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Guns in American Society

Guns in American Society

America’s discourse on guns stretches back to the American War of Independence and the drafting of the United States Constitution. in the last fifty years, there has been a great deal of tension between the right to bear arms and the desire for greater gun control. The tension between these values is reflected in a range of television programs. When examining this discourse on guns, it is worth looking at the following episodes:

All in the Family, ‘Archie and the Editorial’, 1972.

Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, ‘Gun Control’, 2005.

The Walking Dead, ‘Secrets’, 2011.

Archie and the Editorial

All in the Family was a groundbreaking American sitcom about a working class bigot and his family. The program dealt with many contentious issues including racism, homosexuality and miscarriage. The 1972 episode ‘Archie and the Editorial’ reflects both dominant and emerging social values towards guns in American society. In the episode, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) and his son-in-law Michael (Rob Reiner) clash over a television editorial proposing a government buyback of guns to stem the tide of gun related violence.

During this period, it was a dominant social value that Americans should have right the bear arms. The discourse on gun ownership in the united States of America has a long history, stretching back to the American War of Independence and the drafting of the United States Constitution. In 1972, although there was still a great deal of support for the right to bear arms, the previous decade had seen a number of high profile political assassinations. Almost a decade before the program aired, President John F Kennedy was assassinated. In 1968, Robert F Kennedy was shot during an election campaign. In the same year, African American activist Martin Luther King was also killed.  Shortly before this episode was written, Democratic Party presidential candidate George Wallace was left paralysed after an attempted assassination. The distress caused by these political assassinations contributed to the ongoing discourse on gun control. Over the previous decade, the rate of violent crime had almost doubled and the murder rate had also increased substantially.

On January 14th, 1972 LIFE magazine produced a string of articles looking at the issue of law and order. Despite the uproar over these political assassinations, there was still a great deal of support for the right to bear arms: “Gun controls, particularly those proposed by Senator Hart of Michigan and mayor Lindsay of New York, found no sympathy among the letter-writers. ‘Every criminal is a potential killer and a target for a populace legitimately armed,” contends a lady in Salt Lake City. “How about having the cops give their guns to the harassed citizens?” suggests an Oshkosh man, not entirely in jest. “The police could conduct proper gun handily clinics.” One citizens group in Philadelphia is seeking funds to organise just such a gun-training club. “A few dead burglars might get the message across to the rest,” argues a Blackfoot, Idaho man. And a gun owner in Saginaw, Mich. warns: “Only a person with suicidal tendencies would break into my home.”‘

‘Archie and the Editorial’ reflects both dominant and emerging values towards gun control – supporting the emerging value that there needs to be greater gun control while criticising those who, despite a wave of violence, cling to the notion that they should have the right to bear arms.

Throughout the episode, Archie is represented as small minded and his attitudes on guns are satirised. The family sit down to watch TV, seeing an editorial from the station who describes a  “terrible virus” that is affecting American society. “The state must be willing to buy back every gun in private hands,” he says. “Guns must go before more of them go off.”

Archie is incensed by the editorial. “He’s a fairy like all them gun control guys,” he says. This combination of acting and dialogue reflecting widespread attitudes towards guns in the US. Michael says that he’s for gun control. When he asks Archie what guns “have to do with maleness”, Archie stands up and starts gesturing at him angrily. “Duke Wayne! Clint Westwood!” he yells. This combination of acting and dialogue contributing to the representation of Archie as small-minded and irrational.

Defending the right to bear arms, Archie mentions an elderly neighbour who was recently robbed. “She’d have been glad to have a rod when them two burglars bust in on her last week.” There is a cut to Michael who looks exasperated. He asks him how she’d carry a gun. Archie suggests that she could keep it in her stockings with her “very close veins”. The cutaway to Michael, his exasperated expression and the audience laughter all contribute to the satirical representation of Archie Bunker, supporting the emerging value that there should be greater gun control.

“As an American, it’s my right to pack a rod,” Archie says angrily.

“It doesn’t say that in the constitution.” Michael shows him his history textbook, pointing out the part about a “well regulated militia”. Archie refuses to acknowledge anything written in “them pinko books of yours”. He also insists that the Supreme Court “ain’t got nothin’ to do with the law”.

