Research In Action

Research In Action

movies and guns
Movies and Guns: Violence Beyond The Screen
August 17, 2021

Storytelling in Hollywood movies has long relied on use of guns, be it in gangster movies from the 1930s to superhero science fiction movies of today. Offscreen, however, gun violence remains a growing epidemic. Some American neighborhoods may be as tragically action-packed as gangster movies, given how easy it can be to obtain assault-style guns.

“Justified” Use of Gun Violence

Our research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center has shown that gun portrayal in PG-13 movies and TV-14 television shows has dramatically increased in the past two decades. Gun portrayal has more than doubled in PG-13 movies, even exceeding the levels seen in R-rated movies. Parents of children ages 15 and older are also likely to deem violent screen narratives as acceptable when guns are used for justified reasons, including self-defense or defense of others from threats.

We also found similar patterns of gun violence approval in younger individuals. In our study of older adolescents ages 18-22, viewing movie clips of “justified” gun violence was tracked by areas of the brain typically associated with approval. However, their brains displayed a pattern associated with disapproval when viewing clips of gun violence felt to be unjustified.

What makes guns so unique as a consumer product is that they are not advertised to the general public in popular media, such as TV, magazines, or social media. But they don’t need to be because the gun industry understands that Hollywood can and will feature guns as a form of self defense. Not only does this continue to promote guns, but it also stokes fear and creates the perceived need to possess a gun for self protection.

Lessons From Cigarettes

Research exploring the association between media portrayal of smoking and adolescent cigarette use demonstrated that screen media content is more likely to influence younger viewers. While we have yet to understand this same association with guns, our research has found that the proportion of homicides committed with guns from 2000-2018 (especially among youth and young adults ages 15-24) coincided with an increase in the proportion of gun use in violent TV show scenes during the same time period.

A Call to Action

To combat the insidious and negative impact of screen gun violence, I suggest prioritizing the following short-term goals:

• Pressure the entertainment industry to reduce gun use in movies/TV dramas as they did for tobacco. Movies can be made to be just as compelling without the excessive use of gun violence.

• Conduct further research on exposure to guns in entertainment, especially among adolescents, so we can identify the youth most at risk of imitation.

• Hold gun manufacturers accountable for potential harms of their product due to advertising and product placement in entertainment.

• Advocate for greater restriction of the sale of combat-style handguns, which are popular in entertainment and used most often in homicides.

Click here for more information on entertainment media and gun violence.