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January 17, 2007 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | January 17, 2007 |


Scared you didn’t I? Guns can be scary things, especially to those who aren’t familiar with them. I’ve fired weapons of most of the common classes and a few of the kind that most people assume civilians can’t own, and I still have trouble looking down a gun barrel even when the gun is in pieces. Primal fear like that can be a good thing; it’s done a great job of keeping me from shooting myself in the face so far. Primal fear can also be a tool of misdirection that can drive large groups of people to make irrational decisions. Personally, I think guns, like plastic surgery, are a great social equalizer: the last line of defense against those more blessed with physicality than rationality. Thus I’m a bit surprised that both tend to be targets of blue-state rhetoric, but that’s another piece for another time. This is foremost a movie website, so I’ll leave the debate over guns in the able hands of the comment section, but I have a few things to say about how movies treat them.

I have never seen a gun do anything more than its user asked it to do. If you pull the trigger and the gun is functional, it fires. Take a seat in a modern movie theater, though, and you are liable to think that guns have a life and agenda of their own. In the movie discussed later, you see and hear the gun firing, but the killer’s face is flashed only once, very briefly and out of focus. Perhaps it’s my hyperactive sensitivity to the anti-gun agenda, but it seems that the implication is that the gun causes the crime, out of the malice of its own existence, and thus we should fear the gun even more than the criminal. That being said, there are still serious movies that treat guns as a fact of life and a tool with no moral value in either direction.

Heat is a fine example. Anyone who has seen Heat knows that it is rife with gunplay and the deaths are bloody and brutal. There’s a pain to its gun violence that comes with realism. Guns in the movie sound the way real guns sound, not the stock Hollywood blam-blam foleys. The violence is realistic and specific. Chris (Val Kilmer) doesn’t just “get shot,” he gets shot in the freaking neck. Something about that makes me wince more than when somebody gets launched through the air by a booming hand-cannon in a typical action flick. It’s like the anticipation in a cold dentist’s chair: You don’t have stylized settings or clever banter mid-battle to take you away from the searing pain of the bullets, and you feel their sting the way that, before you get a tooth pulled, you feel the needle that hasn’t hit you yet.

Heat offers tons of good reasons to want nothing to do with guns, and yet there is no judgment or contrivance in its tone or plot. These are hard men who choose to live and sometimes die by the gun. When Pacino finally guns down DeNiro, he’s sobered and perhaps even saddened because he respected DeNiro’s dedication to his craft, but there’s no implication that none of this would have happened if it weren’t for the guns. I look at the movie and see a set of morally neutral implements being used by men who would have killed and been killed even in a world without guns, but you could just as easily argue that the horrors perpetrated with the guns in the movie make a case for wiping firearms from the earth. I think this constitutes a balanced jumping-off point for a discussion of firearms in our society, but it seems that more often I see a different type of movie.

Ah, Runaway Jury, where to start? Politics aside, I enjoyed it. Grisham stories are like diet cinema: not a whole lot to challenge your palate, but not a lot of dumb fat to clog your neurons and kill you either. The plotline is an interesting concept that I won’t spoil for you, and I give them props for naming a gothed-out secondary character “Lydia Deets.” Getting down to business, anyone who read the book first better hold on to his agend-o-meter for dear life because the Grisham story about a tobacco company case has been hijacked to smear the gun industry. The opening constructs a brief portrait of an ideal father: an important man in a brokerage firm who nonetheless takes time out of his day to collaborate with his assistant to reconstruct the lyrics to “Big Rock Candy Mountain” that his son sang to him the night before so that he could sing them back to him that evening. His life is tragically cut short by a disgruntled former employee who returns to the office to exact his revenge by shooting anyone he can get in his sights. It’s cheap, lazy heartstring plucking, but whatever, at least there’s a degree of honesty to it.

The movie aspires to be more than a mere emotional plea, however. Runaway Jury declares its status as a serious and substantive indictment of the gun industry by drawing several gun-company owners together to listen to a spiel from jury consultant Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) in which he quotes statistics about gun deaths and sales to justify adding several million dollars to his tab. There are two clear messages being broadcast here: First, while this case is fictional, the discussion of guns is real; it’s backed by statistics after all. Second, we’re talking about how gun companies in general would handle this situation, unless we’re supposed to believe that the director has set his realistic courtroom drama in a fictional universe in which all gun companies are corrupt. This makes the fear-mongering and misinformation spread throughout the rest of the movie that much more inexcusable.

