License to Kill: Hollywood’s Role in Gun Violence in America

Will Ferrell. Julianne Moore. Liam Neeson. These three names, alongside one hundred and ten others, are signed at the bottom of a 2016 letter to President Obama thanking him “for having the courage and leadership to take Executive Action on preventing more unnecessary gun violence in this country”. They are also the names of the stars of The Other Guys, Assassins, and the Taken films, respectively. The poster for The Other Guys displays Ferrell double-fisting two handguns. The first of the Taken installments ends with Neeson’s character shooting his daughter’s captor in the face, and Assassins is about, well, assassins. While many actors and actresses have spoken up against gun violence and in support of stricter gun control laws in America, they simultaneously work in an industry that often profits off the thrills of onscreen car chases, explosions, and, of course, gun shots. The roles celebrities accept in Hollywood blockbusters have a greater affect on gun violence in America than the political letters they write.

On December 14, 2012, twenty-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed twenty elementary school children in Newtown, Connecticut. Since then, the parents of the Sandy Hook Elementary School students have sued Freedom Group, the parent company of Bushmaster Firearms, who manufactured the AR-15 used in the massacre. Still under litigation, their case argues that the company should not be marketing an instrument of war to the general public. Just a week after the Sandy Hook shooting, a video PSA began to circulate on the Internet in which a plethora of celebrities encourage American citizens to “demand a plan” for stricter gun control in the United States. The video featured actors ranging from Jennifer Garner to Matt Damon. You may recognize Damon for his starring role in the Bourne series, where he plays a rogue CIA assassin. Garner is also best known for her CIA-affiliated role as a double agent in the hit TV show Alias. Though Damon, Garner, and many other Hollywood hotshots have clearly chosen to take a stand against gun violence in America, it seems that they, too, could be accused of marketing war to the general public through the roles that they play.

The American people have taken note of the discrepancy of these actors’ actions and words, and they have called them on it. One political cartoon depicts an Academy Award winner accepting his golden statue while surrounded by a pool of blood. A speech bubble from the mouth of the actor reads, “It’s time we take a stand on guns” — while he stands atop a corpse labeled “Movie Violence”. Commentaries like this one are, unsurprisingly, undermining the efforts of celebrity activism. One minute-and-a-half video is measly in comparison to hundreds of two-and-a-half-hour movies touting the opposite message.

Actor Jim Carrey did not appear in the “Demand A Plan” PSA after the Newtown shooting. He did, however, choose to distance himself from one of his own upcoming movies, Kick-Ass 2, as he no longer felt comfortable promoting the violence the movie depicts. The creator of the Kick-Ass comic series reacted to this decision by stating that he “never quite bought the notion that violence in fiction leads to violence in real life any more than Harry Potter casting a spell creates more boy wizards in real life”. While there is not any data to support the many religious parents who forbid their children from reading Harry Potter for exactly that reason, there is research that suggests the former. Since the 1980s, the American Psychological Association has reported that television violence has an effect on children’s psyches, making them less sensitive to others’ pain, more fearful of the world around them, and, finally, more likely to behave in more aggressive and harmful ways towards the people around them.

These findings are often contested. There are those who like to argue that though they enjoy James Bond and Braveheart as much as the next person, they have not become a coldblooded killer. On a more statistical note, others point out the lack of causal evidence proving a direct link between aggressive media and aggressive behavior. While there is no direct causal evidence, however, there is also no evidence against a causal link; the anecdotal evidence of “I watched all eight seasons of Dexter and I’m not a serial killer” is not exactly peer-reviewed. Moreover, the correlation between violent media and violent conduct has repeatedly ranked as moderate to strong. To put this in perspective, scholars have likened this correlation to that between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. Correlation is commonly depended on as substantial enough evidence to justify societal change. Violent media, like secondhand smoke, is a danger to our well-being and ought to be addressed.

Of course, addressing violent media is not an easy task. Film is not only entertainment, it is art; filmmakers and actors are entitled to freedom of expression, and to freedom of speech. Furthermore, many movies suggest — if not directly portray — real-life events, conditions, and circumstances. It is against our country’s character, not to mention its Constitution, to censor honest portrayals of the world and its inhabitants. While the First Amendment should not to be violated or ignored, however, it ought to be treated as a responsibility as much as a privilege. Those actors and actresses comfortable calling for a more regulated interpretation of the Second Amendment ought to take an equally critical eye to the First, especially in relation to their own profession.

Our favorite actors have demanded a plan of their country. In return, the country needs to demand a plan from Hollywood. The roles actors play, the screenplays producers choose, the scenes writers write: they all have an effect on the condition of our nation. May they choose to create art and entertainment that is nourishing to our citizens, rather than damaging. In the meantime, the responsibility falls once again on the moviegoers — the ones who noticed when Cameron Diaz and Jon Hamm encouraged them to demand a plan — to choose wisely what they watch. To take note not just of the Rotten Tomatoes score, but the impression the film may subtly make on themselves, on the date they’re taking to the movies, and on their children.