The recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton have once again led to the same kind of debate that followed the terrible massacre of 20 children and six teachers in a kindergarten classroom in Newtown seven years ago. At that time, the governor of Connecticut led the charge for stricter gun control laws but others argued that the focus should be on the mentally ill young killer who wielded the weapons. At the time, I wondered why people on both sides of the issue preferred to “demonize” each other instead of working together. I still feel the same way seven years later.
I know that violent acts are still going on all over the world but the massacre of 20 innocent children and six school staff in Newtown hit so close to home that it broke through our psychological firewall. At the time, we had a grandchild in kindergarten in Newtown’s other elementary school.
Since the tragedy innumerable words have been written and the newspapers have been full of articles and letters offering solutions to the problem. Inevitably, most take a one sided view. Some writers call for stricter gun control laws. Others decry the violence in our entertainment media and overall culture. Finally, others call for reforms in treatment of the so-called violent mentally ill.
I would like to suggest all of the above. It seems striking to me that most advocates of stricter gun control are also ardent defenders of Hollywood’s right to do whatever it pleases in depicting violence. At the same time, opponents of violence in the media are often strong supporters of gun ownership. It seems that it is time for those on both the left and the right to come together and adopt each other’s solutions.
I have never owned a gun and never plan to own one, but I know very good people who do. Two beloved uncles were avid hunters, and so is my younger brother, a retired NYPD officer who also happens to be a fanatic about gun safety. However, I have never been able to understand why a hunter might require an assault rifle or a handgun that is just about the modern equivalent of the machine guns that were banned in the 1930s. I don’t believe that the right to bear arms allows me or my neighbor to assemble an arsenal fit for a SWAT team. We have banned especially lethal firearms in the past and we can do it again.
I am aware that even in states like Connecticut that have the most stringent gun-control laws, there are cities like Hartford and Bridgeport where gun violence rates are way above the national average. Murders in both cities declined in 2018, but this year things seem to be back to normal. As of July there have been 10 murders and over 50 shootings in Bridgeport alone. The Dayton shooter killed eight people. There was outrage. Where is the outrage in Bridgeport? El Paso, a city of over 700,000 in Texas, has a far lower murder rate per capita than Bridgeport or Hartford. If gun-control advocates would turn their attention to getting guns out of the hands of teen-age gang members, it might help to lessen the fears of law-abiding gun owners.
While we are at it, I think that there is another so-called right that needs to be somewhat restricted. Why is it that proponents of stricter gun control laws never seem to oppose the acts of violence that appear daily in films, video games, and on TV? You could be watching “Why the Grinch Stole Christmas” this Christmas season only to see it interrupted by commercials for films full of bloodshed. I can’t imagine the violence that my grandchildren see on their video games where they themselves become the shooter.
Maybe, most of us wouldn’t be led to commit acts of violence by witnessing violence, but what about the mentally ill? Some will say that exposure to this violence does no harm. Some also argue that it limits free speech and stifles artistic creativity. If what people see on TV does not influence behavior, why do advertisers spend billions promoting their wares, or politicians buy so much ad-time to get elected?
As far as artistic creativity is concerned, I believe that I can make a very strong case for censorship.
During the 1930s the film industry adopted the now infamous “Production Code.” Faced with the threat of government censorship resulting from a public outcry, Hollywood agreed to police itself. Any new film had to be reviewed and modified if it failed to meet certain set standards. The Production code was abandoned decades ago but modern filmmakers and critics still bemoan the censorship that gripped Hollywood.
Turner Classic Movies has released DVD sets of some of the pre-code films and a reviewer in the Wall St. Journal thought that the code had been a great tragedy. However, in his own review he could only point to one or two films of even limited value from the pre-Code era. He failed to mention that the adoption of the infamous Code coincided with what most critics regard as the Golden Age of film.
For example, 1939 is regarded as one of the greatest years in Hollywood history. “Gone with the Wind” swept most of the Oscars, but moviegoers that year also saw: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Wuthering Heights; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Stagecoach; the Wizard of Oz; Ninotchka; Of Mice and Men; and Dark Victory. The next two years saw the likes of Citizen Kane and Casablanca — two of the greatest films of all time. Restrictions on the so-called creativity of producers, directors, and artists only forced them to greater heights of excellence.
The Newtown shooting occurred seven years ago. Since that time, states have passed increasingly strict gun control laws but the violence in the movies, in video games, and on TV has gotten worse and worse. I don’t play video games and rarely go to the movies anymore. On those rare occasions I am struck by the violence in many of the coming attractions, especially with the use of computer technology.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people on both sides of the political spectrum could come together next year to make America a more peaceful society? It wouldn’t take a constitutional amendment for Hollywood to voluntarily ban the AK-47 from its movies and games.
Francis P. DeStefano, Ph.D., of Fairfield, is a writer, lecturer, historian and retired financial planner.
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