How The Entertainment Industry Can Really Show Respect For Gun Violence

Over at NPR, Sami Yenigun has a story that points out while the debate over whether popular culture inspires real-world violent actions is far from settled, there is one concrete link between the entertainment industry and the gun industry: product placement in films and licensing of gun images in video games:

Last year, Call of Duty earned half a billion dollars in a day. That same game features the long barrel and angled cartridge of a .50-caliber sniper rifle that’s a virtual copy of a real Barrett gun. According to Vejay Lalla, a lawyer who works with clients to clear brands in video games, that’s very much intentional. “Game developers essentially want to make sure that games are as realistic as possible,” he says.

So if the makers of Madden NFL want to use, say, the New England Patriots in their video game, they have to strike a deal with the NFL; and if the makers of Need For Speed want a bright orange Camaro in their game, they’re going to have to talk to Chevrolet.

Lalla hasn’t personally brokered any deals between gun companies and video game companies, but he says product placement for guns works the same way. Video game makers use realistic, brand-name weapons, and then depending on how the brand is portrayed, they decide whether to license the name. “If the gun is instrumental in the game or visible or used often, then typically there is a clearance process involved,” Lalla says

Obviously, the use of guns in video games, movies, and television, and the use of other implements of mayhem, including fists, have their own distinct appeal. Hand-to-hand fighting lets a character in film or television demonstrate their toughness in myriad ways, from their ability to take a punch to their willingness to inflict damage on someone else in a direct way—The Americans has done an excellent job of this with Elizabeth Jennings character, whether she’s fighting back against an attacker in training or beating Claudia, her handler, and an older woman, in retaliation for Claudia ordering Elizabeth and her husband interrogated. Similarly, fighting games let players step into someone else’s body and take on someone else’s capacities. And fist fights can be a way of making entertainment violence more visceral and more personal, closing the physical gap between combatants, or between assailant and victim. Or it can abstract, showing characters who have the capacity to take inhuman amounts of damage and keep going. But whatever they do, they can’t really burnish the image of or encourage the purchase of a particular product. We all have fists already.

If the entertainment industry wants to distance itself from the gun industry and from real-world violence, there are a couple of things they could do that would improve their range of storytelling as well as cleaning up their consciences. They could stop licensing images of specific weapons and, in products that aren’t live action, design their own weapons. Directors could change the way they shoot weapons as aesthetic objects. Writers and directors could vary the ways that guns are used and cause harm, including incidents where they’re brandished but not discharged, their use in suicides, and accidental gun deaths, rather than portraying them as objects that are only associated with heroic competence. The Good Wife‘s first-season episode “Bad,” for example, did a nice job of exploring a range of feelings about gun possession ranging from Kalinda’s ease to Diane’s discomfort—the episode didn’t deny that guns can be used effectively in self-defense, but it acknowledged that Diane wasn’t comfortable using a gun that way and that she had a perfect right to stay as far away from guns as she wanted to. And Lord of War, one of the more underrated elements of Nicolas Cage’s ouvre, did an extremely effective job of parsing both our fascination with guns and our revulsion with what they can actually do to human bodies and human beings. Like any story-telling element, guns can get monotonous if they’re used the same way every time. Acknowledging their power and mixing up their use could be a path to creative revitalization, and to giving Hollywood a stronger position than pulling episodes of television shows in the wake of disaster does.