Gunmen

2012-11-22

In response to the killings at Sandy Hook, the National Rifle Association (NRA) held a press conference. In practical terms NRA lobbyist Wayne LaPierre suggested placing armed guards at every single school across the United States, an idea which by rights should be an anathema to the NRAs largely conservative supporters: surely an Education Security Administration could easily rival the theatrics of the Transportation Security Administration.

In addition to his big government solution to school violence, LaPierre also trotted out an old argument about the effects of media on violent behavior. This part of his argument falls on a fault line within media studies over media power. For LaPierre, the media and its depictions of violence are powerful, pervasive and perverse:

Isn't fantasizing about killing people as a way to get your kicks really the filthiest form of pornography? In a race to the bottom, many conglomerates compete with one another to shock, violate, and offend every standard of civilized society, by bringing an even more toxic mix of reckless behavior, and criminal cruelty right into our homes. Every minute, every day, every hour of every single year.

Concern over the effects of exposure to media violence, particularly television violence, was one of the founding research agendas for media studies in the United States. Following a string of assassinations in the 1960s, the government sponsored several studies of media violence and its potential effects (Morgan & Signorielli 1990:15-16). This research largely created the "media effects" subfield of media studies. Researchers in this subfield are unambiguous about the effects of media violence on people; there is a vast amount of research that demonstrates the consumption of violent media has significant harmful effects (Anderson & Gentile 2008:281).

At the same time, there are other research paradigms within media studies which are less certain about the effects of media on violence. These approaches emphasize the role of the audience in constructing meaning from media texts. These approaches are more anthropological and arise from a need to explain cross cultural differences; it is routinely noted that countries with far less violence are often ravenous consumers of violent media.

Whether arguing from a media effects position, or from an anthropological one, there is a general assumption that social reality is a constructed reality. The dispute is over the relative power of the media and the audience in shaping that reality. To these two actors, we need to add a third: LaPierre himself as the NRA's chief spin doctor. This gives us Blumler & Gurevich's triad of actors: audiences, mediators, and advocates (2005).

There is a sense in which LaPierre's whole job requires media to retain some power (despite his irksome rhetorical strategy of positioning himself outside of the media.) So, what is the reality LaPierre is trying to construct in his statements to the press? It's actually a particular construction of masculinity:

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun... when you hear your glass breaking at three a.m. and you call 911, you won't be able to pray hard enough for a gun in the hands of a good guy to get there fast enough to protect you.

For fairly obvious reasons, LaPierre's strategy involves denying the gun any agency while setting up a highly gendered and Manichean "good guy / bad guy" dualism. Good or bad, guys are always armed. The unarmed guy isn't worth considering. He isn't an effective man.

This is the cowboy masculinity of the Western. Note that Quentin Tarantino's new Western, Django Unchained has been postponed in the wake of Sandy Hook. It is also the first-person masculinity of video games like Call of Duty, which the Sandy Hook killer spent hours playing.

It is one thing to argue for an audience that actively creates meaning when faced with a media text, it is another to deny that the media plays a role in socialization. In this case, it is the process of masculinization, the means by which we learn how to perform as men. For many young men, this is the role that media fills... good guys, bad guys, they''ve all seen RoboCop.

But this isn't enough for LaPierre, whose concern above all is to preserve the gun as the authentic guarantor of American masculinity. For him, the consumption of violent media is ultimately a childish act. In the same speech, he emphasizes:

A child growing up in America witnesses 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence by the time he or she reaches the ripe old age of 18.

Never mind that the Sandy Hook killer was already twenty years old before he went on his rampage. Most of America's other celebrated murderers have also been young adults. While they watch violent movies and play violent video games, it is still possible to dismiss them as children. It is only when they pull a trigger that they become gunmen.


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