As I have been listening to the recent debates on gun control, I have been thinking about the ways that artists have contributed to this problem and some steps we could take to help to solve it.
On the same day that I heard President Obama’s speech urging stronger gun controls, I went to a movie at the local multiplex. Although I make it a point to avoid violent movies, I was subjected to fifteen minutes of trailers for new films that seemed to consist of one scene after another where someone was either pointing a gun, shooting a gun, or running away from someone with a gun.
As I sat in the darkened theatre, I thought about President Obama weeping on national television as he spoke about the murder of first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. And as I watched actors shooting each other on screen, I started to weep too. It is so clear that the movie and television industries are playing a huge role in creating the climate of violence that seems to be engulfing us. It is painful to think about how much money is spent and how many artists are involved in creating films glorifying people with guns. Many of these artists are our colleagues and friends. Why don’t they see the social impact of their work?
According to the Parents Television Council, there have been over 3,000 studies over the past 50 years proving that violent programming increases aggressive behavior, especially in children. A 2013 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found gun violence in PG-13 movies has more than tripled since 1985. The Media Education Foundation reports that by the time an average U.S. child reaches age 18, they will have witnessed 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 murders on television. Media violence undercuts civil rights movements because women and people of color are so frequently shown as the disposable victims. In fact, the violence against women on broadcast TV shows increased 120% between 2004 and 2009.
The U.S. Surgeon General, the National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a host of other scientific and public health organizations agree that constant exposure to media violence has harmful effects on public health. What can we do to address this problem?
I have two suggestions. First, on a personal level, people in the arts need to start talking to each other more about how we are portraying gun violence in our work. Clearly there are times when gun violence is a key element of a story line, but often it isn’t. Whenever we include gun violence in our work, we need to start asking each other if there are any other ways to move the plot and characters forward. My instinct is that at least half of the gun violence we see is not essential, and that the characters would be far more compelling if the writers gave them other ways to resolve their conflicts.
Second, as a way to make more money available to people creating non-violent films and television shows, I would like to propose a tax on representations of gun violence. We tax cigarettes and alcohol to discourage their consumption and to offset the damage they do to public health. State and local governments reap $15 billion a year from cigarette taxes and $5.6 billion a year from alcohol. Why don’t we do something similar with violent media?
Imagine how much money would be generated if audience members had to pay an extra 50 cents for every film or television show they saw that showed a gun on screen. The gun representation tax would quickly generate millions of dollars that could be used to support filmmakers doing non-violent films. We could also encourage much more diversity by earmarking funds for women, artists of color, and other artists who are currently marginalized.
It is often said that violent programming “gives the public what it wants.” But many Nielsen surveys and Gallup polls show that people prefer non-violent programming. In fact, 82% of the American public thinks that films are too violent.
George Gerbner, the Dean Emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communications who spent three decades studying television violence, pointed out that since the people making violent shows often have bigger budgets, their shows usually have higher production values than their non-violent counterparts – i.e. the violent shows have bigger stars, better sets and costumes, and more elaborate special effects. They also have better time slots on TV. His research found that when violent and non-violent shows had the same star-power and other production values, audience members were more likely to pick the non-violent shows over the violent ones.
The proposed tax on gun representation would not limit anyone’s freedom of speech and it would be simple to administer. If there is a gun on screen at any point, the tax would be imposed. If not, there would be no tax. Producers would still be free to make eye-popping profits on violent shows, and the number of violent shows might stay the same, but their market share would gradually diminish because there would be so many more well-funded non-violent shows to compete with them.
The violence in our films and television programs is affecting every aspect of our lives and it is urgent that we take action. George Gerbner coined the phrase "mean world syndrome," a phenomenon in which people who watch large amounts of television are more likely to believe that the world is an unforgiving and frightening place. I want to close with a quote from Gerbner’s testimony to a Congressional subcommittee on communications in 1981 which suggests that part of our current political climate is a direct result of the past twenty-five years of rampant violence on television:
"Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hardline postures. They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. That is the deeper problem of violence-laden television."