Rewatching the now iconic scene in Bowling for Columbine in which Michael Moore interviews Marilyn Manson about the Columbine High School massacre is a bizarre experience in 2016. Nearly every aspect of the footage practically screams 2002, with one glaring exception: everything they're talking about. Many Americans looked at Columbine as a hopeful turning point for the national discourse surrounding gun safety in 1999.
More than a decade later, Americans felt the same sense of urgency following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton. Yet America saw more mass shootings than days last year, prompting an emotional plea from President Barack Obama in December in which he urged Americans to consider the fact that mass violence of this nature simply doesn't happen in other advanced countries. "It's not even close," Obama told the nation in January.
So what's really going on? Why is there such a mounting disconnect between the perceived attitudes of the general public and the legislation that could potentially help curb what some would consider our nation's most obvious threat?
That's the central question of the new EPIX documentary Under the Gun, directed by Stephanie Soechtig and narrated by journalist Katie Couric. Soechtig and Couric, who previously collaborated on the obesity-targeting doc Fed Up in 2014, take a decisive look at both sides of the argument—gun rights advocates and those favoring stricter regulation—with a mindful eye toward finding common ground between the two.
Complex reached out to Katie Couric to discuss the inspiration behind the documentary, the NRA's continued influence on American politics, and much more. Peep that discussion in full below.
I was drawn to the documentary because there would appear to be a lack of mainstream investigative work being done on this issue. Would you agree? What was your personal inspiration for getting involved?
The media have long portrayed this as a very black and white issue—you're either pro-gun or anti-gun—and I wanted to see if that narrative was rooted in fact. What we found is that there’s actually quite a bit of common ground between gun owners and non-gun owners.
What really appeals to me about documentaries is they allow you to do a deep dive on complicated issues. Following the shootings in Aurora and Newtown, I wanted to understand why our elected officials have done so little to reduce the number of gun deaths in this country.
We're certainly accustomed to seeing plenty of headlines about gun violence, but the 24-hour news cycle is frenetic, and we move on and seem to forget. One of my primary motivations for making this film was to go behind the headlines and connect with the families whose lives have been shattered by gun violence. In this way, I'm hoping the audience will be less apt to forget the next time they see another news story about a shooting.
Do you notice a difference in stances on the issue of gun safety relative to age? Do millennials, for example, seem to disagree with their parents' generation? If so, what do you think has pushed the conversation forward?
Generationally, I don't think there is much of a difference actually. The more significant distinction is regionally—there are some places like in the South and in Western states like Wyoming and Montana where there is a very strong gun culture across all generations.
That being said, if there's going to be a shift in attitude in this country where we really start to demand our government do more to stop gun violence, millennials will have to play a key role in that.
ON BACKGROUND: A 2014 Pew poll showed that millennial attitudes towards guns are on par with older generations. They were no more liberal on the issue than older Americans.
The film chooses to not mention the names of any shooters, a move I found to be decisive in its conviction. What was the reasoning behind this?
This film is really about the families and advocates on both sides of the issue. We didn't want to give the shooters any more attention than they've already gotten.
Any thoughts on the so-called "mob journalism" effect that so often overtakes breaking news stories once they hit Twitter?
With the rise of social media and the pace of the news cycle, reporters are fast and furiously trying to get information to the public when a story breaks. This sometimes leads to poor decision-making. Journalists need to take a step back and think before they report, especially on stories like gun violence with such enormous sensitivities involved.
The families of Sandy Hook victims who are suing gun manufacturers recently got a trial date. Will this potentially become a precedent-setting case? Will we/should we see more of this?
One of the most interesting things I learned while making the film is how the leadership of the NRA doesn't represent the views of the vast majority of gun owners but instead very heavily represents the interests of the gun industry. A perfect example of that is how the NRA made it a top priority for years to pass legislation that would shield gunmakers from lawsuits. With the help of their allies in Congress, they were successful in doing that in 2005. Gun safety organizations saw this as a serious setback for the movement.
So I'm happy the Sandy Hook families will be allowed to have their day in court. They are arguing the manufacturer of the gun used in the attack knew this was a weapon designed for military use and that it shouldn’t be sold to civilians. This will play out in our justice system as it should, and I hope it with further the conversation about what culpability the gun industry has in our epidemic of violence.
As we are in an election year, potential nominees on both sides of the aisle have delivered remarks on mass shootings and gun violence. But is this issue addressed enough? Shouldn't we be seeing more questions hurled at candidates during televised debates?
There has definitely been more discussion about gun violence in this election cycle than in past cycles, particularly in the Democratic primary. This is such a crucial issue—literally life or death—so I think there's always room for a more substantive dialogue by our leaders about ways to reduce gun violence.
Do you think candidates take this issue seriously? Or do they just take it as seriously as the general public?
It's really incumbent on American voters to make our elected officials—on the federal, state, and local levels—take gun violence seriously.
I'd like to see gun violence become a top tier issue in the general election and something that voters really consider when they go to the polls. Whether or not a candidate supports common sense measures like universal background checks should be a litmus test for deciding whether we vote for them.
Is the NRA unstoppable? It's almost discouraging, their level of power.
The NRA is powerful, organized, and motivated, but it's not unstoppable. We think people will walk away from the film actually feeling hopeful.
You have to realize the NRA only speaks for about 5% of gun owners, and 74% of the gun owners in its ranks favor universal background checks. The reason the NRA is so powerful is because a very small fringe of its members are single-issue voters who write and call their elected officials, telling them that gun rights are their No. 1 voting issue.
If the public wants to make a dent in this problem, they need to get involved. We heard from elected officials that when Manchin-Toomey was up for a vote, their lines were flooded by pro-gun advocates, but they weren't hearing from gun safety advocates. Those calls matter—and Americans need to participate in the discussion if they want to see things change.
EPIX preview weekend means everyone can see this for free. Was that an intentional choice to get this doc out to as many people as possible? Would you argue that all documentaries would be better served if debuted in a similar format?
When you're making a film, the goal is obviously to get as many people as possible to watch it. But making a film about a topic as important and personal as gun violence, I really felt an added responsibility to reach a wide audience.
In EPIX, we found the perfect partner to help us fulfill that goal. They are so dedicated to the film and so passionate about the subject matter, which not all distributors are bold enough to take on. So we feel very fortunate.
Under the Gun will air on EPIX and across all EPIX platforms on May 15 at 8pm ET/PT, 7C