“I know those law books mean a lot to you, but not out here. Out here a man settles his own problems.” When John Wayne explains the way of the world to Jimmy Stewart early in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he can’t know that America is headed in an opposite direction, that laws in books will bring order to the Wild West. But the tension persists: in John Ford’s movie, released in 1962, John Wayne looms large, a moral man and an expert shooter too, a hero whose gun violence creates a legend.
The tension is underlined when this scene appears in Gun Fight, Barbara Kopple’s smart, provocative documentary on US gun control debates and gun culture, airing this month on HBO. John Wayne here is part of a montage of iconic media moments, including The Rifleman and Gunsmoke, Bonnie and Clyde and Scarface, all illustrating the appeal of guns—as signs of power, sexual potency, and rugged individualism. Indeed, these and other media images are crucial to the national debate, the film submits, as they inspire advocates of both gun control and gun rights.
We’ve all seen some of these images: the gun owners who proudly display confederate flags or keep dozens of firearms in their basements, and those who campaign for regulation, typically holding photos of their loved ones, victims of gun violence. But the film makes clear that such stereotypes only stifle discussion, allowing both sides to go on imagining the other as intractable and irrational. Interviews with a range of subjects indicate that there are many more “sides” than two, that not all of the “estimated 300 million guns in the United States today” are owned by people with pickup trucks and not all proponents of gun control want to “take away” gun owners’ rights.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have a point of view. It begins and ends with two high profile events, the Virginia Tech massacre of 2007 and this year’s mass shooting in Tucson. Colin Goddard, shot four times by Seung Hui Cho while he was sitting in his French class, now works for the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence. As he and his parents note, none of them had any interest in gun control or the second amendment until they were directly affected. Like most American families, Anne Goddard says, “We didn’t know a lot of the facts.” What they’ve learned since has to do with how guns circulate, how they’re sold and who benefits from the ways they’re sold. No surprise, the bottom line is key, as the gun industry, speaking through and with the NRA, perpetuates and uses the gun rights controversy to spur sales.
The controversy—as constructed by the NRA, media, and politics-as-too-usual—insists on an opposition that allows no compromise, on whether gun sales and ownership are legal or not, on whether owners are criminals or not, and on whether regulation advocates are bent on curtailing other people’s rights or not. The legality of sales, of course, is not all that’s at stake. It’s true that Cho and Jared Loughner bought their weapons legally, at gun shops, and that something went wrong in the background checking process: despite their mental illnesses, neither man’s name was flagged in any database that might have prohibited their purchases. And while it’s also true that some gun rights advocates resist efforts to restrict such sales (again, on the principle that any restriction is just the start of a slippery slope), Goddard and the Brady Campaign are currently focused on another problem, one they believe might be a step toward compromise. They’re lobbying congresspeople to close the “gun show loophole,” which allows purchases without any background checking at a gun show, seeing this as a point on which everyone might agree, that the same standards should apply to all purchases, in shops or at shows.
Not everyone does agree, and the film makes the point, along with Richard Feldman, that the NRA is largely responsible for ginning up anxiety and fear regarding any regulation at all of a “God-given right” to gun ownership. The NRA’s argument is presented in the form of speeches at various conventions (including passionate remarks by Wayne LaPierre and Charlton Heston’s infamous proclamation at the 2000 NRA Convention, concerning his “cold, dead hands”). Feldman, whose trajectory is complicated—he defended Bernie Goetz, lobbied for the NRA until he was “ousted” in 2010, following his collaboration with Bill Clinton on a bill mandating child safety locks on guns, and then wrote Ricochet: Confessions of a Gun Lobbyist—sees the gun industry as the primary problem, rather than gun owners. By fanning members’ fears and reasserting an “us versus them” conflict, the NRA, says Feldman, solicits money, and the upper ranks are well paid for their efforts.
Gun Fight looks at other effects of the “fight,” especially the victims of gun violence. Again, Virginia Tech serves as a touchstone. While Larry Pratt, Executive Director of the Gun Owners of America, submits that “It was gun control that contributed to the tragedy at Virginia Tech,” the film shows that such sensational events, so visible in the media and so easy to deploy in the debate, are only a small part of the story. As Scott Charles, Trauma Outreach Coordinator at Temple University Hospital, puts it, the loss of lives in mass shootings don’t begin to match the losses in cities. If 13 people were killed at Columbine, he says, “We do that here [in Philadelphia] in a weekend.”
The film follows Charles and Amy Goldberg, Chief of trauma surgery, as they lead students through the effects of a shooting—the kind of shooting that occurs every day in the city. As the camera pans students’ somber faces, they describe the pain, the horror, and the panic that afflicts victims—the person shot as well as his or her family. And then, Charles notes, “It’s easy to think when you live far away from here, that those who are suffering this kind of tragedy in some way asked for it, that they’re somehow different from the folks who live in the million dollar mansions. And the truth is they’re not. They just don’t know any other way.”
Cut to Timothy Wheeler, of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, who reiterates the point: “There is a very small fraction of the population who for whatever reason are going to be violent criminals. These people are not like your friends, they’re not like your relatives,” he says. “They look at the world through a different lens. They don’t seem to have that moral sense or character trait or psychological ability to relate to another person’s pain.”
Indeed, pain is the most effective and lasting image in Gun Fight. In this context, John Wayne as Tom Doniphon embodies a national self-image that looks at once dated and ever relevant. Pained by the changing times, foundational for that change, and still, left behind, he’s a legend that looks forward and back. As legend—or myth, or fear—becomes fact, in effect, both are lost.