Review of Bowling for Columbine, a film by Michael Moore

Saturday, 23 August 2003

If you want to kick back, relax, and veg out in front of the TV with a lighthearted video next weekend, don't rent Bowling for Columbine. However, if you want to be confronted with tough questions about the culture of violence that reigns in America, and if you're ready to think hard about the issues, by all means rent this documentary.

Michael Moore, the director of this film, focuses his attention on the massacre that occurred at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. He interviews students, parents, police officers, and other citizens of Littleton and Denver in his search for the cause of the irrational violence that day. The documentary is not just about the Columbine massacre, though. Moore uses that incident as a springboard for investigating the violence, especially gun violence, that seems to pervade American culture, distinguishing us from other economically developed nations that otherwise seem to be most like us. The United States, according to Moore, has 11,127 gun deaths "each year." This compares with 381 in Germany, 255 in France, 165 in Canada, 68 in the United Kingdom, 65 in Australia, and 39 in Japan. Even when adjustments are made for the differences in population, the point of these statistics is staggering: gun deaths per capita in the United States are an order of magnitude greater than in other developed countries, except for Japan, where the difference is two orders of magnitude.

The question for which Moore is seeking an answer is, "What is the root cause of the violence?" Although he suggests that part of the answer may be that we live in a constant state of fear, he doesn't offer any simple answer to his question. He does, however, debunk some common myths.

It seems that there is no simple reason for the staggeringly high rate of gun violence in the United States. Instead, Moore suggests a combination of factors. First, Moore believes that a climate of fear is prevalent here that is not found in the other countries mentioned. The fear is caused in part by newscasts that glorify violence: "if it bleeds, it leads." It is exacerbated by a national history that views war as the tool of preference in many international disputes. Since September 11, even the federal government seems intent on reminding citizens of the constant threat of terrorism (have we been below Yellow Alert once since the Homeland Security people came up with the colorized alert scheme?). He could have added, but didn't, that the U.S. is the only one of the countries in question that continues to have capital punishment, which arguably leads to a cheapened view of human life (I, for one, would argue that it does).

Another partial cause of our culture of violence is poverty and the poor social safety net. Moore shows a Canadian "slum," which contrasts starkly with many U.S. urban areas, especially many government housing projects. He discusses the problems of welfare to work programs that take parents out the home for too many hours per day, thus reducing the time that they can spend with their children. As an illustration of this problem, he tells the heartrending story of a woman on the welfare to work program in Michigan, who, though working two jobs and as many as seventy hours per week, was enable to make her rent payments. On the verge of eviction, she left her son at her brother's house, where he found a gun, took it to school, and shot a female classmate. Both the boy and the girl were six years old.

Though Moore does not explicitly blame the prevalence of guns in the U.S. for the violence we experience--he's a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association--he does imply that both the number and types of guns easily available, as well as ammunition, is another factor in the number of annual gun deaths. In the film, he takes some former students who were wounded in the Columbine massacre and goes with them to K-Mart's headquarters, where he talks the company into pulling certain types of ammunition from their stores. He also has an amusing interview with NRA president Charlton Heston, who is likewise unable to explain why so many people are killed each year in the U.S. with guns, though he's sure the number of guns around couldn't be the problem.

Since I'm not a member of the NRA, I would have liked to have seen Moore push the case harder that the number of guns in the U.S. is a strongly contributing factor to the number of gun deaths. It may not be the only factor, but it's pretty obvious that getting rid of guns, particularly handguns and assault rifles, would reduce the number of annual gun deaths dramatically. After all, who's every heard of a drive-by knifing? If we examine the statistics for gun deaths in industrialized countries again, we'll see that the U.K. and Japan, which have the strictest laws, have far fewer gun deaths per year than the other countries. And Canada, where the number of guns per capita is closest to that of the U.S., has the second highest rate of gun violence among those countries considered. The fact that the Canadian rate of gun deaths is still much lower than that of the U.S. might reflect a lower percentage of handguns in comparison with rifles in the overall mix of guns available. Gun prevalence is not the only factor in the disparity between gun violence in the U.S. and in the other countries, but it's an important one.

I'm also not totally convinced that fear plays as much of a role in American violence as Moore suggests. If violent song lyrics and violent video games don't significantly increase actual violence (a debatable issue, but since all the countries examined have both, they aren't the cause of the characteristic American predilection for gun violence), why would violent news broadcasts increase violence? Yes, newscasts represent events in the real world, while songs and videos do not to the same extent, but I have a hard time believing that switching to Canadian-style news would reduce gun deaths in the U.S. (There would be other benefits, however, such as focusing on issues rather than hype, and occasionally mentioning international news where the U.S. was not directly involved.) Moore has an amusing segment where, after talking to several Canadians who tell him that they never lock their houses, he walks down a street and succeeds in opening the front doors on every house he tries. This stunt is supposed to demonstrate that typical Canadians live in less fear than typical Americans. That may be true. On the other hand, I never lock my door in the middle of the day when I'm home, and I would bet that many Americans, particularly those living in small towns and rural areas, routinely leave their doors unlocked. It's clear that Moore hasn't demonstrated convincingly that fear is greater in the U.S. than elsewhere, much less that it leads to increased gun deaths. Nevertheless, it is an interesting idea, and one that may well have some truth in it.

Michael Moore is an outlandish spokesperson for many liberal positions. He supported Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader, mercilessly lampoons George W. Bush every opportunity he gets, and considers Bill Clinton "one of the best Republican Presidents we've ever had" (Stupid White Men, p. 211). His acceptance speech at the Academy Awards last year, where he received the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for this film, was audacious and very anti-Bush. I'm not sure, but his speech may be the reason that my regular video store isn't carrying his video. I happen to agree with most of his political views, as far as I know them. But regardless of whether you do or not, you need to rent (or buy) Bowling for Columbine. It's examination of gun violence in America is disturbing, enlightening, frequently humorous, and even poignant at times. Like any good movie, you'll spend more time discussing it after it's over than you spent watching it in the first place.

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