As the gun debate divides America, we’re unified in our love for movie heroes who pack heat. We look at how firearms end up on-screen and find out whose finger is on the trigger.
“So, are you ready to fire a machine gun?” In reply, I smile. My anticipation has been building for more than an hour—ever since the tour began in the revolver room, a place that would feel familiar to any policeman from the 1970s (like, say, Dirty Harry Callahan). Larry Zanoff, a former soldier in the Israeli military and one of Hollywood’s most sought-after armorers, guides me from the revolver room to the Western room, where I gawk at Gatling guns, lever-action rifles and double-barreled shotguns, brand-new and gleaming, racked floor to ceiling in perfect order by year and manufacturer. “There’s a misconception that the guns people see in movies are fake,” Zanoff says. “Most of these are reproductions, but they’re real.”
Soon I’m fingering a German Luger from World War I, cradling a Japanese matchlock rifle from the 1500s and, later, shamelessly posing with a vintage 18th century dueling pistol. But the highlight of my tour through Hollywood’s biggest armory, where some 16,000 weapons are stored in six rooms, is the NFA room—named for the 1934 National Firearms Act, which placed strict regulations on machine guns in the Al Capone heyday of bootleggers, bank robbers and public gangland hits. On display here are grenade launchers, mortar tubes, 50-caliber machine guns, sniper rifles and racks of assault weapons, including— ironically—dozens of semiautomatic AR-15s.
Although the commercial sale of automatic weapons manufactured after 1986 remains prohibited in the United States, the semiauto market is booming and legal, and its biggest star, thanks to its versatility and reliability, is the AR-15. You’ve heard of it. It’s often stockpiled by those preparing for the apocalypse and publicly flaunted by open-carry zealots. It has had a leading role in more than one of our country’s mass shootings, and judging by recent history, it’s likely to play a vital part in the next big production starring a psychopath near you.
As I drove that morning through picturesque suburban horse country to the converted government compound northwest of downtown Los Angeles that houses Independent Studio Services—Hollywood’s preeminent prop house—I kept thinking of the AR-15 and wondering if there’s a credible link between Hollywood and gun violence in America. And I hated myself for it. I grew up in the 1980s, when those Tipper Gore–inspired Parental Advisory labels on CDs smacked as much of Bible-thumping censorship as they did of concern for kids. This is why I typically don’t blame creatives for what ails us as a culture, but then June and July happened.
It began with the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando on June 12. Next came Alton Sterling (July 5), Philando Castile (July 6), Dallas (July 7) and Baton Rouge (July 17). Innocent civilians and innocent cops, all killed for no good reason within days of one another. It was tragic and horrifying, and the resulting anger, grief, conflict and political opportunism saturated America. Then in the midst of it came the marketing rollout for Jason Bourne. The poster was stylish, minimalist, with a background as black as a midnight shadow, showing only a sliver of Matt Damon stepping into the light to aim his Sig Sauer P229R pistol.
Given the timing, it wasn’t a good look. Tami Sagher, co-executive producer of Girls, posted on her Instagram and Twitter feeds an image of the ad, taken at a subway stop, with the gun torn off. She suggested New Yorkers start tearing the Sig off all the Bourne posters. “So tired of guns,” she wrote. Lena Dunham shared the post, and suddenly a backlash was brewing so loudly that Damon addressed it and Universal switched to a poster featuring the actor sans weapon.
Granted, politics pairs with Hollywood only slightly better than it does with Facebook and Twitter, but Sagher and Dunham were hinting at important, systemic questions we should all consider. Does Hollywood embolden a Chicago drive-by shooting or an ambush of officers on the job? Does it inspire the itchy trigger finger of jumpy cops on patrol or the work of spun-out mass shooters who choose to salve their pain with innocent blood? Does it condition us to gawk, grieve, then shrug our collective shoulders and move on until the next episode? In other words, does Hollywood have a gun problem?
