This fall, both the horrific mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs reignited the gun control debate in the United States. By all accounts, the main way to truly prevent another gun massacre by civilians is to enact sensible gun regulation, but outside of Washington D.C., there is another famous town that could do something to help: Hollywood. In the wake of the Las Vegas tragedy — the deadliest mass shooting in United States history — and with the annual number of mass shootings having eclipsed the number of days in a year, the film industry needs to ask itself how it contributes to the normalization of gun violence. Whether through the ratings system or through conscious shifts in content, it's time for Hollywood to actually begin regulating guns on screen.
Currently, guns are essentially inextricable from Hollywood films. A 2013 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that the amount of gun violence in PG-13 movies has tripled since 1985; moreover, there is now more on screen gun violence in PG-13 films than in R films, as reported by The Economist, meaning younger audiences are seeing this action. Many gun manufacturers have a symbiotic relationship with film studios; according to The Hollywood Reporter; companies can give studios a free pass to use their guns in movies in exchange for the free advertising, placing only limited conditions on the on-screen situations in which the weapon is used. "We don't need to promote them. They are promoted all the time," said Kahr Firearms Group's VP of Sales and Marketing Frank Harris in an interview with THR.
Clearly gun manufacturers enjoy a profitable relationship with Hollywood. In the past few decades, the variety of gun models pictured in hit films has increased, with the number of gun models shown in films between 2010 to 2015 growing 50 percent from the last decade. Bruce Willis, for example, has held 110 different gun models on screen, according to THR. This is an astounding number considering Willis has a total of 113 acting credits listed on IMDB, six of which are for films that have yet to be released.
It is true that there has been no proven causal relationship between gun violence on screen and gun violence in real life. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Communications and Media released a statement in 2016 stating that "a sizable majority of media researchers both in pediatrics and psychology believe the existing data show a significant link between virtual violence and aggression." The statement, titled "Virtual Violence," also called for media institutions (film, television, video games) to decrease violence in material geared towards children. This echoes the findings of a 1982 report from the National Institute of Mental Health, which, according to the American Psychological Association, found that seeing violence on television could cause children to "be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others."
Granted on screen violence, or "virtual violence," is not restricted to gun violence, and these studies and conclusions from the APA and AAP do not specify the consequences of on screen gun violence. That said, Pediatrics, the APA journal, published a study in 2013 re-examining the "weapons effect" in relation to gun violence. Coined by psychologists in 1967, the "weapons effect," as defined by Psychology Today, proposes that the sight of guns can directly inspire violence or aggression. The 2013 study, titled "Gun Violence Trends in Movies," found that from 2009-2013, PG-13 movies "contained as much or more violence as R-rated films."
As such, it'd make sense that Hollywood consider limiting the number of guns and type of action shown on-screen in the hopes of encouraging less violence. It has the potential to work; many studies have determined a relationship between on screen behavior and off screen behavior, as seen in the connection between smoking in movies and tobacco use in real life. A 2009 study published by the U.S. National Institutes of Health's National Library of Medicine stated that teenagers with high exposure to smoking in film were three times more likely to become smokers than those with low exposure to on screen smoking. In 2012, the Surgeon General of the United States accepted similar research, confirming that there was "a causal relationship between depictions of smoking in the movies and the initiation of smoking among young people."
Decades before these studies and statements, the government was already taking steps to curb on screen smoking. In 1970, when the negative health repercussions to smoking were finally being discussed in the open, the United States Congress voted to ban cigarette ads on television and the radio. (There is no such law banning gun advertisements, though Comcast has adopted a policy not to accept any ads for guns.)
By the early 2000s, movie studios began feeling the heat from anti-smoking lobbyists and cracked down on cigarettes on screen. In fact, according to a 2007 report by The New York Times, the film industry pledged to consider elevating film ratings in correspondence to tobacco use. The article cited major studios, including the Walt Disney Company and Sony Pictures, as adopting anti-smoking or limited tobacco policies. It also detailed a private policy adopted by 20th Century Fox Film in 2004 that attempted to eliminate smoking in films set in the modern day and intended to be seen by young audiences.
Seeing as Hollywood has taken action against gratuitous depictions of certain on screen behaviors before, specifically when those behaviors threatened the health of viewers, regulating guns doesn't seem like a far-fetched idea. After all, gun violence is quickly being defined as a public health issue. Following the Las Vegas tragedy, the American College of Physicians gave a call to action. "In light of the rising number of mass shootings, this is a serious public health issue that needs to be addressed immediately by Congress," the ACP said in a statement. And according to the non-profit Prevention Institute, which aims to limit health and safety concerns, guns are the "leading cause of premature death" in the U.S. overall.
