement to cloud our perception of the force of media. There are more sophisticated ways to explore the subject. To the extent that media can move us at all, it must be possible that some works really have contributed to the violence. No responsible society can afford to stand so resolutely against that principle that it simply refuses to engage in serious discussion. We laugh it off at our own hazard.