If film sets are dictatorships, then directors are emperors, which means making the final call on which guns their characters will use. It’s up to armorers like Zanoff to break down a script and narrow the director’s choices. If the script specifies a particular gun, Zanoff will oblige, but more often he factors in the script’s historical time period and the character’s background and skill to determine which guns to bring to the director for a “show-and-tell.” There’s a reason Hollywood productions rely on folks like Zanoff and ISS to stockpile and handle weapons for them: government regulations.
“We provide a legality,” Zanoff says. “Again, these are all real guns; we can’t just give them to people. So we’re responsible for safety, and we often do actor training and gunfight choreography too.” ISS has nine armorers on staff, including two gunsmiths who modify weapons—say, for wars waged in some future or fantasy world— and, more important, convert them to shoot only blanks. Live ammo is never fired on set.
ISS and other armories have to be prepared for such a wide range of stories that they usually source their stock well in advance, but not always. And though guns were flashed on-screen before “talkies” became a thing, it wasn’t until 1971 that gun manufacturers first recognized the value of having their weapons featured in a hit movie.
“It started with Dirty Harry,” says David Fencl, another A-list armorer with films such as Zero Dark Thirty, 13 Hours and the Transformers franchise to his credit. Sales of the titular character’s weapon of choice, Smith & Wesson’s Model 29, “skyrocketed after that movie,” says Fencl, who operates out of his own Nevada-based shop, Point Blank Props.
“Nobody knew when they put that revolver in Clint’s hand that it would boost sales, because no law enforcement officer ever carried that gun,” Zanoff adds. “It was an oddball thing.”
“It was designed for fishermen in Alaska to protect themselves against bears,” Fencl says. But that didn’t stop fans of the movie—and fans of guns—from buying the model, and it wasn’t the last time gun guys bought weapons or ammo ill-suited for their needs.
Zanoff experienced the power of motion pictures before he was in show business. In the mid-1980s he worked at a small manufacturer called Calico Light Weapons Systems. Its signature gun, the Calico, was featured in Total Recall, the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger film. When Zanoff went to work on the Monday after the movie opened, the company’s voice mail was filled with messages from people who wanted those exploding rounds they’d just seen in the movie. “And we were like, ‘It was a movie. There are no exploding rounds in nine millimeter for this gun,’ ” he says. But munitions manufacturers soon caught wind of the demand and built an exploding round for the Calico.
Zanoff calls it “life imitating art,” and weapons companies noticed. “After Dirty Harry, manufacturers realized that getting their product into a film is worth millions in advertising,” he says. Today many weapons companies regularly ship their best goods to film armorers, hoping to make the cut.
“We do see value in being placed in a movie, and on TV shows too,” says Kevin Wilkerson, marketing manager for Arkansas-based Walther Arms, maker of the sleek and stylish PPK handgun preferred by James Bond. “Armorers contact me sometimes, and we’ll donate product, but I haven’t dealt with any who pay for it.”
Sometimes preferential treatment extends beyond swag weaponry. In late 2013, Fencl was in Amman, Jordan working on Zero Dark Thirty. In the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, two SEAL Team Six members carried HK417 fully automatic rifles, but at the time the cameras were rolling, that model was available only to armed forces. Then, just as director Kathryn Bigelow was preparing to shoot the raid scene, news broke that a civilian version of the weapon, the MR308, was about to come out. Fencl placed a call to the manufacturer, Heckler & Koch.
“Everyone wanted them,” he says, “but I told them about the movie, and they sent me the first two ever made.”
Sometimes weapons manufacturers ask for stipulations. When Fencl was hired last year to work on Patriots Day, the Peter Berg film about the Boston Marathon bombing due out this January, he discovered that the Boston cops on the subsequent manhunt had been carrying Glocks. “Glock typically wants you to sign something saying it won’t be given to a bad guy,” Fencl says. “Luckily the Tsarnaev brothers didn’t use a Glock, so I signed.”
Zanoff and ISS refuse to make such guarantees. “We don’t promise any- thing as far as who will hold it or how,” Zanoff says. “Too many decisions get made on the fly.”