When Gloria tells him that 63% of people murdered were killed by handguns, he responds by irrationally asking, “Would it make you feel any better, little girl, if theys was pushed out of windows?” At each of these points, the audience laughs, making it clear that Archie’s attitudes are being satirised and the program supports the emerging value that there should be greater gun control.

Michael vows to prove that Archie is wrong, finding a copy of the constitution in one of his textbooks and explaining that the second amendment refers to the formation of militia. The representation of Michael is far more rational compared to the foolish Archie Bunker who confuses The Ten Commandments with the Gettysburg Address and says he doesn’t trust any constitution written in the “pinko” books that Michael reads. Through the use of acting and dialogue, Michael – and the case for gun control – is represented as far more rational compared to the raving Archie Bunker.

When he gets to express his point of view on the television, incoherently explains that skyjackings could be prevented if all the passengers were armed at the airport. This combination of acting and dialogue contributes to a representation that satirises gun owners.

“Now question: what was the first thing that the communists done when they took over Russia? Answer: gun control. And there’s a lot of people in this country want to do the same thing to us here in a kind of conspiracy, see? You take your big international bankers…uh, they want to– what do you call–masticate the people of this here nation like puppets on a wing. And then, when they get that done, turn us over to the commies. Now I want to talk about another thing that’s on everybody’s mind today, and that’s yous stickups and yous skyjackers, which, uh, if that was up to me, I could end the skyjackings tomorrow. All you got to do is arm all your passengers. If he knows the passengers are armed and that he ain’t got no more superior-ority there, then he ain’t gonna dare to pull out no rod, and then you realize that they wouldn’t have to search the passengers on the ground no more. They just pass out the pistols at the beginning of the trip, and they pick them up again at the end. Case closed.”

After the station broadcasts Archie’s rebuttal, the family goes to a restaurant to celebrate. A man approaches them and praises his broadcast before pulling out a gun and demanding their money. Archie stares into space, clearly stunned and the audience applauds. In the closing scene, Archie maintains that if he’d had a gun, he’d have been able to fend off the attackers. When Gloria insists that they’d both be dead, Archie says he’d be glad because he’d have more money than he has now.

Through the episode, Archie Bunker is represented as foolish and his attitudes towards gun control are satirised. In comparison, Michael – who espouses that there should be further gun control – is represented as much more rational. Although the episode reflects both the dominant value that Americans should have the right to bear arms and the emerging value that there is a greater need for gun control, it ultimately supports the latter through its satirical representation of Archie Bunker.

Penn & Teller: Bullshit!

Penn & Teller: Bullshit! is a documentary series that aggressively confronts controversial topics like alternative medicine, creationism and genetically modified food. In 2005, the program looked at the issue of gun control in American society. “The guys who founded our country gave us the right to have guns,” says Penn in the opening sequence of the episode. “So when the time came for the next revolution, we’d be armed and ready. So when people support gun control for their comfort or piece of mind, they forget that they’re killing something there, too. Gun control is bullshit.”

A survey conducted by Pew Research in January 2004, found that only 37 per cent of Americans believed that protecting the right to own guns was more important than gun control. This value was in decline and, by 2007, only 32 per cent of Americans agreed with this statement. In the same period of time, support for gun control increased from 58 per cent to 60 percent. Penn & Teller’s episode on gun control supports the oppositional value that the right to bear arms is more important than gun control.

The episode begins by looking at the issue impartially. “In America, there are over 250 million guns,” says Penn. “Firearms are involved in over ten thousand murders every year in the United States Nine American kids die every day as a result of gunfire. Firearms kill three people every hour in this country. A new gun rolls off an American assembly line every ten seconds. When all you do is list those numbers, it’s not wonder some people go ballistic.”

