President Barack Obama, accompanied by children who wrote to him about gun violence following last month's shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., signs executive orders to reduce gun violence, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, at the White House in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Last week, in a calculated display of political theater, President Barack Obama surrounded himself with children as he signed an executive order containing 23 gun safety measures.

The staging was missing something though. The president never once mentioned Hollywood’s prolific production of graphic gun violence or the role it has played in promulgating a culture of gun violence. In fact, since the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Conn., the president has made no such correlation.

There’s little question that Hollywood studios resort to gratuitous violence to make a buck. They have invested millions to perfect special effects that reproduce the gory blood-splatters from gunshots. In the absence of decent screenwriting, shock and horror are used to attract audiences.

The president’s executive order includes significant funding to study the effects of violent video games. Why is the Administration differentiating its approach to these two forms of entertainment?

Of course, there are exceptions. In the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan” violence was used brilliantly to convey the profound, actual circumstances the average GI had to endure in Normandy during World War II.

My criticism is reserved for the countless movies that portray graphic and gruesome violence for no real purpose — other than to provoke a reaction in the viewer.

There is a cognitive dissonance in our culture with regard to guns and gun violence. One minute you’ll be watching the president’s televised anti-gun speech, and a minute later, on the same network, you’ll see a shooting-spree and ax-fight laced trailer for a movie like the soon-to-be released, “Bullet to the Head.”

The president’s executive order includes significant funding to study the effects of violent video games. Why is the Administration differentiating its approach to these two forms of entertainment?

Has Hollywood’s top lobbyist, former Senator Chris Dodd succeeded in making the Motion Picture Association of America as untouchable with Democrats as the National Rifle Association is with Republicans?

Throughout his first term, the president received an inordinate amount of financial and fawning political support from Hollywood. A few on-the-record remarks asking the industry — publicly — to tamp down the graphic violence would have been appropriate and useful. His words might not have immediate, material impact, but they might encourage a more critical deliberation of much of the violent garbage the industry foists incessantly on the public.

I am keenly aware that we as a nation need to be careful not to stifle free expression and creativity — particularly in the arts. The First Amendment, however, was partially designed to create a public forum for debate and competing ideas. Challenging through rhetoric an industry’s potential for harm would be consistent with the spirit of the First Amendment, just as well-written and reasonable regulations like background checks are in the spirit of our Second Amendment right to bear arms.

In order to have any chance of taking root, the message would have to come from the president himself. If Congressional Republicans were to take up violence in movies, they’d be mocked and written off as Neanderthals attacking the arts.

By the same token, Republicans could play an important role by committing their support for some of the more reasonable gun-control measures in the president’s executive order. To make progress on this issue, each side needs to evolve and possibly step outside of their respective political comfort zones.

Since neither has stepped up, however, the issue has thus far been reduced to political theater and unilateral executive actions that lack staying power. It also remains more focused on guns, rather than more broadly on gun violence.

The president still has an opportunity to move beyond the usual assault-weapon bans and cartridge limits — policies that have been around for decades — to keep alive a real public discussion. Perhaps in the next gun-related signing event, the president will surround himself with Hollywood chums who have sworn off gratuitous gun violence in future productions. Now that would change the narrative.


Tags: Barack Obama, Film/TV, Newtown, Security

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • J__o__h__n

    Movies shouldn’t be censored. Unlike the Second Amendment, the First doesn’t begin with a mention of speech being well regulated. And don’t blame the liberals for Hollywood’s excess violence. Schwarzenegger, Stalone, Willis, Eastwood are all Republicans.

  • peterlake

    If Obama has no respect for the Second Amendment, why would he respect the First??

    He’s the perfect guy to try to strongarm Hollywood producers, who will tell him to take a hike. Nicely.

    And like studies on guns which do not equate availability with mis-use, where are the studies showing the relationship between Hollywood violence and real violence?

    This is just one more blowhard writer who wants his own witchhunt.

  • capemh

    The same games and Hollywood movies that are shown here are shown in every country in the world and yet the other nations don’t have anywhere near the same issues with gun deaths as we do, which tells me it isn’t violent movies or games that is the problem. It’s a distraction from the problem of promiscuous gun production and distribution.