Some companies are willing to buy assurances. Another Peter Berg film, Lone Survivor, a surprise hit starring Mark Wahlberg, became a poster child for firearms product integration after its 2014 release. The film tells the tale of a Navy SEAL team that was overrun in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2005. Although the real-life SEALs carried Sigs that day, firearms manufacturer Beretta reportedly paid $250,000 to ensure that when Matthew “Axe” Axelson (played by Ben Foster) runs out of ammo for his rifle, he fires his Beretta M9 pistol instead.
Rolfe Auerbach, CEO of Brand In Entertainment, brokered that deal. Auerbach has been in product integration since 1996, and he insists Lone Survivor isn’t an anomaly. “We’ve worked with a number of gun companies,” he says. He scoffs at the reported amount Beretta paid to place its product in the movie and suggests it was higher, though he won’t say for sure. He claims Beretta got its money’s worth. “They did very well, and that’s all I will tell you,” he says.
ISS has also inked product-integration deals for firearms, though Zanoff insists it’s rare. More often, he encounters directors who demand bigger, better and newer. “Every movie that comes out, especially nowadays, has to top the last one,” he says.
Is that because we’ve seen too much? Have we, the audience, become addicts who need a more potent fix to feel something? If so, there is a cure. No matter how thrilling the action in a movie, it can’t compete with the real thing.
After the tour of ISS, Zanoff escorts me to the house gun range and hands me a Heckler & Koch MP5A2 submachine gun. It feels light when I lift it to shoulder level, squint through the sight and point it at a metallic wall. There’s no target because we’re shooting blanks, which means no kickback either. But when I squeeze the trigger, the barrel flames and spent shells spout from the chamber, clattering at my feet— just like in the movies. “Can I do it again?” I ask. This time Zanoff cracks a smile.
Sales of Dirty Harry’s weapon of choice, the Smith & Wesson Model 29, skyrocketed after the movie came out.
So yeah, I liked it, but I couldn’t determine if that was because of the experience itself or because I associate guns with the heroes and stories I love. In other words, was my thrill theoretical or physical? Perhaps it was both.
The next time I fire a weapon is only a few weeks later. My gun of choice: a Heckler & Koch G36. This time, instead of standing I’m sitting in a tent set up in the parking lot of the Forum in Inglewood, California, and the trigger I’m tickling is that of a game console. In a few seconds a row of unshaven millennial men and I—plus a woman or two—will drop into a game of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered.
First-person shooters such as Call of Duty dominate the video game market because they combine the experience of being a hero on the battlefield with the fantasy that only a good story can provide. The sounds, graph- ics and characters pull you in, and the thrill of scoring a direct hit and beating your friends heightens the rush.
While I sit in a tent with the regular folk, Michael Phelps, Derrick Rose and Karl-Anthony Towns are in a VIP room somewhere, doing battle. The carnival-like event, Call of Duty XP, is a fan celebration—Activision’s first in five years—and people have flown in from all over the world to at- tend. It’s also a buzz builder for the forthcoming release of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. The event features four tents for playing the game, a paintball battlefield, a virtual-reality space made from converted storage containers, a championship e-sports tournament in the Forum itself, military vehicles on display and a zip line.
Call of Duty is a gaming Goliath. Each new release is the biggest entertainment launch of the year. Last year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III earned Activision $550 million in just three days, and the video game business as a whole dwarfs Hollywood, making it an easy target following a mass shooting.
After the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre took a shot at the industry. “There exists in this country… a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people,” he said.“Vicious, violent video games.”
Don’t blame the guns, LaPierre argued; blame video games. That’s a leap, but if millions of kids spend endless hours playing first-person shooter games, it does seem fair to wonder if they may become desensitized or even conditioned to violence. Of course, LaPierre, reductionist that he is, left a few things out. Like the fact that weapons companies collaborate with video game developers and designers to make the games look, sound and feel like the real thing.
