Movies, Guns, and Violence

What turns young men like the Aurora killer into mass murderers? Could it be easy access to guns, violence in movies, or perhaps even fanboy culture?

As prayer vigils and Sunday services that reflected on the Aurora, Colorado, shooting that killed 12 people at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” have receded into the background, discussion has turned to what causes young men to become mass murderers. Before we address this issue, it’s worth stopping again to pray for the families of these 12 people who lost their lives and for the many others who were injured and/or traumatized by the shooting. Perhaps we can even find it within ourselves to pray for the alleged gunman (and his family), as UrbanFaith contributor Rev. Robert Gelinas asked his Denver area congregation to do yesterday. The suspect appeared dazed, and possibly drugged, in court this morning, Yahoo News reported. But, what made him a killer?

Movie Violence

At Charisma, Ted Baehr, publisher of Movieguide and chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission, argued that the content of the latest Batman movie cannot be blamed for the tragedy. But Baehr also noted that, although most viewers are either desensitized to or scared by movie violence, “more than 500,000 studies, capped by the latest Dartmouth University study, show that violence in the media influences susceptible youths to commit violence.”

Roger Ebert agreed that it wasn’t the content of the latest Batman installment. Writing at The New York Times, he said, “I’m not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence. I think the link is between the violence and the publicity. …Whenever a tragedy like this takes place, it is assigned catchphrases and theme music, and the same fragmentary TV footage of the shooter is cycled again and again. Somewhere in the night, among those watching, will be another angry, aggrieved loner who is uncoiling toward action.”

However, at The New Yorker, David Denby expressed ambivalence, writing, “Who knows whether the killer … wanted to be a mass murderer like the Joker, or if he was just using the event as a staging ground to render himself immortal. … Whatever his intentions, the sophisticated response to movie violence that has dominated the discussion for years should now seem inadequate and evasive.”

At The Wrap, Sharon Waxman said, “Movies are not the cause of real-life violence. But that does not mean they have no impact on us. We love the movies because they affect us deeply — often to the good. But if that is true, than so must be the reverse.” Waxman also said obsessive fans can lose touch with reality. “Playing shooter games touches some primal urge in the human psyche, not necessarily our most civilized impulse. And since Columbine, movies and videogames and television shows have only become more violent,” said Waxman.

Fanboy Culture

Because the alleged shooter reportedly died his hair red and identified himself as the Joker at some point Friday, the culpability of “fanboy” culture is worth considering.

“We have a new breed of fanboy, who are more contented by fictitious realities and attack anything that remotely deviates from their film expectations, shattering often overtly fragile sensibilities,” said Levar Polson at Not So Reviews, noting the irrational reactions of some fans following negative reviews of Dark Knight Rises. (The website Rotten Tomatoes was forced to close down its comments section when angry fans leveled death and rape threats at critics who had the nerve to post negative reviews.)

But at Primary Ignition, Rob Siebert defends fanboys, saying, “I’ve been to comic conventions, I’ve been to midnight screenings, I’ve been to autograph signings, and most of the people you see there aren’t violent, cruel or malicious. Some are a little socially awkward, I guess. But that’s the extent of it. … It is still okay to love Batman and superheroes, it is still okay to see The Dark Knight Rises, it’s still okay to be passionate about all that stuff.”

Even movie critic Marshall Fine, who was on the receiving end of some of the most vicious death threats following his negative review of Dark Knight Rises, cautions against making a direct connection between real-life violence and the kind of passion ones sees from fanboys. He writes at The Huffington Post: “It’s the peculiar avidity of the Comic-Con crowd, a passion I don’t particularly share but won’t knock here. … While I’m a little amazed at the size of the response, the intensity of people’s passion for the things they truly love — whether it’s a comic-book movie or a sports team — should never be underestimated. They may not have any actual connection to the thing itself — other than that passion for it — but, to them, it’s personal.” Fine attempts to put matters into their proper context by dismissing his situation as trivial compared to what happened in Aurora: “My 15 minutes are up. Tune in next week when normal life resumes. Except, of course, for the people in Denver.”

Easy Access to Guns

Whatever the psychological and spiritual causes may be, many are calling for stricter gun control laws, including religious leaders. Others are apparently arguing for more liberal concealed weapons laws.

At USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman asked if Jesus would “pack heat.” She quoted one writer who said gun control is a “pro-life” issue and referenced a 2011 ABC News/Washington Post survey that found “the most support for stricter [gun] laws came from black Protestants (71%) Catholics (59%) and the unaffiliated (55%)” while “solid opposition was expressed by white evangelical Protestants (60% )” and “mainline Protestants were more divided (47% favor, 51% oppose).”

Patheos blogger Ellen Painter Dollar wants to know “why Christians aren’t bringing the same dedication to talking about guns as we do to other issues, notably abortion and homosexuality.” She said, “Gun control is not about winning or politics or fantasies of well-played vigilante justice. It’s about taking weapons of mass murder out of the hands of those who would use them for ill (such as James Holmes) as well as those who would use them for good but possess the universal human capacity to screw up (such as George Zimmerman).”

At Loop 21, Keli Goff called New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to account for using this tragedy to argue for gun control while “passionately” defending the city’s “stop and frisk” policy that targets people of color—a policy that would have presumably allowed the Aurora killer to “slip through the cracks.”

The Week, like many other outlets, asked if the tragedy will change or reignite the gun control debate. New York Times columnist Gail Collins sounds doubtful, saying advocates (who also tend to be survivors) just keep slogging along in a seemingly hopeless fight. But at Media Matters, Matt Gertz says the media meme that gun control is a no-win issue among Americans is inaccurate. “Polls indicate public support for a broad range of stronger gun restrictions, including the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban,” said Gertz.

What do you think?

Do violent movies and the culture that crops up around them bear any responsibility for this tragedy and will stricter gun control laws help stem the tide of violence?

About the author, Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller is a widely published journalist and essayist, and an editor-at-large at UrbanFaith. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC, where she helps facilitate dialogue between scientific and religious communities.
  1. Thanks Christine…you have just helped me to see this issue of American terrorists from a new perspective.

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