Heston On Columbine

While waiting for the prices of my favorite stocks to settle down, I finally saw Bowling For Columbine, the documentary by Michael Moore. It just now arrived here in Japan and is popular. I see posters on the trains and around Tokyo. Even in the countryside where I live, it took three different trips to the video store to finally get my hands on the DVD, which I needed to return within 25 hours. Not 24, mind you.

In general, I support the Second Amendment and don’t want to see gun control implemented across America. Thus, I went into this film on my guard. It didn’t take long to let my guard down and just watch because Moore does an exemplary job of not pushing any viewpoint. Even by the end of the film, he has not advanced any opinions. He just asks questions and points out holes in the positions held by others.

For example, the basic question of the film is, “Why do so many Americans shoot each other?” Moore is not being rhetorical. He really wants to know the answer and is clear about not having it himself. The lack of an agenda is what disarmed this viewer and made me want to find the answer as well.

One knee-jerk reaction is that Americans shoot each other because there are so many guns available. But Moore points out that Canadians have lots of guns and a history of hunting, but they don’t shoot each other.

Another idea is that America has a violent history. But what country doesn’t? Look at Germany, England, and Japan. Each has in its history a time of mass killing and psychopathic violence. Yet, the Germans, English, and Japanese aren’t shooting each other.

Moore’s favorite silly argument is that it’s America’s violent culture as embodied by fighting video games and the music of Marilyn Manson. However, the violent video games are from Japan and other countries have music every bit as violent and subterranean as Manson’s.

So what is the problem? Although the film doesn’t give a conclusive answer, it seems that Moore’s best shot is at the government and corporate America. The U.S. government is engaged in a war at all times, it seems. In fact, on the very day of the Columbine massacre, America dropped its greatest one-day barrage of bombs on Kosovo. Martin Lockheed, the world’s largest weapons maker, is located near Columbine High School. Moore hints that perhaps kids don’t see much difference between daddy making missiles to kill foreigners and children taking guns to school to kill classmates. The news covers America’s many scenes of violence like an addict. Together, these factors make Americans fear their neighbors, buy guns, lock their doors, and sometimes crack under paranoid pressure. When that happens, people get shot.

At the end of the film, Moore makes a trip to Beverly Hills to interview Charlton Heston, the actor and former president of the National Rifle Association. How that interview went so badly for Heston is hard to figure out. He comes across as a confused old man, not knowing the slightest thing about history or showing evidence of having ever thought about social issues in America. I’ve heard Heston speak on the issue of gun control and the right to keep and bear arms. He’s an eloquent speaker and intelligent. How, then, could this interview have been so bad?

First, it’s easy to show only an interviewee’s bad moments. We see maybe five minutes with Heston and it’s possible that Moore chose those five minutes carefully in order to show Heston in a bad light. Second, Heston may have just had a bad day.

Moore asks Heston why he supports the right to keep weapons and Heston answers in boilerplate that it was good enough for our forefathers and it’s good enough for him. Does he need a loaded gun for self defense? Well, no, but nonetheless it’s his right to have one.

So far, so good. There’s nothing particularly wrong about any of that. Then, however, Moore begins asking Heston why Americans shoot each other. Mind you, there is no answer to this question. Heston, however, reacts incorrectly by thinking that he’s under attack. You can see in his face that he’s thinking, “Oh hell, here we go” and adopts his defend-the-NRA posture. He offers that perhaps it’s America’s violent past.

Moore seizes on that one, having already made the point earlier in the film that Nazi Germany was more violent than anything in America’s past and still Germans don’t shoot each other nearly as often as Americans do. “More violent than Nazi Germany?” he asks Heston. “Well, no, not more violent than Germany,” Heston replies. Moore then goes through a list of other countries that have violent pasts and Heston then feels like he’s made a fool of himself for not knowing that other countries have violent pasts, too.

The big mistake on his part, however, was not realizing that it’s not a poor reflection on the NRA or the Second Amendment if other countries were just as violent as America but do not have their citizens shooting each other. Heston gets bent out of shape for making a wayward comment on a topic that isn’t pertinent to his organization.

He makes an even bigger mistake when he suggests that there are a lot of guns available in America, so maybe that’s the reason. Moore shoots that one down by pointing out that Canadians have many guns without the high rate of violence. At which point, Heston should have said, “That’s a key bit of information that we at the NRA have been trying to make known for years. The availability of guns is NOT what causes gun violence. Our bumper sticker puts it succinctly: People kill people, guns don’t kill people. I’m glad you agree, Michael.”

That Heston does not jump on this chance is disappointing. Now, as I said, he may have done so and found his strongest moments on the cutting room floor. We’ll never know. But if what is shown in the film is close to the whole interview with Heston, he should be ashamed for missing the opportunity that Moore gave him to defend the NRA.

The film does not make a strong case against gun availability. It hints at it by being delighted when K-mart chooses to stop selling handgun ammunition, and by making fun of a bank that gives away a free gun with a new account. But remember that it’s Moore who shows the wide availability of guns in Canada. Presumably, the Canadians can also buy ammunition. The ever-present fact of Canada having a lot of guns but little violence makes Bowling For Columbine rather NRA-friendly, in my book. But Heston misses that entirely and falls to the mat.

Once Moore has Heston on the mat through Heston’s own poor reaction, he goes for the throat by asking why Heston and the NRA appeared at rallies in Denver shortly after Columbine and at another city shortly after a school shooting. He asks Heston to apologize for the insensitivity and that ends the interview. Heston pats Moore on the shoulder and exits the room. Moore walks after him with a picture of the shooting victim, asking Heston not to walk away, to please at least look at the little girl.

All of which makes for good film if you want to paint Heston in a bad light. What I couldn’t shake off was Heston’s poor performance. Had I been in his shoes, I would have, first of all, made the point about Moore’s own evidence showing that gun availability is not the main factor behind America’s shootings. Having established that, I would have easily defended my decision to appear at pre-scheduled rallies after the sad incidents that happened there.

“We grieve, too,” I would have said. “We are the nation’s largest advocate of gun safety. We do not change our schedule because we have no reason to be ashamed. The NRA is often singled out as an evil organization that loves gun violence. We are not. We are an organization that protects the rights of Americans to have guns. For us to NOT appear in areas where people have misused their guns would imply that we agree with the stigma attached to our organization, which we don’t. Therefore, we stick to our schedule regardless of current events.”

Even if you don’t agree with the above, it’s clearly a much better way to have handled the facts that were available in the interview. I wish Heston or another member of the NRA could do the interview over again. I’m sure Heston wishes that as well. If he had been a little less defensive and a little more attentive to what Moore was saying, he would have been able to participate in what amounted to a conversation rather than a lost debate.

After all, what’s wrong with anybody concluding the same way Michael Moore does? Namely, that we don’t know why Americans shoot each other. Heston could have just said that. Nobody knows. It’s not the guns. It’s not the music. It’s not our violent past. The government? Maybe. Corporate America? Maybe. But even those smack of convenient bogeymen. In the end, we don’t know.

I recommend this film.

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