The music throbs. Scenes splash onto the television screen, MTV-style. Handguns glisten, holstered on hips. A handgun fills a full frame alluringly. Gun manufacturers advertising on television? No, it's the commercial for a film "updated for the '90s" about two star-crossed teenage lovers. Since most of us know Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," we can imagine what role handguns will play.
Recent studies have found that certain segments of the entertainment industry are responding to audiences fed up with violence. Mediascope's National Television Violence Study and, this fall, the UCLA Center for Communications Policy study found that with the cooperation of TV industry leaders, the picture on television violence has improved. What these studies did not measure, however, is the fear-mongering factor or the incidence of outright propaganda.
When executive producer-actor Cybill Shepherd's character bought a handgun in a recent episode of the CBS comedy series after her home was robbed, millions of viewers got a pumped-up laugh track of a sales pitch that was so one-sided it could have been written by the gun lobby: Women. Handguns. Sexy. Empowering. Cool. Women Against Gun Violence, a coalition of 116 organizations representing thousands of women and men, can only wonder what these representatives of the entertainment industry possibly could be thinking. Have we become so inured to gun violence that handguns have become a mere sitcom plot device or the lure for our kids' movie-going dollars?
Television has a unique responsibility. While network viewership may be down, millions of families are still susceptible to the programs or commercials coming into our homes, particularly those that seem benign.
As too many women who have lost children to gun violence can attest, there's nothing funny, smart, glamorous or powerful about these weapons. Considering the fact that more than half of all murder victims are killed by someone they know, it is simply irresponsible to suggest otherwise.
Not to mention the fact that two-thirds of all domestic fatalities involved guns. Or that having a gun in the home triples the risk of shooting among family members, and increases the risk of suicide by five times, or that guns are now the leading killer of kids in California.
In the "Cybill" episode on Oct. 14, Shepherd's character bought a handgun after having spent not an iota of time struggling with the moral dilemma of having a gun in the home. This is a household with two ex-husbands and other assorted family members coming and going at all times of the day and night, and a vodka-swilling best friend hellbent on avenging her divorce. Add her unwary, curious grandchild to this reckless mix and you have an episode fraught with dangers but played for laughs.
Contrary to popular belief, women have resisted the gun manufacturers' fear-mongering sales pitches. The Smith and Smith study (University of Chicago) released earlier this year found that between 1980 and 1994, gun ownership by women remained steady, at between 4.5% and 8%.
The unbalanced "Cybill" episode would have the audience think otherwise. "A lot of my women friends have guns," says one character, who later invokes suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton by misleadingly quoting her in the context of gun ownership: "Elizabeth Cady Stanton said women will continue to be the victims of men until they learn how to use the weapons of men."
For shame. What is "Cybill" teaching our daughters? Stanton, as anyone knows, was talking about the right to vote, not handguns.
Handguns alone are not responsible for the epidemic of gun violence, but their proliferation measurably contributes to this deadly cycle. Guns are not sexy. Or cool. Or empowering. They are dangerous to the women who own them and the families they love.
Our real power rests in breaking the cycle by supporting the kind of policies that stem the tide of gun sales and address the underlying causes of violence, and the kind of entertainment that de-glamorizes and de-trivializes guns.
Our children are counting on all of us.
Susan Shaw is the executive director of Women Against Gun Violence in Los Angeles.