The crimes against truth and fairness run the gamut. In some cases, real features with legitimate and innocuous purpose are twisted to look evil. When Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) is questioning Henry Jankle (Stanley Anderson), the head of “Vicksburg Firearms,” he asks him about a feature on the gun described as a “fingerprint-proof finish.” Rohr wants to know who would want this kind of finish, and Jankle (to my surprise) correctly answers “Anybody,” and goes on to explain that fingerprints cause rust that damages the appearance and value of the gun. Rohr proceeds to press and badger him until Jankle finally snaps and yells something about the Second Amendment, which we are clearly meant to take as an admission that he can’t defend himself on this point and he knows that criminals want the guns. By this time, perhaps the director expects his clever audience to have figured out that the feature is targeted at criminals so they can shoot people without leaving fingerprints. This is preposterous. A fingerprint-proof finish does not prevent fingerprints, but rather the kind of damage that fingerprints can cause to the “bluing” used to protect most firearms until very recently.

The movie mentions that the pistol is semi-automatic five times, including twice referring to the gun as a “semi-automatic assault(-type) weapon,” because it makes it sound like it’s practically a machine gun. In reality, it means that it functions like almost every other pistol manufactured since the turn of the century in that the gun fires a single shot per trigger pull and requires no user operation of the loading mechanism between firings. That’s all that “semi-automatic” means and all that it implies to anyone who understands guns, but it sure sounds like more gun than anyone could justify owning (and by the way, should we have to justify our need for everything we own in a free country?) if you say it as though it’s a special feature of this gun.

In other cases, terms are fabricated out of whole cloth to make things sound scarier, like “assault-type pistol.” There is no such thing, not in manufacturer’s terms, not in legal terms, not in any gun book published by a reputable source, and not in the language of the gun enthusiast. The term “assault” is used to describe the gun five times in the movie. I know a bit about guns myself, so when I hear a pistol referred to as an assault weapon, I call up my very knowledgeable friends and immediately confirm that that is an association made up by anti-gun activists and latched onto by the movie. Just why this is an “assault-style” weapon is never discussed, but it seems likely it is as a result of its high-capacity magazine (which by its nature is a completely interchangeable element of any pistol). Further, the term “assault,” when referring to anything other than the machine guns it’s supposed to, has nothing to do with the projectile size or power of a weapon. Thus even if it were technically correct, so defining a pistol would be tantamount to declaring a completely standard microwave “high-capacity” because it comes with a set of large bowls. Only rifles and machine guns are ever legally defined by the term “assault,” and rifles only under the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994. There is a separate argument about the legitimacy of attaching “assault” to semi-automatic rifles, but that would be a large and unnecessary digression.

Someone who doesn’t know about guns may have a very different reaction. Terms like “assault” lend a manufactured intent and almost a causality to what is still an inert implement, despite the name change. It’s much tougher to argue that you need an “assault” weapon around the house than a particularly capable self-defense weapon. It’s like the great name shift in the abortion debate: pro-abortion became pro-choice because choice is good: anti-abortion became pro-life because life is good. Whether by choice or by proxy for the anti-gun movement, the director is using misleading terminology to play to your fears and imply that gun companies are peddling a killing machine intended specifically to wreak havoc.

Finally, the movie creates an exceptionally unlikely distribution conspiracy to set up Vicksburg Firearms for a loss and make it seem like it would be easy for this scenario to happen in real life. In the movie, the gun company sells the guns to the gun shop, the gun shop turns around and sells them in large quantities to a fence, and he puts them on the street from the trunk of his car. Vicksburg Firearms is accused of producing a firearm specifically for the criminal market and encouraging the sale of the weapon through this chain. It seems plausible, and if a gun company did operate this way they would certainly be prosecutable, but the realities of gun sales and distribution make that chain unattractive in the extreme.

