Movie violence is often blamed in the wake of mass shootings like Sandy Hook. But are they really connected – and should movies tone down their brutality? Tom Brook investigates.

This week marks the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in which 26 people died after Adam Lanza went on a rampage. As often happens in the wake of bloody shootings involving young gunmen, a finger was pointed at the entertainment industry: in Lanza’s case it was claimed he was influenced by the violent video games he owned.

Five months before Sandy Hook another mass shooting took place at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. In that slaughter 12 people were killed and 70 injured: this time Hollywood was held responsible. But since those two shocking events little has changed when it comes to screen violence.

Michael Morgan, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts who has examined media violence, has noted a ritual emerges after every bloody massacre in the US involving firearms. “There’s a period of hand-wringing and finger pointing − but the industry just waits for it to blow over and just continues as it’s been doing,” he says.

Actor Isaiah Washington, currently starring in the picture Blue Caprice in which he plays a sniper, also sees the audience as complicit in this cycle of inaction. “Violence happens and then we all lock our doors” he says,  “and then two weeks later we unlock our doors and think we’re okay, but yet we go see another film that is violent beyond measure and people eat their popcorn and look at it and go: ‘Oh that’s just the way it is’.”

Some big Hollywood stars are also concerned. Jim Carrey refused to promote the film Kick-Ass 2 because he was bothered by the violence.  He tweeted: “I did Kickass a month b4 Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence ... my apologies to others involve [sic] with the film. I am not ashamed of it but recent events have caused a change in my heart.” Following that statement, Carrey was accused of hypocrisy for pulling out of promoting the film after he’d gone ahead and made the movie − and pocketed his paycheck. Other actors appear to have few concerns when it comes to screen violence. Elizabeth Olsen, who stars in Spike Lee’s very bloody remake of Oldboy, says: “Maybe I’m just a product of my generation. I don’t find it that disturbing to watch. It’s almost comedic in a way.”

Lethal weapons

One tangible outcome of the Sandy Hook killings is a comprehensive study of gun violence in Hollywood movies published this month in the American journal Pediatrics. Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University, who worked on the study, says researchers “found that the amount of gun violence in PG-13 films, those are films for thirteen or older, had more than quadrupled since the rating was introduced in 1985.” In addition the investigation revealed that PG-13 films had more gun violence than films rated R, which are for ages 17 and over. To some parents − and moviegoers − these are alarming statistics, but many studio executives and directors take the view that there is no hard evidence that gun violence on screen leads people to go on shooting rampages.

Director Quentin Tarantino made his views very clear in a widely-reported interview broadcast by NPR in the US earlier this year. He’s adamant that violence on screen doesn’t affect violence in the real world. “Obviously the issue is gun control and mental health,” he says.

Although there is no proven link between what happens on screen and whether it may prompt people to kill, Brad Bushman deploys a common sense argument. “We know that kids who see movie characters smoking think those characters are cool − and they’re more likely to smoke themselves” he says. “So it’s not far-fetched to believe that many of the characters who have guns are pretty cool − and it’s not far-fetched to believe that kids might be influenced.”

Michael Morgan points out that the increased presence of gun violence in movies does have an impact in desensitising people. “Violence becomes globalised and you don’t even notice it. It also generates a sense of the world as more dangerous and scary than it really is.”

Hidden agendas

Those directors who peddle reality in their films, like documentary director Morgan Spurlock, suggest that responsible filmmakers need to ask questions: “How much insane violence are you putting in a film? Is it senseless or does it make sense? Does it feed a story, or is it just to sell tickets?” But Spurlock, like many in the film industry, thinks parents have a responsibility too. “I think a lot of it still comes down to what conversations parents are having with their kids” he says. “Are you raising them in a home where they understand that this is entertainment, that this is a film that isn’t the real world.”

Gun violence in movies in the US and the impact it has is a complicated issue.  To many the availability of lethal weaponry and the lack of sufficient mental health counseling are considered significant factors in any debate. Also key is to understand the underlying agendas in the arguments put forward by the different players.

Studio executives will cry censorship when the possibility of regulations are proposed to curb screen violence − but many think that freedom of expression is not their real concern. “They’re protecting their bottom line,” says Michael Morgan, who believes Hollywood wants guns on screen because it brings in the young male audience that the industry really covets.

Pro-gun groups also have their own agenda. In the wake of a Sandy Hook-style shooting they will cite Hollywood as the culprit because they want to shift the focus away from groups lobbying for gun control – which they maintain would infringe on their constitutional rights. With opinions so entrenched it’s hard for the debate to move forward.

Brad Bushman thinks productive change could come about through the ratings system. “I would change the ratings system to 18 plus. I would not want to see any gun violence shown to children. Adults can watch whatever they want.” Michael Morgan takes a more radical view − he’d like to see the media conglomerates controlling the Hollywood studios broken up − so less violence-oriented storytellers could emerge. “It would just diversify the product” he says. “It would allow more types of stories to be told. Instead of the monopoly by a small number of studios.”

But neither of these proposals is likely to be implemented because of strong vested interests. A year after Sandy Hook, America’s ongoing debate over gun violence in movies is no closer to being resolved − far from it.

Perhaps some bigger questions need to be addressed before progress can be made: Why are we all so invested in screen violence, what does it say about our culture and ourselves that our entertainment is so saturated with violence − and that we so eagerly and often unthinkingly embrace it?

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