Local documentary aims to hit the gun debate from new perspectives
America’s Founding Fathers—and their purported intentions—are invoked more often in the debate over gun rights and regulation than in any other public conversation, to the point that stylized images of musket-bearing Minutemen have come to represent the argument itself. Though Second Amendment specialist Saul Cornell believes a better understanding of the nation’s historical relationship with guns is essential to finding common ground, he also believes modern concerns can’t be fully addressed by looking to the past.
“It’s funny the way we venerate the Founders, because we end up not venerating them as they really existed but as these mythic people that are more like puppets we imbue with our own ideals and obsessions and fears,” said Cornell, a Fordham University professor, author and legal expert, by phone from New York. “But it was a different time … they invented this very impressive system of government, but they also owned slaves and believed women had the same legal rights as the dead once they married.
“It wasn’t the time to get a toothache because you wouldn’t want to go to an 18th century dentist, but on the other hand, it was the time of Mozart … a remarkable age but not a modern one,” Cornell quipped. “Once you look at things in those terms, the way we talk about a lot of things today just doesn’t make any sense.”
Cornell believes there’s room for more than the diametrically opposed stances and bumper-sticker arguments clung to by people on both sides of the gun issue, a view he shares with local community radio-host-cum-documentary-producer Sue Hilderbrand and her cohort, veteran videographer Dan Carter.
Hilderbrand and Carter are working on their second collaborative effort, a documentary titled One Nation Under the Gun, which intends to look at America’s gun obsession and omnipresent conflict from often-overlooked perspectives. They first worked together last year on a five-part documentary series about North State water issues called The California Drought: The New Normal. After the final product was shown on PBS last October, the duo began looking for a new topic and settled on the gun issue.
They hope to have the film shown nationwide on PBS stations by September. Southern Oregon Public Broadcasting is acting as a fiscal agent for the documentary, and on March 10, the creators launched a 30-day Kickstarter campaign to help crowdfund $70,000 of the budget. As of press time, the campaign had raised more than $8,000.
“We didn’t really want to take a position, per se, or push a pro- or anti-gun agenda, because the more we talked about it, the more we realized that it’s not so black and white,” Hilderbrand said. “The issue is complicated, but the argument is generally very superficial.”
To help develop the film’s focus, the duo formed an advisory board featuring seven American and Canadian scholars, of which Cornell is a member, with widely differing views on guns. Other members include sociologists, historians and legal experts, all of whom met in Sacramento last month for a day-long brainstorming session aimed at establishing a mission statement and outlining topics for the film.
Hilderbrand said that mass shootings garner the most headlines, but the actual statistics about gun deaths reveal other concerns. She noted approximately two-thirds of those deaths are suicides, and that black men and female victims of domestic abuse account for disproportionate percentages of victims. Despite those numbers, she said the voices of minorities and conversations about depression, mental illness and domestic violence are largely absent from the national dialogue.
At press time, the documentary makers were filming in Austin, Texas, where statewide laws allowing the open carrying of firearms were enacted in January, and those permitting concealed weapons on college campuses will take effect in August. Demonstrating the types of interviews on tap for the film, Hilderbrand said that in Texas she’ll be talking to a group of black anti-gun activists as well as members of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, a pro-gun group whose name pays homage to the co-founder of the Black Panther Party.
“The anti-gun activists feel their race makes them the embodiment of something threatening to white people who say they need guns for self-defense, so they advocate for gun control.” Hilderbrand explained. “So you have two groups: one that wants to stay armed to push back against state abuse and another who wants to disarm everyone.”
Another topic of the film is how guns became such an integral part of the American identity. Advisory board member Pamela Haag wrote the soon-to-be-published The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of a Gun Culture, which posits the role of firearms in the country’s history is largely fiction created to sell guns.
“In the early 1900s, people began moving to big cities and guns were no longer necessary, so they had to come up with a new marketing campaign,” Hilderbrand elaborated. “So that’s when you begin to see the idea that being a real American and a real man means owning a gun. It was a concentrated effort, and then Hollywood came along with John Wayne and all these gun-slinging lawmen and frontiersmen. Most of that stuff isn’t historically accurate; it’s manufactured mythology.”
Hilderbrand said the project’s ultimate goal is to inspire further discussion.
“We want people to walk away from this film with more questions than answers, because that’s when we have real conversation and real democracy,” she said. “If you walk away saying, ‘Now I know what’s right and wrong,’ that gets us no further.”