  • Thinkfreeer

    Try this. Turn the damn TV off! You are not required to watch any of this crap. The First Amendment allows free speech, yes. It does not require that you listen!

    • Concerned Parent

      Good Point.

  • Futo Buddy

    it would be funny if oboma got all his hollywood buddies to swear off violence. maybe he could ask his buddy Jay-z to stop rapping about his guns too. i dont see any reason why we should not tone down ads for violent movies in the same way as ciggerette ads without censoring anyone.

  • NamePick

    More dead today. More dead tomorrow. Keep on blabbing about the second amendment while people die left and right.

  • Collien Stopersmile

    Respectfully of all opinion’s on guns.

    America finds death to be to horrific to see in real life.

    We have never seen death up close like other country’s.

    We think it uncivilized to see dead bodies at a murder site.

    The police and medics immediately cover and cloak any and all
    signs of bodies or blood at any crash or shooting .

    The result is we are shocked and surprised when these deaths interfere with our selfish self consumed lives.

    The truth is most of the world has a tougher stomach to gore and death,.

    We fake it on TV, Movies, the fake violence in wrestling,.
    We cheer at violence because we have never seen how truly horrible it is .

    Watch some real murder aftermath from around the world and see how you have been sheltered from reality.

    This is for mature adults only and you will be shocked and bothered.
    But the truth is not covered up.

    Guns are not needed to be brutally destructive to a fellow human .

    Everything kills us easily,.Bricks ,stones,knives ,falls,punches,water,Everything.
    Murder does not require a firearm.

  • Michael E. Douroux

    It was disappointing but not a surprise to see how President Obama, standing in front of children, caved to the political power of Hollywood. Obviously, to give media violence equal status with gun control is a Pandora’s box Hollywood does not want to see opened. So, at a shipping cost to taxpayers of $10 million, President Obama has placed the issue in a box labeled “research” and shipped it off to no man’s land.

    Not acceptable.

    It’s time to open this Pandora’s box by putting a real game-changer on the table; it’s time to include a tax on violent media as part of the debate.

  • Futo Buddy

    A few of the comments by Mark Mattioli, father of 6 year-old Sandy Hook victim James Mattioli:

    “The problem is not gun laws, the problem is a lack of civility.”

    “I want responsible legislation. It needs to be simple and it needs to be enforced. We need much stricter enforcement. I believe in a few simple gun laws. I think we have more than enough on the books. We should hold people individually accountable for their actions.”

    “I don’t think the gun laws are protecting the people. Let alone the 500 who perished last year in [Chicago]. What have those gun laws done to make Chicago a safer city?

    “Criminals by definition break the law. What we experienced in Sandy Hook, did they break the law? Is one more law… I don’t care if you named it ‘James’ Law’ I don’t want it. I think we have more than enough [laws] on the books. We should hold people individually accountable for their actions and we should enforce laws appropriately.”

  • Futo Buddy

    here is a real american not afraid to speak up:

  • Cai Phillips-Jones

    The stupidest headline, and perhaps the stupidest article i’ve ever seen on this website. “Obama needs to stop it”. If he stopped it, this would not be a free country. End of $*#$ing discussion. You sound incredibly whiny and disempowered.

    I hate how the media is always telling someone else to start a conversation. You are the conversation, wbur, but instead of talking intelligently about the problem, you say “oh please, somebody do something” “think of the children”. you have the chance to inspire change if you talk about why hollywood should change, or how it should. Instead, all you say is “oh jeez, obama save us”.

  • Cai Phillips-Jones

    If we had to really on the president to start public discussions, then we would be truly lost.

  • Concerned Parent

    I sit and watch my sixteen year old play video games, and cringe at the amount of digital blood-letting that the games are built on. I’m more concerned with the ability of a underdeveloped, adolescent mind shooting life-like humans for hours and hours on end. The line of reality and digital entertainment is blurred. We pulled the plug on XBox and sent him out the door with running shoes for track instead. All parties are needed to make a difference in the broad picture of violence in America. Gun owners, Hollywood, Video Game producers, Parents, Grandparents, Educators, Politicians, etc.