Selling guns at the box office

There is an inherent hypocrisy in Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent announcement of support for gun control when he has given the opposite message to millions of people throughout his acting career. Isn't it time for this candidate, and Hollywood in general, to come clean about how their movies contribute to gun marketing in the United States?

A survey of Arnold's movies shows him carrying a huge array of firepower - Desert Eagle pistols, Winchester shotguns, GE Miniguns, Glock handguns, and dozens of others. These are real guns, many of which movie viewers can buy in their local gun store, at a gun show, or on the Internet.

Research shows that people, especially young people, do indeed buy the guns they see in the movies. Schwarzenegger's message not only is violent, but also provides very real propaganda for the gun industry. "You don't have to look very far to find examples of how movie and television portrayals of guns have boosted sales of those guns," say Tom Diaz, senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center.

The gun industry received a first taste of Hollywood's selling power in the early 1970s. Smith & Wesson's .44 Magnum was at risk of being discontinued for lack of sales. When it was featured prominently by Clint Eastwood in the film "Dirty Harry," the gun "enjoyed a massive burst of popularity," according to the magazine American Rifleman.

In the 1980s, the television series "Miami Vice" boosted the demand for a large number of guns, including the relatively obscure Bren 10, according to Dr. Park Dietz, a California forensic psychiatrist. Beretta enjoyed a similar expansion of production after its handguns were featured in James Bond films, the Bruce Willis "Die Hard" trilogy, and the Mel Gibson "Lethal Weapons" series, according to a profile of the company in the Baltimore Sun.

Gun manufacturers know how important screen time can be to their business, and many companies try to get their guns featured in movies. One of the most successful is Magnum Research, producer of Desert Eagle pistols, whose website boasts that its guns have been featured in a grand total of 110 movies. Schwarzenegger has often carried Desert Eagle guns in his movies - particularly "Last Action Hero," "Eraser," "Commando," and "Predator." So why does one particular gun appear so frequently?

Some gun companies offer large numbers of guns at no charge to the Hollywood prop houses. The prop houses then have a financial incentive to push those "free" guns to directors, says Ann Hornaday, former film critic for the Baltimore Sun. She also cites many examples of gun industry executives lobbying prop house owners to get their guns placed into the hands of big stars like Schwarzenegger.

"If a gun is placed in a movie, then the whole production, the actors, the directors, and anyone in that chain become implicit in advertising for a specific gun," says Mr. Diaz.

This is not overt product placement - payment from a company like Coca-Cola to have its product featured in a movie - because the gun industry does not want to condone violence in movies. And the movie industry does not want to appear to be selling guns.

But it turns out that the marketing of guns in movies can be beneficial to both parties. When the movie "Last Action Hero" was first released in 1993, the advertisements at first showed Arnold Schwarzenegger saving a young boy. Two weeks later, after dismal box office records, the ad was changed - now it had Arnold holding a big Desert Eagle gun. "Movie companies do a large amount of testing on these posters," says Luis Tolley of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "I am sure they changed the poster because they thought it would help sales."

In the past, Schwarzenegger has gone so far as to say that he's not responsible for being a role model. In a 2002 interview, he said "I don't pick myself as a role model.... And the movies with the gun in my hand? I don't run around every day with a gun in my hand."

But young kids don't see Schwarzenegger every day; they see him in the roles he portrays in movies. And with gang violence on the rise in this country, it is important to look at how these violent role models are affecting young people. Several scientific studies indicate that young people at risk are most familiar with and attracted to the kinds of flashy high-powered guns they see in movies.

Let's hope Schwarzenegger's support of gun control has a positive effect on gun violence rates if he does become governor, but he and others in Hollywood should take responsibility for the role they play in the marketing of guns to young people in America.

Oriana Zill de Granados is a documentary producer working on a project about gun violence in Latino gangs in California. Alison Pierce contributed research to this piece.

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