Although the episode begins impartially, it soon demonstrates its support for the oppositional value that the right to bear arms is more important than gun control through its representation of gun control advocate Roger Rosenblat. Throughout the episode, Rosenblat is represented in a negative manner. Penn frequently refers to him as ‘smug’. On several occasions, editing contributes to this negative representation when interviews with Rosenblat are paused midway through so Penn can rebut his arguments. At one point the screen freezes and Penn interrupts saying, ‘If it were up to Roger Rosenblat, no one would own handguns … except for the police.’ Dramatic non-diegetic music plays in the background and there’s stock footage of police officers. ‘We’re pretty sure Mr Rosenblat would have a different point of view if he were black or Hispanic in South Central LA,’ he notes dryly. ‘I do not think that women, any more than men, want to depend on guns for their element of equality,’ Rosenblat says midway through the episode. The screen pauses again and Penn’s voice interrupts, dismissing the claim. ‘Easy for you to say,’ he says. ‘You’re a man. And an exceptionally smug one.’ They cut to a shot of Roger Rosenblat playing with his small white dog as Penn explains he’s not the one “we should be listening to”. After an interview with War of Independence recreationists, the episode cuts to a shot of Roger Rosenblat walking his small white dog along a city street. ‘These guys dress up and march around and think about life and death and the cost of freedom. Seems like a very fine hobby. Might not hurt Mr Smug to walk around those battlefields and do a little thinking.’ In this episode, the voice over and editing contribute to the negative representation of Roger Rosenblat, supporting the oppositional value that gun ownership is more important than gun control.

In the program, Penn interviews a gun enthusiast and fur coat shop owner called Mabel Murray. Although Murray is, in some ways, similar to the fictional Archie Bunker, she is represented in a much more favourable light. The episode cuts from an interview with gun control advocate Roger Rosenblat to a shot of Penn & Teller dressed as cowboys. ‘To the smug Roger Rosenblat, a person with a gun looks like this,’ Penn says. This use of costume and the emphasis on the word ‘smug’, casts Rosenblat in a negative light and satirises his opinion. ‘We’d like to introduce him to a friend of ours,’ Penn says, cutting to a shot of Mabel Murray at a shooting range. There is a montage of shots of Murray firing at paper targets at a shooting range and revealing the firearms hidden around her fur coat store. A jazzy soundtrack accompanies the montage of shots, representing Murray in a positive light. Penn’s voice over also casts her in a more positive light than Rosenblat, describing her ‘practical’ understanding using firearms for self-defence. Later in the episode, when Penn explains that ‘a .44 slug stops rape in an instant’, he cuts again to a shot of Murray. ‘I do not think that women, any more than men, want to depend on guns for their element of equality,’ Rosenblat says. The screen pauses and Penn’s voice interrupts, dismissing the claim because he’s a man. ‘Easy for you to say,’ he says. ‘You’re a man. And an exceptionally smug one.’ They cut to a shot of Roger Rosenblat playing with his small white dog. Penn explains that he’s not the one they should be listening to and cuts back to Murray. Throughout this episode, the representation of Mabel Murray is positive in comparison to the representation of the gun control advocate Roger Rosenblat.

Like Mabel Murray, Texas legislator and gun advocate Suzanna Hupp is represented in favourable terms.  Described as “pretty damn hot for a law maker”, her interview she explains how concealed carry laws are a “great deterrent” that benefits even those without firearms. “Criminals are scared of people with guns,” says Penn. “Since most people are good, more people with guns means more good people with guns. The balance of power swings to the good side. A 44 slug stops rape in an instant.” Late in the documentary, Hupp explains that many shootings actually occur in gun free zones. “Every single one of these mass shootings has occurred in a gun free zone,” she explains. To highlight this, the program cuts to shots of wounded people and ambulances in the aftermath of school shootings. Through the use of voice over and editing, the representation of Suzanna Hupp supports the oppositional value that gun ownership is more important than gun control.

In the episode, Penn interviews War of Independence recreationists. Like the other supporters of the right to bear arms, they are represented in a favourable way. “Maybe these guys seem nuts to you but what they’re reenacting was a very real, very scary event during a turbulent time in history,” says Penn. “They points they’re making are very real. The rebels in the revolutionary war could not have won our freedom without guns.”

