Los Angeles Times
Counterpunch
May 28, 2001

Not Yet Farewell to Arms, But Films Have Fewer Guns

By Barbara Demming Lurie

Forget that Washington has been breathing rhetoric down the entertainment industry's collective neck about on-screen violence. Forget the debate about whether bullets whizzing across the screen may be burning a hole in the brains of suggestible young viewers.

Could it be that traditional shoot-em-ups are being viewed these days as a film's way of saying that no one could move the plot more creatively? That while gun gunfire may still play well with a tub of popcorn, it's now considered just as original as one too?

For the politically correct, gun flicks may be the cinematic equivalent of a fur coat. But to those who aren't so sensitive, comparisons to, say, the macarena come to mind. They had their day - and now they're in the been-there-done-that old idea rest home.

Across sound stages everywhere, guns are getting fired - not on the set, but from it. Take Drew Barrymore's decision to keep guns out of the hands of Charlie's Angels. When interviewed in November by Rolling Stone, she gave two reasons, one having to do with antigun sentiments (People just sit behind their [expletive] weapon and they can kill somebody and it's just so cowardly) and the other with simple ennui (I feel like I've seen that [gunplay] in so many movies). Her decision didn't stop the karate-chopping Angels from ranking among the 15 highest-grossing films in 2000 - and all the no-gun publicity didn't seem to have hurt either.

Ex-shooting star Bruce Willis announced last year that he was on a gun moratorium - though he didn't elaborate whether his decision was because of an aversion to the violence, a need to get off an over-beaten track or simply a career shift.

Sensing that sentiment isn't going the way of the gun, many writers and producers are crafting fresher ways to deliver a testosterone fix to their audiences. Or to hold their fire altogether and explore story lines that don't rely on the draw of the draw.

Some of last year's hits mined their action from man-against-nature themes (such as third-ranked Cast Away and fifth-ranked The Perfect Storm), while others relied on a good laugh (like Nutty Professor 2, Meet the Parents and What Women Want). And it looks as though they've managed to keep the body count down without being wounded in the box office themselves.

Of the 15 top-grossing films in 2000, only two showed people getting shot. Compare that with, say, 1987, the year Mel Gibson first brandished his Lethal Weapon. Besides this film, which ricocheted into three smoking sequels, gun-inclusive flicks such as Beverly Hills Cop II and The Untouchables constituted the majority of top-grossers that year.

There also seems to be less gun-slinging going on within films. Researchers at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, analyzing the 25 top-grossing G- or PG-rated films from 1995 through 1997, found an average of 6.4 folks per picture with both guns and a speaking part.

Applying their same standard to the top 25 of 2000, the number drops to 3.4 gun-wielders per film. (Granted, these numbers should be viewed with a grain of assault because just one mow-em-down flick could drastically skew the data.)

Prime-time TV has also seen a gradual holstering of firearms in favor of shows that use emotional, medical or legal ammunition, such as Judging Amy, Once and Again, ER, The West Wing, Providence, Ed, Ally McBeal, Family Law and Boston Public (although, admittedly, a few have whipped out a gun in a story line or two). Even law-and-order-type shows such as, well, Law & Order, or CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, have taken to starting their stories where the bodies leave off.

If bullets are featured, many shows have given them an innovated spin. A recent episode of Judging Amy addressed a father losing custody of his kids because of his careless gun-storage practices. 7th Heaven devoted an episode to the tragic consequences of having an unstable boy live in a house with easy access to guns. Family Law also explored the potentially lethal combination of guns in the home and kids. Law & Order aimed its fire at the unsafe practices of a gun manufacturer in an episode singled out at last year's Emmys for its quality.

The West Wing mad a sad point that, for every ink-drenched, high-profile shooting, there are thousands of firearm tragedies every day too small to notice. Holding a wry mirror to the industry itself, Disney's Famous Jett Jackson has its lead character refuse to act in a movie with guns despite the producer's insistence that they would plump up the ratings. ER's Dr. Carter inadvertently launched a gun buy-back program for neighborhood kids, and, in a fanciful Providence dream sequence, street guns were gathered on the grill in a trade in guns for brunch picnic.

The new film Pearl Harbor may drop a bomb on my less-guns-on-the-screen theory, but everyone concedes that it's difficult to relate a World War II tale using slingshots and lawn darts. There are times when firearms are integral to the story being told; banishing them from the screen altogether simply wouldn't be reflective of reality.

But some in the industry have come to feel that a reliance on guns to up the dramatic ante is just taking a cheap shot. The current crop of films and TV programs has shown that to sustain both action and popularity, you don't have to roll out the barrel.

Barbara Demming Lurie is director of programs and research for the Entertainment Industries Council, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. founded in 1983 by the entertainment industry to lead the industry in bringing its power and influence to bear on health and social issues.