The return of “The Walking Dead” – America’s favorite paranoid brew of dystopianism, reanimation, and survivalism – is a reminder of the powerful role that television plays in promoting the popularity of firearms.
“The Walking Dead” is practically a walking advertorial for the Second Amendment. To kill a zombie you need to shoot him in the head. Oh, you can use a crossbow but unless you’re Green Arrow this is not a long-term strategy. No, if you want to protect yourself in the land of the undead you need to load up with all the guns and as much ammo you can get your hands on. This has been a principle of anti-zombie defense since “The Night of the Living Dead.”
It’s not just zombie shows that suggest that gunplay skills are a necessity for survival, though. Many of the greatest shows of this newest “golden age” of television fetishize firearms. Where would “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad” or “The Americans” be without guns? They’d still have their stranglings, stabbings and explosions, sure, but the gun is at the heart of the violence on these shows. Without firearms the protagonists would not have the power to dominate their environments.
If you doubt how much guns are used on television, check out the Internet Movie Firearms Database, which tries to capture all the specific firearms models that are wielded in film and television. It’s from this website that I confirmed “The Wire” definitely did feature a lot of firearms. The Omar Little character alone found reason to brandish a double barreled shotgun, a Mossberg 500 Cruise, a Colt Gold Cup National Match, a Desert Eagle, a Ruger P90, a Colt Anaconda, and Taurus PT92. That’s a lot of heat!
Does any of this matter? Conservatives usually complain about the sex on television but don’t seem to mind the violence and it’s the other way around for liberals. Everyone cites studies supporting their particular point of view so the behavioral science is unclear. From my perspective, however, it seems clear that television is the greatest advertising medium of all time, and if TV can influence consumer behavior it can also influence social behavior.
I’ve never owned a gun myself, but came close to considering it while watching “Justified,” a contemporary variation on a traditional western, which seemed to average five or six shootings an episode (actually, according to the Internet the actual death count was only 170 killings in 78 episodes, fewer than I thought). There’s a pervasive sense of menace on “Justified,” and no one is safe anywhere, especially not inside their own house. In fact, there’s even a middle-class character named Gary who gets himself shot on his front yard because he’s not armed and can’t protect himself or his family. Yikes.
The irony is that Hollywood and New York City, co-entertainment capitals of the world, are mega-liberal enclaves and many celebrities and industry executives are gun control advocates. After the recent massacre at Umpqua Community College celebrities took to Twitter to offer condolences and implicitly call for more regulations on firearms. Yet they can’t stop churning out violent shows. It’s just too profitable.
The fact is that a large number of people like to watch TV shows with sex and violence. Just like a large number of ancient Romans liked to spend the day at the Coliseum. I can’t claim to be exempt from this given that “Justified” was one of my favorite shows. We all experience more than a little bit of fantasy-based wish fulfillment when we see a bad guy blown away.
Conservatives frequently suspect that the liberals in the entertainment industry push their agenda in the movies and on TV, and indeed there does seem to be a pro-LGBT and anti-business slant in TV programming. Yet rarely, if ever, have we seen pro-gun control propaganda advocated on TV. If there have ever been depictions of four-year-olds shooting each other accidentally, or of mass shootings at a school or church, or of family members shooting another family members during drunken arguments, I can’t recall them. Given the number of hours of TV programming per year, I’m sure these scenes exist but they don’t begin to approach the impact of the thousands of shoot-outs between heavily armed heroes and villains.
This pro-gun-control propaganda doesn’t appear because television is a business and viewers don’t want to watch fictional school massacres or kids shooting each other. For drama to work, two colliding principles or two antagonists of near-equal weight must collide. That’s not what happens when there’s a random, senseless shooting. A senseless killing without any narrative meaning is, well, depressing and depressing usually equates to low ratings.
In the end, the people in the entertainment industry can sign all the ads they want in favor of gun control, but until they actually reduce violence on TV they are just posers.