There are many ways the industry could limit gun violence on-screen without directly limiting content, thus violating a filmmaker's right to free speech. Studios can adopt in-house policies on what movies they choose to produce, or how they choose to market content like gun violence. Furthermore, the Motion Picture Association of America could adopt a tough ratings policy on gun violence if its members so chose. Though the legal and perhaps constitutional implications of enforcing a ratings system that censors content are complex, the idea is not unheard of.
Giving films with gun violence higher ratings would be completely in line with the mission of the MPAA's Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) Board. According to the MPAA's official "Classification and Rating Rules," the CARA Board ratings are meant "to inform parents of the level of certain content in a motion picture (violence, sex, drugs, language, thematic material, adult activities, etc.) that parents may deem inappropriate for viewing by their children."
Yet the only behaviors explicitly mentioned as resulting in an automatic rating of PG-13 (or higher) are nudity and drug use. The MPAA is successful in censoring nudity and sex on-screen all the time, giving movies ranging from Jackass 3-D to Eyes Wide Shut R ratings for nudity, among other elements. In 2010, the MPAA found itself in the middle of a brief controversy when it initially gave the film Blue Valentine an NC-17 rating, despite the film having no full frontal nudity or extreme violence. The film was eventually rated R for "strong graphic sexual content, language, and a beating," but the NC-17 rating could have effectively censored the film, as movie theaters are less likely to play a film with such a tough rating, resulting in lower box office gross.
Of course, given the prevalence of guns in our daily life, as well as the importance of realism in films about the military or criminals, it's ridiculous to suggest that, like with extreme nudity, every film that shows a gun receive an R or higher rating — or that guns be taken out of movies entirely. However, it's not unreasonable to request that a movie with excessive and/or gratuitous gun violence receive a high rating. At the very least, the MPAA could adopt explicit language regarding gun violence on screen in their official "Classification and Rating Rules." Besides, Hollywood already sometimes self-censors gun violence on screen in the wake of gun violence off screen. After the Las Vegas shooting, Netflix's The Punisher cancelled its planned event at New York Comic Con, specifically citing the tragic shooting.
"After careful consideration, Netflix and Marvel have decided it wouldn't be appropriate for Marvel's The Punisher to participate in New York Comic-Con," Netflix and Marvel said in a joint statement. It was also rumored that the show's premiere date was pushed back for the same reason, although that was never confirmed. (As Deadline reports, a special sneak peek screening scheduled for Oct. 7 was also cancelled following the Las Vegas shooting.) In 2016, meanwhile, USA postponed the premiere of the network's original show Shooter, about a former U.S. sniper, not once, but twice due to mass shootings.
With self-censorship by Hollywood already a fairly common occurrence, giving gun violence-heavy movies tougher ratings does seem like the answer. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that even that would make a massive difference in the long term. From 2005-2010, for instance, Hollywood saw a steady decrease in on-screen tobacco use, according to a study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but an increase from 2010-2016. Still, even with this frustrating rise, smoking is thankfully on the decline in real life, according to a 2015 Gallup poll. Despite what's happening on-screen, it certainly does seem that initial efforts by lobbyist groups and studios have successfully helped lower the population of smokers in the world.
Seizing on this success, anti-smoking plaintiffs recently filed a lawsuit against the MPAA and the National Association of Theatre Owners. They are asking that films with any tobacco imagery to receive a mandatory R rating, following a 2014 recommendation from the Surgeon General that recommended changing the MPAA rating system to make any film including smoking be rated R. Currently, according to the MPAA guidelines, any on screen drug use immediately earns a film a PG-13 rating.
Given the lack of public and political consensus on gun control, it seems unlikely that Hollywood will be putting its foot down regarding on screen gun violence any time soon the way they might, hopefully, do with smoking. As it stands now, it looks like the only way we'll see any change in the prevalence of gun violence in Hollywood is if the studios themselves decide to change their ways and maybe even cut ties with a few gun companies along the way. Admittedly, giving films with gun violence higher ratings or limiting the amount of gun violence in films geared towards children will not stop mass shootings. But that doesn't mean it's not worth thinking about.
Hollywood is an industry that unquestionably craves social and cultural influence (setting trends, selling products). It's time that it owns up to its potential to inspire aggressive behavior and violence, and having a serious, societal-wide discussion about the prevalence of on screen gun violence is a good place to start.