On the silver screen, we watched Sean Penn’s mob open fire on moviegoers in a Hollywood theatre. The dramatic clip, climax of the trailer for “Gangster Squad,” was met with stunned silence. The audience broke into uneasy murmurs. It was July 21, the day after James Holmes shot 70 people, killing 12, in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
Recovering from the slap-in-the-face trailer, we settled in for “The Dark Knight Rises.” An hour later, I felt sick. I couldn’t enjoy the movie. Every time the citizens of Gotham were casually bombed or otherwise terrorized, my mind flashed back to Gangster Squad and then to Aurora. It’s hard to suspend disbelief when confronting the fact that terror can come off the screen and into the real world.
I began to sob and fled the theater. I felt as if the shooting had taken place in the adjacent theater rather than across the country. My chest ached for the lives shattered by bullets and for the horror-stricken survivors. I had never so vividly “experienced” a national trauma like this (I was only 10 when the twin towers fell), and it was profoundly unsettling.
I felt silly and helpless about my panic attack. I wanted to go home to a glass of red wine and a rom com, to push away this pain that was not really my own. But another part of me wanted to hold on to it fiercely, to burn it into my consciousness. I felt that to let that pain fade would be to deny a reality that could have easily been mine. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time—but good luck isn’t enough to make me feel safe.
Why do mass killings occur? It’s difficult to comprehend the factors that would cause an individual to open fire in public. Yet this is the challenge put to policymakers in the aftermath of shootings like Aurora—to evaluate and respond. If we believe there is progress to be made in reducing gun violence, we must consider three major contributing factors: upbringing, outside influence and access.
The first and perhaps most obvious assertion is that an individual’s background determines future patterns of behavior. Many politicians emphasize taking steps to strengthen social capital, such as family stability, safe communities and social equality. This is not specific to violent crime—rates of alcohol/drug abuse, nutritional deficiencies, theft and other social ills generally decrease with more social capital. However, this theory only indirectly addresses the problem. In fact, many perpetrators of gun violence are well-educated citizens from stable middle-class families.
Second, we might question the portrayal of violence in film and TV. Arguably dearer to Americans than the right to bear arms is the freedom of expression. So without condoning censorship, I urge filmmakers and consumers to seriously reconsider how violence is construed in mass media. There’s a fine line between portraying violence as a representation of reality and either downplaying or glorifying it. Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” is a classic example of a film in which violence is highly aestheticized, but in a way that is meant to deeply (and appropriately) disturb audiences.
Ultimately, the way filmmakers treat the subject of violence influences public understanding. As one online commenter noted on the aforementioned trailer, “You repress and trivialize the violence in inherently violent stories, then you don’t get to act surprised when your kids don’t understand the totality or irreversible pain it causes.”
Finally, stricter gun policies are, in my opinion, our best option for reducing gun violence. After going unnoticed during much of the campaigning, the issue was raised at the town hall debate in mid-October. One voter asked President Obama what his administration has accomplished in limiting access to assault weapons. The answer: nothing, really. After pandering to hunters, Obama reiterated a lukewarm expression of support for renewing a ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004. Of course, NRA-endorsed candidate Romney had nothing but disdain for any such restriction.
This lack of urgency on common sense gun control is disturbing. Since 1982, there have been 61 mass gun murders (defined as those with four or more fatalities) in the U.S. In 75 percent of these cases, the weapons used were obtained legally. These included dozens of semiautomatic and assault weapons, often sold to individuals with previous histories of mental instability. I was shocked to learn of the “gun-show loophole,” which allows firearms to be purchased from private dealers at shows without a background check on the buyer. State and federal policymakers must take action to keep weapons, especially those designed for military assault use, out of the hands of anonymous civilians.
On July 25, Warner Brothers pulled the problematic “Gangster Squad” scene. The studio announced that the film premiere would be delayed until January and that “an alternate murder spree scene will be shot that does not take place in a movie theater,” according to the Web site Deadline Hollywood. The message? Get your blinders back on, America—murder sprees are good entertainment, if you believe it can’t happen to us. I fear we may have collectively, tragically, missed the point.
Hannah Colton is a Trinity senior. This is her final column of the semester.