Okay, deep breath, and here we go with how guns actually make it from the manufacturer to the public. Each gun manufacturer is licensed by the federal government as a Type 07 Federal Firearm Licensee (FFL). Each and every weapon the manufacturer produces is reported to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Type 07 FFLs most often sell their firearms to a distributor, which is once again licensed by the federal government, but as a Type 01 FFL. Distributors of firearms still do not sell to the public, but rather to weapon retailers (also Type 01 FFL) and certain other retailers under similar licenses and obligations. Occasionally small manufacturers will sell directly to retailers, but gun companies of the size implied in the movie hardly ever do so. Transactions must be recorded in logs kept for at least 20 years that are subject to both scheduled and random perusal (as are the facilities and inventories of everyone in the chain). At each FFL, weapons are logged on arrival and their location within the facility is tracked throughout their stay, and when one of those inspections comes along each gun had better be where the log says it is. Final sale to a non-FFL of a weapon must be reported, and in particular, every time a single person buys more than one gun in a five-day period, a form is filed specifically indicating multiple gun purchases to make sure it does not escape the ATF’s notice. So either the retailer in the movie is falsifying records to indicate multiple purchasers (and thus opening themselves to a different level of legal hell than just criminal negligence), or the ATF would have been well aware that the fence was ordering suspiciously large numbers of weapons. To those not reading between the lines, let me point out that all of the reporting in the chain goes to the federal government who should thus be more aware than anybody of what is going on, while nobody in the chain is any more likely to tell the manufacturer where their guns are going than Wal-Mart is to notify Frito-Lay of who is buying a suspiciously large amount of Doritos.

A conspiracy to put guns on the street in the fashion shown would require at least two and more likely three federal licensees willing to risk their livelihood (not to mention freedom) just to make a little extra green. That may sound worthwhile to the fence on the street level, but it’s hard to imagine a gun manufacturer throwing everything away for what would be chump change to them, much less that a large group of gun manufacturers would be willing to help defend one that did go that route. The movie makes a big deal of the fact that gun companies don’t lose cases, and the implication is pretty clearly that it’s because they have tons of money and questionable scruples, but really it’s because they’re possessed of neither the motivation nor the stupidity to do things like this that would make them legitimate targets. Viewers who do some research may well learn all of this for themselves, but given the aura of legitimacy established with the statistics and the courtroom setting, the first stop might understandably be the phone or instant messenger to warn friends how easy it is for really dangerous guns to hit the street in mass quantities.

If you really believe in something, then you shouldn’t fear a challenge. I don’t mind engaging in a discussion about something I feel passionately about even though I will probably lose in the moment because I have a terrible memory for statistics and when I read what where. Things change though when someone twists the truth for the sake of their argument, even if they do it for “the right reasons.” I do believe that even the most politically motivated opponents of firearm rights intend to save human lives on some level and thus perhaps feel that they are justified in using a little sleight of hand. The movie all but announces it feels this way when it shows Rohr deliberately choosing the wrong tie and later spilling mustard on another tie so that he doesn’t look too slick for the jury, all with a conspiratorial wink and nod. But can there be a more pompous or harmful attitude in politics than feeling that you know what is best for people to such a degree that you can’t risk them deciding for themselves armed with the truth? I’m guessing that more than a few of the readers of Pajiba would have something to say about this as it relates to our President. Paradoxically, if the makers of this movie are so convinced that guns and gun manufacturers are bad that they feel justified in twisting the truth about them, then why do they even need to? Why not show the audience what convinced you? I can deal with the fact that Hollywood is bound to cast guns in a negative light, but it seems all too often that I see lazy or intentional misrepresentation of the truth in this medium that plugs directly into the zeitgeist.

I realize that Runaway Jury is a bit of a straw man, but my objective is to show you the world through the eye of the conservative, and to the conservative eye this is what a lot of anti-gun movies look like. So I leave you with a challenge: I would love to see the Pajiba comment crew throw out the names of some anti-gun movies they feel are balanced so that I can have a look at them.

Erik Nolte lives in Texas and daylights as a research engineer. He is the conservative commentator for Pajiba. He has sacrificed this e-mail address to spam and death threats.

You Got Pecs, I Got Tecs: The Second Amendment Viewed through Runaway Jury

Runaway Jury / Erik Nolte

Film | January 17, 2007 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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