Gun Fight (Kopple, 2011)

Gun Fight (Kopple, 2011) April 23, 2011
Gun Fight

I have spent the better part of a week since screening Barbara Kopple’s Gun Fight at the 2011 Full Frame Film Festival thinking about the muted buzz I heard at the festival, what it means, and why my own response to the film was so indifferent. Chuck Tryon did a fine job at teasing out one thread, probably the main one, leading to this response–the tendency of partisan observers to paint any examination of a complex subject as the biased rantings of insidious, rabid opposition. I recommend his review for a more thorough examination of the film than I can muster.

As for my own lack of enthusiasm, I expect it has more to do with issue fatigue than any serious flaws in Kopple’s approach or execution. A superficial comparison to some of the director’s  more esteemed works (Shut Up and Sing; Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson) could support the notion that the she is at her best when filtering a larger issue through the experiences of a single participant, but Harlan County U.S.A. would appear to fly in the face of that easy generalization.

Neither do I really buy the argument that there is an N.P.R./C.N.N. style structural objectivity (if you are reporting on someone who says the grass is green you must have a guest on from the “No, It’s Blue” Society) at play that robs the film of power, point of view, or urgency. Kopple, more than most documentarians I know, uses editing and selectivity to shape the perspective, nudging it in the direction she wants by allowing arguments that she disagrees with to come out and be answered rather than depending on straw men caricatures to make her own argument more confident. Tryon is probably right in his hint that the film may be as much or more about the process of political influencing than it is about the issue of gun control itself.

Maybe that’s my issue with the film. More so than even my response to An Inconvenient Truth, my response to Gun Fight was one of deep pessimism, almost despair. At one point an interviewee mentions that when there is a Columbine (13 fatalities) or a Virginia Tech shooting (32 fatalities) we think that surely such an incident will help us brush aside differences and work together to look openly and honestly at causes of violence and how to curb them. Yet, it is pointed out, a city such as Philadelphia may see scores of gun deaths in a month without much comment.* The sheer scope of gun violence in the United States makes us simultaneously numb to it (in the form of compassion and outrage fatigue) and overwhelmed by it. The psychology and history of gun ownership is so deeply embedded in our country, the trenches around the issue dug so deep, that one feels as though no sort of compromise is possible.

The cynic in me wonders if the creation of that sort of inviolate gridlock is not the ultimate strategy of the N.R.A. If the choice is really between the lesser of two evils, won’t most pick less safety than the voluntary renegotiation of a central “right”? Much as with the abortion issue, policy debates over gun control and gun rights are hampered by the fact that for many, the issue is a non-negotiable, non-starter. One of the most effective points the film makes is how the gun lobby continues to perpetuate a sense of fear and encroachment on gun rights even though the last ten to fifteen years has seen more gun rights legislation than gun control legislation.

Gun Fight, although shorter, evoked a similar response in me as Tony Kaye’s Lake of Fire. Call it the politics of non-partisan anger. At a certain point one just gets fed up with all the talking. Anger at dogmatic conservatives who can’t seem to feel compassion towards victims of gun violence is offset by anger at  liberals so scared of losing office they won’t even sponsor a bill or take a stand on an issue when 70% of their constituency agrees with them. My cynicism says that this, too, is by design. Gridlock favors the status quo, and fundraisers need bogeymen to rile up the bases on both sides and keep the money rolling in. Solutions to a problem, as Langston Hughes once wryly opined, of course wait.

About a year or two ago, the husband of a colleague of mine, a gun enthusiast, learned that I had never fired a gun and arranged to take me with him to rifle shoot sporting clays and then to a firing range. He has since passed away, but I’ve thought about him and that experience a lot in the last week. I remember how my knees shook the first time I lifted the loaded shotgun. I remember the grapefruit sized bruise I had on my shoulder the next day from the kick back. I remember trying to wrap my head around the cognitive dissonance of how such a small, physical movement such as flexing my trigger finger could unleash such power–and I remember wondering how those who have felt or been weak could be expected to resist the lure of wielding such power. Mostly, though, I remember my acquaintance’s patience in teaching me safety lessons and friendliness in giving of his time and sharing an experience so close to his heart. The connection that we were able to make those days seemed to fly in the face of political generalizations. They made me think that solutions could be found to even the most intractable problems if normal people would just talk to each other instead of parroting partisan sound bites from those more invested in keeping the argument culture going than in finding actual solutions.

I’ve thought, too, about my eldest brother, who thirty-five years ago last month was killed by a man who walked into the fast food restaurant where he was working, herded him and four other employees into a freezer and shot them all in the back of the head (one gunshot victim survived and later identified the murderer). A single gun, wielded by a robber with a history of violence, ended four lives and affected countless others. My brother would have been fifty-five this year. His family and friends have carried the weight of his violent death for decades. The Commonwealth of Virginia re-instituted the death penalty in the fall of that same year (1976), and policy makers pointed to this case as a central reason why stiffer penalties should be enacted. (Of all the arguments for guns, none do I find more hurtful and offensive than the “Gee, if one of the people he was working with had had a gun he/she could have defended himself and your brother wouldn’t have died.” I’m happy enough to give Gun Fight a favorable review just for dealing with that asinine little piece of bumper sticker condescension.) He was into electronics and gadgets in the mid-70s, before computers became widespread, and society as a whole lost the contributions of a bright, industrious, compassionate young man who would have brought who knows what innovations and ideas to the world he never lived to see.

Surely it was just a matter of time, I thought then as a naive 10 year-old, until enough people experienced first hand the cost of gun violence and sensible gun control laws, ones that recognized the rights of people and that those rights (like first amendment rights) also had limits, would come to pass.

And then there was the Reagan shootings…

And then John Lennon was killed with a handgun…

And then there was Columbine…

And then there was Virginia Tech…

And then there was Northern Illinois University…

And then there was Phoenix…

And then there was…


*Click here for an interactive map of shootings in Philadelphia in 2007. This map was not part of the film, just something I ran across while fact checking a few quotes.


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