The episode closes with a monologue from Penn which reflects the oppositional value that gun ownership is more important than gun control: “We need the government to be afraid of its citizens. We need our rulers to think carefully about what they try to take from us and we need to remember that they can only take from us what we give them. You see, maybe Mr Smug can call the police against a gang banger but who does he call against the police? We are discussing on a public TV show, the idea of the violent overthrow of the country. And it’s covered under free speech. How cool is that? We can’t trust the government to always be okay with that. We have to trust the Americans all around us.”

The Walking Dead, ‘Secrets’, 2011.

A 2011 episode of The Walking Dead, titled ‘Secrets’, reflects values towards gun ownership in the period it was produced. During this time, there was great tension between gun ownership and the desire for gun control. In this society, which was hotly debating the issue of gun control, this issue represents characters arguing over guns when the eleven-year-old Carl should carry a gun. Although this episode is about a post-apocalyptic future, it reflects the slightly oppositional value that gun ownership is more important than gun control, through its representation of the importance of guns for protection and the importance of handling firearms safely.

A society that increasingly values gun ownership shaped the construction of this episode of The Walking Dead. At the beginning of the episode, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane (Jon Bernthal) arrange a shooting lesson to teach the other survivors how to use firearms effectively. Beth and Patricia ask to be involved despite the fact that Beth’s father Hershel doesn’t agree with it. Patricia argues that, following the death of Otis, they need to learn how to protect themselves. When Rick and Lori’s young boy is discovered with a revolver, Rick decides to teach him to shoot. Lori, who reflects oppositional values to gun use, is furious. “There are guns in camp for a reason,” Rick says. “He should learn to handle them safely.” Rick persuades her by insisting that Shane is the best instructor he’s ever seen and has taught children younger than Carl. This particular line of dialogue reflects values towards of gun ownership in the United State and reveals how the values and beliefs of American society shaped the construction of this episode. The approval given to the survivors as they learn to handle guns responsibly also reflects these values in society. As they’re training, director David Boyd cuts to a shot of bottles lined up on a fence, exploding in a hail of bullets, then to a shot of the characters standing in shooting stances, with handguns raised. The camera tracks Rick and Shane as they walk along behind the others, nodding in approval. Boyd cuts to a shot of Jimmy holding his handgun sideways. “Hey, c’mon, man…don’t give me that gangster shit,” T Dog says. Jimmy adjusts his grip on the gun. Boyd cuts to a shot with a bottle in the foreground and Jimmy standing in the background. He pulls focus as the bottle explodes. Shane claps T Dog on the shoulder and keeps walking. The dominant culture of gun ownership in America is reflected by this exchange of dialogue which praises the responsible use of firearms.

Later in the episode, director David Boyd cuts to a shot of Shane as he kicks a door open when he and Andrea are looking for a missing girl. They move into the room with precision and discipline, holding their guns in a shooting stance. This use of acting reflects the importance of using firearms safely. Later in the scene, gun use is again represented in a positive light when Andrea and Shane are surrounded by zombies. When Andrea hits her first target, a look of resolve crosses her face and she continues firing, the footage slows down slightly, there is a reverb and the sounds of her shots are accentuated. The scene ends with an overshot of the street, a horde of zombies advancing. Boyd cuts to a close up accentuating the resolve on Andrea’s face, then to a close up of her handgun as it fires. This combination of acting, editing and sound editing represents gun use in a positive light. The resolution of the episode supports the values that firearms are necessary for protect and should be used safely.

The Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting

In the wake of the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, the discourse on guns became even more contentious than ever.

1. Briefly describe the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting.
2. What do survey results reveal about attitudes towards gun ownership and gun control in this period?
3. In a paragraph, describe President Obama’s official response to the event. How did the NRA respond?
4. Describe how celebrities responded to the shooting on Twitter? Read over the Hollywood Gossip article about the celebrity twitter response and the article on Perez Hilton.
5. What values does the Daily Show’s three part series on gun control reflect? Describe how gun ownership advocates are represented.

Further Reading

Six timelines that explain America’s persistent gun culture

Share of Homes With Guns Shows 4-Decade Decline

The Declining Culture of Guns and Violence in the United States

Gun Control | Pew Research Centre

Guns | Gallup Historical Trends