The Exploitation Of Gun Violence In Hollywood, And Why Obama Needs To Stop It

Last week, in a calculated display of political theater, President Barack Obama surrounded himself with children as he signed an executive order containing 23 gun safety measures.

The staging was missing something though. The president never once mentioned Hollywood’s prolific production of graphic gun violence or the role it has played in promulgating a culture of gun violence. In fact, since the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the president has made no such correlation.

There's little question that Hollywood studios resort to gratuitous violence to make a buck. They have invested millions to perfect special effects that reproduce the gory blood-splatters from gunshots. In the absence of decent screenwriting, shock and horror are used to attract audiences.

The president's executive order includes significant funding to study the effects of violent video games. Why is the Administration differentiating its approach to these two forms of entertainment?

Of course, there are exceptions. In the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan” violence was used brilliantly to convey the profound, actual circumstances the average GI had to endure in Normandy during World War II.

My criticism is reserved for the countless movies that portray graphic and gruesome violence for no real purpose — other than to provoke a reaction in the viewer.

There is a cognitive dissonance in our culture with regard to guns and gun violence. One minute you’ll be watching the president’s televised anti-gun speech, and a minute later, on the same network, you’ll see a shooting-spree and ax-fight laced trailer for a movie like the soon-to-be released, “Bullet to the Head.”

The president's executive order includes significant funding to study the effects of violent video games. Why is the Administration differentiating its approach to these two forms of entertainment?

Has Hollywood’s top lobbyist, former Senator Chris Dodd succeeded in making the Motion Picture Association of America as untouchable with Democrats as the National Rifle Association is with Republicans?

Throughout his first term, the president received an inordinate amount of financial and fawning political support from Hollywood. A few on-the-record remarks asking the industry — publicly — to tamp down the graphic violence would have been appropriate and useful. His words might not have immediate, material impact, but they might encourage a more critical deliberation of much of the violent garbage the industry foists incessantly on the public.

I am keenly aware that we as a nation need to be careful not to stifle free expression and creativity — particularly in the arts. The First Amendment, however, was partially designed to create a public forum for debate and competing ideas. Challenging through rhetoric an industry’s potential for harm would be consistent with the spirit of the First Amendment, just as well-written and reasonable regulations like background checks are in the spirit of our Second Amendment right to bear arms.


In order to have any chance of taking root, the message would have to come from the president himself. If Congressional Republicans were to take up violence in movies, they’d be mocked and written off as Neanderthals attacking the arts.

By the same token, Republicans could play an important role by committing their support for some of the more reasonable gun-control measures in the president’s executive order. To make progress on this issue, each side needs to evolve and possibly step outside of their respective political comfort zones.

Since neither has stepped up, however, the issue has thus far been reduced to political theater and unilateral executive actions that lack staying power. It also remains more focused on guns, rather than more broadly on gun violence.

The president still has an opportunity to move beyond the usual assault-weapon bans and cartridge limits — policies that have been around for decades — to keep alive a real public discussion. Perhaps in the next gun-related signing event, the president will surround himself with Hollywood chums who have sworn off gratuitous gun violence in future productions. Now that would change the narrative.


Headshot of John Sivolella

John Sivolella Cognoscenti contributor
John Sivolella is on the faculty at Columbia University, where he teaches about the presidency, federal agencies and public policy.



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