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Is Hollywood Feeling the Heat for Its Gun Culture?

Mass shootings and violent clashes between police and minorities may have helped to create a climate of squeamishness in an unlikely place: Hollywood.
FOX's \"24: Legacy\" - Season One
Corey Hawkins in Fox's 24: Legacy.Fox via Getty Images

A rash of recent mass shootings and violent clashes between police and people of color may have helped to create a climate of squeamishness around gun culture in an unlikely place -- Hollywood.

For years, critics mostly on the right have laid at least part of blame for acts of gun violence on the images and plot lines emanating from the film, music and television industries. While their defenders have always cited the difference between art and reality, as well as persuasive arguments that fictional content doesn't drive people to kill.

And yet, Fox has decided to at least downplay the presence of firearms in the promotional material for two of their upcoming action-oriented shows: a TV version of the hit "Lethal Weapon" film series, starring Damon Wayans, and a reboot of their infamously violent thriller series "24."

“What we focus mostly on is that our shows not be gratuitously violent, that violence fits within the world of the storytelling and that overwhelmingly what we’re doing feels like entertainment and not gratuitous or something that feels like a documentary," Fox chairman Dana Walden told Entertainment Weekly in a recent interview.

"You have to hit a balance. They’re trying to create stories that are relevant in this day and age and feel heightened and have life and death stakes and take place in a cop world or in the world of terrorism, it’s hard to imagine that without any violence, so it’s just trying to find the right balance," she added.

A Fox spokesperson told NBC New that while guns will not appear in the key art for “Lethal Weapon,” they may appear in other materials.

"While we salute Fox’s decision to not glamorize gun violence in the 'Lethal Weapon' campaign, it’s important to note that guns on movie posters aren’t why the U.S. has a gun murder rate 25 times higher than other developed nations -- all of which watch the same movies we do," Jason Rzepka, director of cultural engagement for Everytown for Gun Safety, told NBC News in a statement. "The core problem is easy access to firearms and millions of Americans are coming together to fix that problem."

"As a parent, yeah I am always concerned about violence on TV and video games," added Josh Horwitz, the executive director of the Coalition to End Gun Violence, in an interview with NBC News. "But as someone who believes in evidence, there's none that supports the idea that violence on TV causes violence in real life. That's why we don't focus on this."

Fox's decision comes on the heels of a backlash against advertisements for the new blockbuster Jason Bourne movie. Actress Lena Dunham was one of many voices that decried ads featuring star Matt Damon aiming a gun with a steely expression, and her public shaming put the progressive actor in an awkward position.

"I totally get it. I mean especially given what's going on recently, and I get not wanting to see a picture of a gun right now, and I don't blame [Lena] at all," Damon told E! News in July." I mean for the marketing purposes of 'Jason Bourne' -- I mean he is a guy who runs around with a gun, so it's not gratuitous marketing, but certainly in light of recent events I understand that impulse to want to tear the gun out of the picture."

Hollywood has long walked an uncomfortable line on the issue of gun control. While it is presumed that most members of the industry lean left politically, so much of their product features heavy gun play -- and always has. One of cinema's first truly iconic images was of Justus D. Barnes looking direct to camera and shooting at the screen in the landmark 1903 film "The Great Train Robbery."

The classic western and gangster dramas that were rife with rifles and "Tommy" guns have given way to the modern comic book genre that is often headlined by gun-toting anti-heroes like Deadpool. So when progressive Hollywood stars and activists try to wade into the gun control debate, it often falls on deaf ears -- or even worse, they're called hypocrites.

Just ask A-list actor Liam Neeson. The 64-year-old has enjoyed a career resurrection over the last decade in mostly violent action films where bullets fly with abandon, so when he declared there are "too many f****** guns" in the U.S. during an interview in Dubai last January, he opened himself up to attacks from pro-gun critics.

Director Quentin Tarantino faced calls for a boycott when he dared to speak out publicly against police brutality and shootings at a RiseUpOctober rally in New York City last fall. It's unclear whether his outspoken stance hurt his most recent film "The Hateful Eight" financially, but his own penchant for making gory films drew more scrutiny following his statements.

As did Damon, when he unfavorably compared U.S. gun policy to Australia's last month. "You guys did it here in one fell swoop, and I wish that could happen in my country, but it's such a personal issue for people that we cannot talk about it sensibly. We just can't," he said while promoting the new Bourne film in Sydney.

"Matt Damon — Who Made His Fortune Toting Guns In Films — Wants Australian-Style Gun Control," read a terse headline from the conservative Daily Caller, following his statement.

"Not only do we have a policy debate going on in this country, we have a cultural debate," said Horwitz. "If celebrities stand up on the right side of the debate, that's a good thing."

Still, it's hard to imagine Hollywood abandoning guns wholesale, especially since they are such a huge part of escapist storytelling. But there is some precedent for the industry policing itself. The widely derided MPAA ratings system has been in place for nearly 50 years for better or worse, although it has been notorious for censoring sexually explicit material over violence.

In the late 1990s, there was a big push from state lawmakers and anti-tobacco activists to end the romanticization of smoking in Hollywood productions (this coincided with a presidential call to mitigate violence in movies, too). But despite years of effort from groups like Smoke Free Films and researchers from Harvard University to get films that feature tobacco use to be R-rated, the presence of cigars and cigarettes in movies has decreased, but not dramatically, even in children's films. And in recent years it has far outpaced actual real-life tobacco use.

On guns, Hollywood is in a similar holding pattern, with a widely reported 2013 study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania determining that gun play was actually on the rise in the movies, particular in youth-skewing PG-13 fare. The study also determined that violence overall in Hollywood films had doubled since 1950.

The findings later inspired New York Post columnist Sara Stewart to pen a column calling for Hollywood to ban guns for a year. "Imagine it: a year without any firearms in film. How much would they really be missed? Think back to your favorite recent movies," she wrote last June. "How many of their most memorable scenes were gunfights? Guns are where a movie goes when it can’t think of anything better to do. They are lazy and dull. They reliably make a movie less fun and more earsplitting."

Still, Stewart shouldn't hold her breath. The number one movie in America, "Suicide Squad" -- which broke the all-time August box office opening record last weekend despite tepid reviews -- is chock-full of shoot-'em-ups. And, it too is rated PG-13.