A nameless man with a cigar wedged in the corner of his jaw approaches a group of armed toughs who are dumbstruck by his bravado. He flips back his poncho and draws a revolver. In the blink of an eye, the street is left festooned with corpses. Holstering his weapon, the stranger casually strolls from the scene; a new, playful riff in the soundtrack indicates that justice has been served.
At first glance, this would appear to be precisely the type of violent, gun-related content recently bemoaned by President Trump: “And then you go the further step and that’s the movies. You see these movies, they’re so violent and yet a kid is able to see a movie if sex isn’t involved, but killing is involved. Maybe they have to put a rating system for that.”
Trump was wrong about movie ratings: The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has rated films for nearly three decades, in large part based on the persistence, intensity and realism of their violent content. Non-adults can’t buy tickets to highly violent films on their own.
But even were Trump not wrong, the opening scene described above reveals the deep flaw in blaming school shootings on violent films or the ability of teens to see them.
While the scene seems like something ripped from a bloody action film featuring Mark Wahlberg, Jason Statham or Keanu Reeves, it is from “Fistful of Dollars,” a spaghetti western released in 1964 featuring Clint Eastwood as the gun-slinging Man with No Name. “Fistful” — every bit as violent as today’s action movies — actually debuted at a time when there wasn’t a standardized rating system to keep kids away from violent pictures but also when mass school shootings weren’t a routine feature of American life.
And yet, violent movies did contribute to the problem of mass school shootings — just not in the way that proponents of an all-armed society imagine. In fact, the real effect of violent movies would probably make them squirm as they confront an uncomfortable truth: that Hollywood films have helped to create the culture in which more guns in classrooms is seen as a sensible solution.
Today’s gun-laden movies can trace their roots to the films of the late 1960s and early ’70s, when already violent westerns and crime dramas gave way to a darker brand of American cinema. In 1967, “Bonnie and Clyde” featured a bullet-riddled ending unlike anything moviegoers had seen before. A year later the movie “Targets” followed a mentally ill sniper on a killing rampage. And 1971’s “Dirty Harry,” followed a detective literally renowned for the size of his … revolver.
In the 1980s, the grit and counternarrative of the ’70s gave way to mega-action flicks inspired by the fallout from Vietnam, the end of the Cold War and the early days of the war on terrorism. “First Blood” (1982) and its sequels feature a former Medal of Honor recipient using a succession of increasingly large machine guns with a seemingly endless supply of ammunition. Movies like “Terminator” (1984), “Predator” (1987) and “Die Hard” (1988) all scored major box office success by employing the same model: big muscles, big guns, big explosions.
Yet for all the blood and gore featured in these movies, mass school shootings did not plague the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s or even most of the 1990s. They are a relatively recent problem, largely beginning after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., that left 15 dead and 21 wounded.
In the years since Columbine, mass school shootings have become a sad, but regular, part of the American experience. The country has suffered through nearly as many mass school shootings — defined as assaults with at least four fatalities or eight nonfatal casualties — as it did in the previous 107 years. Low points include Santana High School in 2001, Virginia Tech in 2007, Sandy Hook in 2012, Umpqua Community College in 2015 and, most recently, Parkland, Fla.
The historical gap between the bloody turn in movie theaters and the epidemic of mass school shootings reveals that while violence in movies might constitute an easy target for gun rights groups hoping to place blame elsewhere, the timing for cause-and-effect simply doesn’t add up.
For a historian of violence and film, and an avid hunter (a.k.a., a gun owner), even more frustrating is the cause-and-effect that does exist, but is habitually covered up when these groups blame school shootings on Tinseltown. While Hollywood is often derided as a haven for leftists, the origins of contemporary American gun culture date to the western films of the 1950s and ’60s — films that were hardly a bastion of liberal permissiveness.
From the end of World War II through the Vietnam era, Americans flocked to theaters to see Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Audie Murphy (America’s most-decorated WWII veteran) portray heroes in Stetson hats, bandannas and spurs. They dished out justice or claimed revenge through the barrel of a smoking six-gun.
These pictures revolved around the prowess of American gunslingers who wielded firearms as legitimate tools for righting both moral and legal wrongs in the allegedly Wild West. In 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven,” a handful of skilled gunfighters fend off an entire army of banditti, while “The Wild Bunch” (1969) sported one of the greatest bloodbath finales in cinema history.
The catch: Instead of decrying these films for their violence, gun advocacy organizations and their political allies lionized the main protagonists for their rugged, tight-lipped, individualistic, traditional embodiment of the patriotic role model during the Cold War. In fact, these characters became icons of American gun culture. Through their on-screen exploits, they played a major role in normalizing — that is, in Americanizing — the popular basis for personal protection with a firearm today.
They demonstrated what “good guys” could do with guns when “bad guys” attack and showed us what legitimate, righteous gun violence looked like in America. In turn, the weapons they carried, from Colt’s single-action .45 (the gun that “made men equal”) to Winchester’s Model 1873 (the gun that “won the West”), became synonymous with American notions of individual freedom and rugged masculinity.
To be sure, Americans owned guns long before the 1950s. But the dominant culture surrounding them shifted as the Cold War progressed and this new model of American hero became fixed in pop culture. Groups like the NRA evolved to mirror these developments, and in doing so, helped catalyze them. (It was not a coincidence, after all, that Charlton Heston — himself a star in this genre of films — served as the organization’s president from 1998 to 2003.)
As a result, earlier motivations for owning guns like hunting, target shooting, outdoor work and personal protection (as a very last resort) gave way to the perceived need for increasingly powerful weapons like AR platform rifles, more offensive-minded strategies for personal defense, such as access to concealed carry and expanded castle laws, and even the anti-government paranoia that began boiling over in the 1990s at places like Ruby Ridge and Waco.
The existence of extremely violent films for three decades before the rise of mass school shootings, coupled with this parallel film tradition of guns and gunmen as saviors, exposes an inconsistency and unfairness in right-wing arguments about these tragedies.
These groups ignore the very genre of characters who, often thanks to a push from gun rights activists, helped champion the mentality that today underpins the argument for arming teachers to deter school shooters. Instead, they falsely date these notions of rugged self-protection back to fundamental rights and the Founders, blaming the lords of Hollywood for pushing violence on our kids.
Their twisting of history (or their ignorance of it) allows them to avoid the uncomfortable truth: Violent films haven’t caused school shootings. Rather, these tragedies have been propelled by a culture that portrays guns as a preferred solution to being wronged, threatened or marginalized. Until we confront that, we’ll never begin to solve the problem.