Remember when gun violence on TV seemed like innocent fun? When Dennis the Menace's shooting toy pistols evoked carefree suburbia, instead of children running for their lives, or how the bullets whizzing through the air on 24, ubiquitous as pollen, felt patriotic and exciting? Times have changed.
By the time 24 ended in 2014, American viewers faced a new gruesome reality. Mass shootings, which means that four or more people were shot, had become a simple fact of life. In 2014 270 people died in mass shootings. In 2015, 333; in 2017, 346 — and these numbers don't even take into account people shot in accidents or the thousands injured. In 2018, the statistics are even more heartbreaking; a mass shooting occurs on average seven days a week.
The volume of staggeringly normal gun violence in society is reflected on TV. Counting the number of times a gun is drawn, or how often someone is shot, seems impossible, but the conservative Parents Television Council group managed, and reported that since 2013, (which happens to be the year when 20 elementary school children were slain at their Connecticut school) TV gun violence has gone up nearly 10 percent. Half a decade and many more mass shootings later, the reckoning that encouraged some 800,000 people to march on Washington post-Parkland hasn't really affected television programming — America's only real public education on the issue. Despite some very good intentions on the part of people in television, including the #NoNRA initiative from celebs including Alec Baldwin and Alyssa Milano which aims to curb the NRA's impact, fictional gun violence has gotten more pervasive and more gratuitous than it ever has been. And given the terror ordinary Americans presently feel, the gun games that once could've been written off as escapist fun now seem flippant, and too eerily reflective of the macabre truth that nowhere — not a movie theater (Aurora), a country music concert (Las Vegas) or even church (South Carolina) — is safe from sudden gunfire.
Typically, discussions about guns in entertainment turn into shouting matches about video games. People on both sides descend into a fruitless hunt for causality — a direct link between exposure and behavior researchers aren't 100 percent sure exists. That misses the bigger point. As a culture, we've long recognized that people can be products of their environments, and that television programming — the most egalitarian of pop culture mediums with its incredibly low barrier to entry — can positively affect people who've been exposed to new information and ideas. Yet in the midst of sweeping change across industries that's upending institutionalized sexism, dismantling structural racism and replacing the old guard with the new, Hollywood's best and brightest have yet to start a public, honest conversation about concrete steps that writers, producers, and executives can take to ensure that the gun violence people see on television adequately reflects real world consequences. The industry adapted to #Oscarssowhite and #MeToo in the span of a few short months. Untangling its obsession with guns is proving trickier.
Creatives have rightfully maintained that creative expression should not be limited or suppressed, especially by the government. And it's true that the NRA's long reach and lobbying efforts influence policy. But between those truths is a lush, fertile place where Hollywood's smartest people can let their imaginations bloom, and translate their good intentions to the screen. Television excels at this type of purposeful programming; all kinds of social change has happened because of television. All in the Family and The Jeffersons relaxed attitudes about interracial relationships. Maude, in 1972, made the case for keeping abortion safe and legal — one a year before Roe vs. Wade. The Mary Tyler Mary Moore Show, Julia and Murphy Brown armed legions of young women to march confidently into the workforce. Will & Grace cleared a path for Ellen, where the host danced alongside the man who became America's first black president and shepherded marriage equality into law. No other medium, historically and today, has the same ability to sway the public consciousness on the issues that matter most. Right now, in the grip of what medical and scientific experts are calling a public health crisis, television has a moral obligation to use its unique power to shift culture, and change how people think about guns and gun violence. This is literally a matter of life and death.
To be fair, some TV producers have been thinking hard about what to do. Steve Levitan, co-creator of Modern Family, gathered some 60 fellow creators and experts to talk about how they could help stem gun violence in 2016. According to the Hollywood Reporter, their consensus was that fundraising and political action were their most effective tools. "Could Hollywood be a little more responsible in its portrayal of guns? Probably," he said. "But entertainment is entertainment. I understand that and I'm not looking to come down too hard on that." At the time, President Hillary Clinton seemed like a sure bet, and that outlook, plus Hollywood's cash, might've been enough. Then again, it may be easier to write a check than face the reality that Hollywood may be more complicit in the gun trade than it would like to admit.
Guns aren't just part of American mythology; guns created American mythology. The muskets of the Revolutionary War; the cowboy shooting Indians; Al Capone's domestic terrorism re-branded as anti-establishment badassery: guns have always been the trusty sidekick. Though the stories in which guns appear on TV are make-believe, the actual guns are real. Gun manufacturers have a cozy relationship with the television industry; gun manufacturers do the same type of product placement Pepsi or Apple does. All this, of course, has the blessing of the NRA, which certainly knows how influential television can be: the NRA has a streaming network of its own. After a gunman burst into an elementary school and shot 20 children in 2013, Joe Biden reached out to a roundtable of esteemed entertainment industry knights, including the EVP of Comcast, in hopes of getting TV and film to be more proactive in taming gun violence. Nothing of substance happened, possibly since none of the people there write or produce TV shows. Actually, no — one thing happened: mass shootings, in real life and on TV, became more commonplace and the death tolls rose higher. So, we're at an impasse. The government isn't going to pass helpful legislation anytime soon. But culture can be bigger than government. Very often, it's culture that changes first, and legislation catches up to it.