No video game company contacted for this story agreed to go on the record about its relationship with gun companies, but Mark DeLoura, former senior advisor for digital media in the White House and a 20-year veteran of the gaming industry, has personally witnessed game designers firing weapons at a shooting range and recording the various sounds for their games. “Realism has be- come so important,” he says. “Anything game designers can do to make it more realistic, they’ll do, because they want realism and their players want realism.”
“Weapons manufacturers have CAD diagrams, the original 3-D models,” says Simon Parkin, author of Death by Video Game, “so they can just send all that information to the video game developer. Because they’re also working within 3-D software engines, they’re able to exactly replicate the weapon. I know that happens in the Call of Duty franchise.”
An anonymous source at Activision says that the company licenses the weapons featured in Call of Duty. Translation: Activision pays the manufacturers of the weapons featured in its video games. The scope of each licensing agreement is unknown. It could be a one-time payment or a small percentage of each game sold. Either way, it sure looks as though gun companies—and therefore the NRA—are partially funded by your Call of Duty dollar.
The larger impact of weaponized media is less clear. “It’s marketing,” DeLoura says. “People see a weapon in a game and maybe they want that gun because it’s cool.”
Still, no hard statistics can prove a link between gun purchases and video games, and the overwhelming majority of academics agree there’s no credible cause-and-effect relationship between the consumption of violent media—games, films or TV—and an increase in gun violence.
“If it’s a factor, it’s 25th out of 25 factors on a list,” says University of Wisconsin professor Constance Steinkuehler, who studies video games, education and game-based learning. “Poverty, mental health issues and gun control are all much more significant.”
“I haven’t found much evidence that watching violent movies or playing violent video games makes people angry, more aggressive or is even correlated to violent crime,” says Stetson University psychology professor Christopher Ferguson, who has published widely on the subject. In fact, the opposite may be true.
A 2014 study out of Villanova University en- titled “Violent Video Games and Real-World Violence: Rhetoric Versus Data” notes that when new versions of popular video games are released—including especially violent ones such as Call of Duty—violent crime among young people drops considerably because so many kids are attached to their game consoles, at least for a while.
Still, I can’t shake the thought that the media help boost familiarity with weapons, which breeds increased popularity. And it isn’t the fault of Hollywood and the video game industry alone; toss the news and social media into the mix as well. Consider that in the days after the Orlando massacre, when it was erroneously reported that the shooter, Omar Mateen, had used an AR-15, Google searches for that weapon spiked. When it became clear he had used a Sig Sauer MCX, searches for that weapon spiked. People wanted to see the gun he’d used, and some almost certainly bought one for themselves, which brings us back to the gun-loving liberals of Hollywood and their most powerful weapon of all: stories.
For millennia, stories—especially hero tales—have been used to influence and reflect human life. Joseph Campbell, anthropologist and author of the seminal Hero With a Thousand Faces, became famous for documenting the hero’s journey in myths and legends from cultures around the world. George Lucas consciously integrated Campbell’s work into Star Wars. Legions of filmmakers followed suit, and today’s heroes are almost always armed for their journey with a gun.
“I think Call of Duty enables gamers to act out fantasies of empowerment—to be a hero and live an epic life—in a fictionalized world,” Steinkuehler says, “and to be honest, that doesn’t frighten me.”
But what if the unhinged among us are telling themselves their own hero story? Didn’t a crazed Gavin Long—who, don’t forget, was a marine—see himself as a hero on the day he killed three cops in Baton Rouge? What about Mateen in Orlando or Micah Johnson, another veteran, in Dallas? They all fantasized and plotted, but most important, they all had access to assault weapons despite their mental health issues. We as voters, and the politicians who claim to serve us, can’t seem to overcome the NRA’s congressional choke hold, even though nine out of 10 Americans—gun lovers and haters alike—support universal background checks.
The whole world watches Hollywood movies and plays the same violent video games, yet firearms-related murders are 25 times higher in the United States than in other developed nations—because we have more guns on the street.
Maybe the real problem isn’t Hollywood the influencer but Hollywood the reflection. We’re all so comfortable watching the same damn movies, playing the same games and feigning the same outrage and heartache, we’ve become too blind to see the laser sight settling right between our eyes.