Gun Fight

Given the polarized viewpoints associated with the issue of gun ownership, Barbara Kopple’s latest documentary, Gun Fight, which I caught at Full Frame but also happens to be playing on HBO, will almost certainly be misunderstood. Gun rights activists who have commented on the film suggest Kopple is using the Virginia Tech massacre to “push” a gun control agenda. Meanwhile, Spout blogger Christopher Campbell mistakes Kopple’s decision to interview several gun right activists as an attempt to conform to the tendency in non-fiction film to be “objective” by presenting all (or at least multiple) sides of the gun right issue. Both of these readings misunderstand the complexity of Gun Fight’s underlying arguments about the place of guns and gun legislation in the United States, and although the film stakes out a position that we do need stronger gun laws (and stronger enforcement of those laws), the film is at its best when exploring the complex psychological status of gun laws and ownership in the United States.

Kopple’s film opens with footage of the Virginia Tech massacre taken on a shaky cell phone camera, the gun shots echoing in the near distance, interrupted by frightened gasps and piercing screams. News reports remind us of the number of victims while showing us haunting pictures of Seung-Hui Cho, the mass murderer who obtained all of his guns legally, despite his history of mental illness. The massacre is narrated by Colin Goddard, a student at Virginia Tech who survived being shot four times but witnessed several classmates getting killed. Goddard describes his wounds while expressing relief that he remembers very little of the immediate aftermath of the shooting, and as the film unfolds, he becomes one of our primary guides through the debate. Motivated by the shooting, he becomes an intern and eventually begins working for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The other major interviewee is Richard Feldman, a former NRA lobbyist famous initially for publicly defending subway shooter Bernard Goetz. Feldman now has more recently moved on to lobby for the gun industry instead, in part because he has sought some middle ground with some sensible gun legislation, such as childproof locks on guns. Others discuss the traumatic physical effects of getting shot. A physician at the trauma center at UC Davis talks to a woman who still feels the effects of getting shot in the neck 40 years after it initially happened. We see a star high school football player who was shot several times after he was mugged, likely ending his sports career, positioning us to recognize the devastating consequences of gun violence.

Of course, to address these problems of gun violence, Kopple does allow gun owners to speak, possibly leading to Campbell’s mistaken observation that the film is trying to be falsely “objective.” A graduate student at Virginia Tech claims that if students had been allowed to carry concealed weapons on campus, Cho would have been stopped sooner, but Kopple answers this by showing a segment from ABC’s 20/20 that illustrates that having a student with a concealed weapon, even one that is adequately trained, likely would have led to more violence, not less. More crucially, Kopple shows how easy it is to obtain powerful guns without any background checks from unlicensed sellers at gun shows. In fact, Goddard goes into a gun show with a hidden camera and manages to conduct several transactions, even joking with one seller that he likely wouldn’t pass the background check.

To some extent, this is familiar territory. There have been discussions of closing the gun show loophole and of enforcing background checks ever since Columbine, calls that were recently raised again during the aftermath of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. To that end, one of the strengths of the film is its attempt to make sense of the power of the gun lobby in shaping the legislative and political process, and this is where the film seeks to explore the passions of gun rights advocates, a very narrow segment of gun owners. On a purely pragmatic level, Feldman speculates that Al Gore probably “lost” the 2000 election, not (just) because of Ralph Nader but because many labor Democrats were more worried about Gore taking away their guns than they were about George W. Bush’s record on labor (although it’s worth adding that the Supreme Court probably helped here). He also points out that even the threat of a Democratic president or of a law calling for restrictions on guns feeds the outrage machine of the NRA, allowing them to fundraise based on people’s fears.

To that end, Kopple draws from arguments raised by Scott Melzer in his book, Gun Crusaders: The NRA’s Culture War, which argues that the NRA’s appeals are rooted in an evocation of nostalgia for frontier masculinity and a very specific version of patriotism, one in which gun ownership is a means of holding the federal government in check. To explore this point, we see figures like Larry Platt talking about the importance of militias and gun rights rallies where guns are raffled off as a demonstration of spite against any federal regulations on gun ownership. Although these activists are far from representative of all gun owners–there are an estimated 80 million gun owners and 300 million guns in the United States–they often drive the passions of these single-issue voters. And although these groups are often rooted in white masculinity–both Melzer and the UC Davis doctor link the fringe of gun rights activists to Neo-Nazism and pro-Confederacy positions–we are also made palpably aware of how this culture of fear also permeates inner-city African-American men as well, when two young black men show us their apartment, which is stocked with a gun quite literally in every room.

Although the film offers some pragmatic legislative solutions, it also directs us to what seems like a bigger challenge, and that is: how do we engage with the politics of fear? During the Q&A, Colin Goddard acknowledged his own ambivalence about appealing to fear, while his father sought to redefine freedom not as the right to carry a weapon but as the right to move freely without fear of getting shot. In some ways, these responses aren’t completely adequate, and I think this is reflected in the reluctance of many Democrats, especially Obama, to take up legislation restricting gun ownership. I don’t think this inability to think beyond the “politics of fear” is a flaw in the film, as much as it is a potential limit in our current political imagination. Kopple’s film is likely to polarize. Gun right activists will surely see an “agenda,” while some viewers may share the film’s stance on “common sense” legislation, even while wishing for something more assertive in staking out an anti-gun position. What Kopple has given us, instead, is a film that shows that the politics of guns, are indelibly complicated.

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