One week after the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — a shooting rampage that claimed the lives of 28 people, including 20 children — NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre laid the responsibility for America’s gun-violence epidemic largely at the feet of the movie, TV, and videogame industries. They ”portray life as a joke and murder as a way of life,” LaPierre told reporters, ”and then they have the nerve to call it entertainment.” While those accusations were criticized as a transparent effort to shift blame away from the gun lobby, many in Hollywood acknowledged that the underlying sentiment couldn’t be totally dismissed. As the nation wrestles with the question of how to reduce gun violence, the Newtown tragedy — and, sadly, more incidents since then, like the Jan. 30 shooting in a Phoenix office building — presents an opportunity for the creators of intense films, TV, and videogames, as well as all of us who consume and celebrate them, to examine the role entertainment plays in perpetuating America’s culture of violence.
To a film community that had just five months earlier navigated the fallout from the mass shooting during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo., it was immediately clear that the issues raised by the Newtown tragedy, no matter how thorny and uncomfortable, were impossible to avoid. In his opening speech at the Sundance Film Festival last month, Robert Redford addressed them head-on: ”Does my industry think guns sell movies? I think it’s worth asking that question.” Six days after the Newtown shootings, Motion Picture Association of America chairman (and former U.S. senator) Christopher Dodd vowed that his industry stood ”ready to be part of the national conversation” about gun violence. A number of celebrities, including Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Banks, Steve Carell, and Jamie Foxx, banded together for a public-service announcement to urge enactment of stricter gun-control laws (a viral video intercutting the PSA with scenes of those stars wielding guns on screen soon followed). Denzel Washington, who will star this summer in an action movie called 2 Guns, told an interviewer that going forward he will be ”more aware of [violence] in terms of choosing roles.” Foxx — whose hyperviolent Django Unchained opened just 11 days after the Newtown shootings and would soon become director Quentin Tarantino’s highest-grossing movie ever — told the Associated Press that the film business needed to own up to its share of responsibility for such tragedies: ”We cannot turn our back and say that violence in films or anything that we do doesn’t have a sort of influence. It does.”
As the weeks have passed, though, some question whether the film business really intends to address gun violence in movies in any serious or sustained way. The most tangible measures the industry has taken thus far — such as the postponement of the premiere of Tom Cruise’s action film Jack Reacher and the cancellation of the Django premiere — have been cautious and mainly symbolic. Even as Dodd and other industry leaders met with Vice President Biden at the White House last month to discuss the problem, the MPAA chief insisted that the movie business remains ”vehemently opposed” to any kind of regulation of the content of movies. In the wake of Newtown, no films featuring gun violence have been pulled from the release schedule, as Gangster Squad had been following the Aurora shootings. (The drama, which originally featured a shooting in a movie theater, underwent reshoots and was released on Jan. 11.) That said, according to one insider, the MPAA — which must approve publicity materials for the films it rates — has started trying to tamp down images of guns in movie advertising, which may explain why a large rifle slung over Jeremy Renner’s shoulder in the original ad for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters suddenly disappeared from many posters and billboards. And some studios have at least temporarily stopped releasing movie stills featuring weapons to outlets like Entertainment Weekly, even when the movies in question have far more gunplay than dialogue.