Hollywood's role in America's gun violence epidemic

Prop Firearm Movie Set
Posted at 2:45 PM, Nov 15, 2022

From John Wayne to "John Wick," guns and violence on TV and movie screens have been a constant for decades.

But as gun violence increases across the country and policing faces more scrutiny, experts say Hollywood has a role to play in fixing America's gun violence problem.

Soraya Giaccardi is a researcher at the University of Southern California who focuses specifically on how media contributes to real-world attitudes and behaviors. 

"Entertainment media has the power to shape audience knowledge, beliefs and behaviors on a wide range of issues, not just gun safety," Giaccardi said.

Giaccardi co-authored a pair of studies on gun safety and policing on television. The researchers looked at 250 episodes of 33 shows ranging from family dramas like "This Is Us," to law enforcement-related shows like "Law and Order."

The study found guns or gun-related content is ubiquitous on television. A third showed at least one person being shot, with victims usually being white people.

Gun safety measures were rare. 

"It's something as simple as instead of having a character put a gun down on their nightstand, they're putting it inside of a safe," Giaccardi said.

Episodes that featured gun safety measures had a direct impact on audiences, like a greater awareness of gun safety, gun laws and safe storage. 

When it comes to police officers on TV, the study found about 60% of characters with guns on television where law enforcement and 90% of those officers were portrayed as sympathetic, while those shot by police were often one-dimensional "bad guys."

"There's no nuance, and that can lead viewers to kind of assume that that's the reality of policing — that if somebody is shot, it's because they were a bad guy, and they deserved it, and the hero cop was doing what they needed," Giaccardi said. "It really can just simplify our understanding of what is really a complex social issue."

There are TV shows trying to deal with the nuances of law enforcement, but the study says those examples are few and far between and encourages more of that on screen, calling for less "heroic" depictions of the use of force and more nuanced antagonists.

It's a request Giaccardi says will make TV more entertaining, not less.

"We do not pitch stories, and we don't tell content creators what to write," Giaccardi said. "The way we position ourselves is we are here to help the entertainment industry tell better and more authentic stories."

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