There are more gun shops in the US than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined, it is claimed. Critic Owen Gleiberman looks at a doc that explores the US’ relationship with firearms.

The Sundance documentary Under the Gun dives into the debate about guns in the US, and hearing that description might make you think you don’t want to see it. Mass shootings, background checks, gun shows, the National Rifle Association: those buzzwords – do they ever leave the news feed? – can, by now, be wearying. The sheer omnipresence of the debate can make it seem like you’ve heard all the arguments before, and that there’s nothing new to learn.

Under the Gun, though, opens your eyes– and not just because it brings you close to the families of some of the victims from the Newtown and Aurora massacres in the US. The film’s achievement is its deep understanding of the people who worship guns.

Guns are fast food in the US, offering a cheap meal of sensory abandon

Under the Gun presents two shocking facts. The first is that the sheer number of gun shops in the US is greater than the number of McDonald’s restaurants and Starbucks stores… combined. If this statistic is true, it’s a nightmarish scenario. The message isn’t just that gun stores are as ubiquitous as fast food. It’s that they are fast food, offering a cheap meal of sensory abandon.

But here’s the real jaw-dropper from the film. In 1986, when the NRA was first feeling its power as a lobbying organisation, it strong-armed the US Congress into passing a law that forbade the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the government branch that regulates guns, from storing its information on computers. Thirty years later, that law remains on the books. In Under the Gun, we see what the inside of a typical ATF office looks like: mountains of boxed papers. Most background checks are routine, but if a potential gun buyer needs to be investigated beyond the usual screening procedures, the ‘check’ consists of some poor slave of a bureaucrat hunting through the files – a process that would take mereminutes if it were done on computer. With the current system, it takes days. And if the check isn’t completed within 72 hours, the person in question can simply buy the gun without it.

Bullet points

Under the Gun reveals that the system, in other words, is engineered to operate in slow motion. It’s designed not to work.  Stephanie Soechtig, the director of Under the Gun, takes us inside the NRA, and for perhaps the first time in any film we get a full sense of their psychology – the secret vulnerability that drives their give-me-firearms-or-give-me-death stance. Soechtig stages a group therapy session with NRA members, and what they reveal is the anxiety behind their absolutism: the fear that if they ever backed down and allowed one rule that restricted guns, the government would bust down their doors and take away their weapons. They defend their Second Amendment rights, but what Under the Gun reveals is that guns, to the NRA, aren’t just a right. They’re the key to identity. We see citizens in supermarkets with machine guns slung across their backs, and the message is, “I pack heat, therefore I am.”

They’ve turned life into a Dirty Harry movie, and politics into a cult of firearms

Watching Under the Gun, you may think that no sane society would allow this. But the grand paradox of the NRA is that they have all the power with nothing close to a majority. They can cajole congressmen into voting their way – not because most US citizens share their view, but because gun-control advocates don’t vote en masse. Whereas gun-rights advocates turn out to vote as if their very existence depended on it. They see no shades of grey. There are ‘bad guys with guns’ and the ‘good guys’ who can stop them. They’ve turned life into a Dirty Harry movie, and politics into a cult of firearms.

Soechtig interviews the parents of mass-shooting victims, and though that’s a fair subject, the way the film showcases their heartbreak and rage can’t help but seem a touch exploitative. Trying to turn tragedy into an argument feels both right and wrong. Yet in the last part of the film, when we witness the Aurora movie-theatre massacre as it was recorded – outside the cinema itself – on the multiplex surveillance cameras, we feel a little like those families: helpless, torn by terror and thinking, “How could this happen?” Under the Gun acknowledges that gun control won’t solve everything, but it makes a profound target of the gun fetishists who seem to value their rights more than they do life itself.

★★★★☆   

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