And culture is changing, fast. Cities are taking Confederate statues down. Major retailers like Dick's are ending relationships with the NRA and gun manufacturers, aware that consumer sentiment and the grassroots work of young people (who, by the way, aren't watching as much broadcast TV as execs would like) may be the beginning of lasting change. As the public awakens, people are less willing to accept the idea that seeing seeing people maimed and killed by gunshots repeatedly has no lasting effect. Studies are not unanimous in proving on-screen gun violence begets real violence, but it's unquestionably true that gunplay has been so inaccurately portrayed for so long that adults' understanding of how guns actually work has been warped. Harmful myths flourish as a result. Silencers, for example, don't actually turn a gun blast into the poofy dart noise it sounds like on TV. Machine guns don't fire rounds non-stop until all the bad guys are dead; as Cracked points out, a standard AK-47 holds 30 rounds, which would be spent in a matter of seconds. You could shoot a gun sideways, but most people would be terrible at it. Indeed, most people have no idea how to shoot a gun or how to react when confronted with one, even if TV makes them believe they could somehow leap through a fusillade of bullets unscathed.
Eradicating guns on TV entirely isn't the answer, or even desirable. Cop procedurals wouldn't make sense without them. Thoughtful, nuanced dramas like Power and The Americans are set in worlds where guns make sense for the characters and the story. But those are shows for adults, and contain complex themes, choices and consequences. People in say, Atlanta, don't crouch behind a car dodging bullets week after week like the people on The Walking Dead; instead they treat guns with reverence and fear. What's needed now, across the spectrum, is for more writers to think more soberly about about how they use guns. There is no — yeesh — magic bullet here, but there are considerations that can be made right away without much discomfort.
If Hollywood wants a world with less gun deaths and more responsible gun ownership, it can start by diminishing their ubiquity in promotional materials. Nobody should drive by a billboard and find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun; the mere image of someone holding a gun should no longer be shorthand for a cop, government agent, or troubled but righteous vigilante. Second, creators can stop relying on guns as a cheap way to raise the stakes in dramatic scenes. Killing Eve's inventive, gruesome killings — via poison, via a hair accessory — for example, are a great example of how to make a show that deals in murder without making guns the default method. Third, creators must divorce guns from associations with idealized masculinity as Deadwood did back in the day, or feminine sex appeal as is sometimes done on steamy sexy-thriller procedurals like Shades of Blue. As countless survivors and family members know, guns are not sexy or cool or erotic. Why is Hollywood still romanticizing them?
Most importantly, writers and producers need to get real about their own use of reckless gun tropes, factually incorrect talk about guns and cartoonish shootings that could never happen in real life and instead start thoroughly exploring the lethal reality of guns, like the children of The Chi who speak warily of guns' destructive potential. Viewers need to see more of the impact of gun violence — the grief and ceaseless sorrow guns cause — rather than just the cheap trick of a blast that serves only to punch up a dull story. Producers need to ask themselves more honest questions. How can we create drama through the characters left behind rather than through the ones that die? Does an episode really need a three-minute gunfight in which hundreds of rounds are fired only for somebody to get shot in the leg? If an episode depicting a mass shooting isn't OK to air after a real one happens — as was the case with USA's Shooter (twice) — what makes it OK two months later? Our collective, shitty reality is that, no matter when an episode showing a mass shooting airs, a real one is inevitably around the corner. If this sounds like rethinking everything, it is — albeit a much easier rethinking than so many survivors and loved ones have been forced to do. But this is not impossible. There is precedent.
Game of Thrones figured out how to tamp down on gratuitous sexual violence against women on TV, after enough viewers stopped tolerating flippant rape and battery as entertaining. Same with the Bury Your Gays trope, which had queer women dying in disproportionate numbers as a means of squashing queer relationships. These are all separate issues, of course, but the moral responsibility to stop depicting harmful images is the same. This is not a matter of policing expression, or censorship. This is about embracing television's unique power, and engaging the most creative, forward-thinking people in the world to mitigate a crisis. It's clear the status quo is no longer good enough, and studios, writers, producers and talent have an opportunity to stop scrambling to respond and instead get in front. Hollywood's #NoNRA Initiative marks a great start but if it never prompts introspection, it misses an opportunity to attack this issue from every conceivable angle.
Because when the next terrible, tragic mass shooting occurs — and another one is coming, based on the math — there will be more tweets and more calls from Hollywood's most brilliant and powerful minds to take action. But who will be able to really say they did everything they could?