HILLSBORO, Ohio — Growing up on a small southern Ohio farm, the favorite Christmas gift I received as a child was a “Rifleman” rifle, ordered from the Sears “wish book” that still arrived in mailboxes in the 1960s.
“The Rifleman” was a TV Western starring Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain. His rifle was modified with a looped, hinged lever that allowed him to fire in rapid succession. My toy version looked and functioned like that TV rifle, but fired caps instead of bullets.
Still, in my imaginary world — where our barn and corn cribs served as forts, shacks and Old West hideouts — I dispatched many a bank robber, horse thief and outlaw with my “Rifleman” rifle. In the decades that followed, I’ve never considered shooting anyone in real life.
Television in the 1950s and early ’60s was dominated by Westerns that were consumed regularly by America’s youth. But the movies and TV shows of the day, even Westerns, depicted fatal shootings only sporadically (most people got “winged” in the shoulder or leg), and when they did, most of the program was devoted to the hunt for the killer, or a trial, or the guilt felt by the shooter. In other words, taking a life was acknowledged as a tragedy with serious consequences, with the unfortunate exception of Native Americans (“Indians” in the media of the day) being gunned down with little remorse.
Hollywood violence has come a long way since the bloodless shootings on classic TV Westerns, or the tame-by-comparison fight scenes on the “Adventures of Superman” with George Reeves and “Batman” with Adam West. Today’s action films and TV shows — not to mention video games — outdo themselves in depicting gun violence committed so casually and with such frequency that viewers become dangerously numb to it.
In January 2017, The Post reported on a study in the journal Pediatrics that found that gun violence had soared in movies rated PG-13. “In fact . . . the amount of gun violence in the 30 top-grossing PG-13 movies now exceeds the gun violence in the top R-rated flicks. And it is continuing to rise,” the article noted, adding that “there is evidence that such scenes may contribute more generally to aggressive behavior and desensitization to violence.”
And yet, after horrific events such as the recent mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla., Hollywood’s finest are predictably among the first to point fingers at the National Rifle Association or Republicans in Congress for opposing gun control. They apparently view the ability to purchase guns as a worse culprit than the portrayals of repetitive acts of gun violence that increasingly dominate our entertainment platforms.
Gun-control advocates argue that when crafting the Second Amendment, our founders could not have foreseen AK-47s or AR-15s. True. But it is just as reasonable to suggest that those same founders, in crafting the First Amendment, could not have anticipated Hollywood and its propensity to produce movies where depictions of gun violence dominate as much as 40 percent of a film, as was the case with “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” according to the Pediatrics study.
“We’re not trying to take away anyone’s right to own a gun, but no one needs an AK-47 for hunting,” goes the argument for stricter gun control.
Deciding limits on constitutional rights based on arbitrary determinations of Americans’ “needs” is a slippery slope. It could well be argued that no one “needs” movies, TV shows or video games featuring scene after scene of people being killed and maimed. For sure, no one “needs” to see such depictions, but the First Amendment protects them just the same, even if they plant images into susceptible minds and, in turn, morph into real-life nightmares in our streets, offices and schools.
We don’t yet know how much the apparently unstable mind of Nikolas Cruz, the alleged Parkland shooter, was influenced by movies, TV shows or video games. But it is likely he was exposed to such images as regularly as most Americans.
The attention of gun-control advocates is focused on the ability to buy a gun, which in fact represents the tail end of a homicidal journey. Curtailing the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment won’t reverse a mind that has gradually grown murderous.
When it comes to gun violence, we might conclude that the Second Amendment is just fine as it is. Instead, the First Amendment is what we should examine, not through more laws curtailing freedom of expression, but through a voluntary recognition that just because we have the technology to portray the most egregious acts of violence imaginable doesn’t mean that we should — even if it might cost Hollywood a box-office hit.