Months after appearing at Sundance, Under the Gun debuts to the general public on Sunday through the cable channel and streaming service Epix. Directed by Stephanie Soechtig and narrated by Katie Couric, the documentary strives to explain American gun politics, with a special focus on post-Sandy Hook activism for gun control.
It will be hard for anyone—and it was certainly hard for this father of an 18-month-old—to watch the footage collected here of parents lamenting the deaths of their children. The filmmakers deserve credit for making the issue of gun violence resonate. And to be sure, Under the Gun makes some legitimate points. I myself am sympathetic, for example, to the ideas of expanding background checks and making the crime-gun-tracing system more efficient.
But as an attempt to grapple with the political debate, the movie mostly fails. As it flits from issue to issue, it says too much that is untrue or misleading in the service of promoting gun control. Pro-gun viewers will find it hard to be convinced by something that tries so little to understand, much less represent, their point of view.
The worst mistakes here rise to the level of factual error, and they undermine the film as a whole. There is no law, for example, “making it illegal to sue gun manufacturers”; rather, the law lays out the specific circumstances in which such lawsuits are allowed. These include cases stemming from illegal sales and design defects. The law was enacted amidst a wave of lawsuits against companies whose legally sold guns had eventually been used in crimes.
Further, despite what was claimed in an al-Qaeda video featured here without correction, one cannot “go to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check and most likely without having to show an identification card.” Fully automatic weapons, which fire continuously when the trigger is held down, are heavily regulated. Gun owners have been harping on the media’s failure to grasp this automatic/semiautomatic distinction for decades.
And even when the film gets its facts right, it often makes little attempt to explore both sides of an issue. While everyday gun owners and activists make numerous appearances—some flattering and some definitely not—pro-gun experts are sorely lacking. Gun-control advocates are well-represented by folks like Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Robyn Thomas of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and Mark Follman of Mother Jones. Viewers are left believing that there are no similarly well-informed researchers and journalists on the right.
John Lott—the most well-known researcher on this issue who takes a pro-gun view—mentioned on Twitter last week that he was interviewed for about four hours for Under the Gun. He suspected his comments would be shortened to a few minutes; in fact he doesn’t appear at all. Another strong possibility could have been Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, who supports background checks but is highly dubious of many anti-gun claims, or Eugene Volokh, a prominent constitutional lawyer who often writes about gun issues.
The result is that gun-control proponents peddle well-worn talking points and no one presses them to make a stronger case. A few examples that stand out:
- Various sources dismiss the possibility of gun confiscation, often saying that the Supreme Court has taken it off the table. Personally, I agree that fear of confiscation is an unfortunate roadblock to some promising reforms. But let’s be clear about why people are worried: It has actually happened in places like the UK and Australia; the current president of the United States has publicly praised those measures; and now that Antonin Scalia has passed, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 pro-gun majority is now a 4-4 tie. Betting markets suggest the next president will probably be a Democrat.
- Congress’s decision in the 1990s to stop the Centers for Disease Control from “advocat[ing] or promot[ing] gun control” is portrayed as a result of a CDC-funded study whose results the NRA didn’t like. The well-documented bias of the agency against gun ownership is not explored.
- Follman of Mother Jones reports that his magazine was unable to find any mass shootings that were stopped by armed citizens. Volokh might have had thoughts on that.
There are smaller issues, too. The filmmakers offer a confusing description of how the background-check system works, for example, with narration about the current system (which requires checks only at licensed dealers) accompanied by on-screen text concerning a proposed reform (universal background checks).
They also miss an opportunity to drive home how badly the attempt to expand background checks flopped in 2013. As they note, one bill would have required background checks on all sales; what they don’t mention is that the legislation was severely watered down before it fizzled out. The compromise that failed to pass (the “Manchin-Toomey” amendment) would have applied only to advertised sales and gun shows, not to transfers among family, acquaintances, etc.
I could go on, but that would get tedious in a hurry, if it hasn’t already. I’d mainly be repeating things I’ve written elsewhere (e.g., about the aggravating claim that places with higher gun ownership have more “gun deaths,” or the nuances of the “Charleston loophole”) or addressing points that were debated to death by others long ago (e.g., whether those on the Terror Watch List should be allowed to buy guns). The film rarely advances the discussion. It settles for capturing one side of it.
Under the Gun is at its best when it offers emotionally jarring portraits of Americans whose lives have been wracked by gun violence; it is at its worst when it tries to sort out what can be done to reduce such violence. A good argument presents a serious challenge to those who disagree, but to the well-informed gun-rights supporter, much of Under the Gun is merely grating.
Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen