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One Nation Under the Gun

One Nation LogoThe past year has been a prolific one for films concerning violence. Among the powerful films coming out are Katie Couric’s documentary about gun violence; “3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets,” the powerful doc about the “Stand Your Ground” murder of teenager Jordan Davis; and “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed and the NRA” by Brave New Films.

Into this pleasantly crowded space now comes “One Nation Under the Gun,” a film by Sue Hilderbrand, a political talk radio show host and professor at California State University and Butte College; and Dan Carter, a video production professional with 30 years of experience.

We had the opportunity to chat with Sue Hilderbrand and learn more about her film. Here’s what she had to tell us:

1) You’re a radio show host/producer and a professor. You already have what sounds like a successful and fulfilling career. What drove you to make this documentary?

Simply put, the current debate on the role of guns in society and how to reduce gun violence is wholly unsatisfying to me. For example, last fall I mentioned in passing to an acquaintance that I was researching gun violence for a radio show.  Her unsolicited response was that I should focus on deaths from automobile accidents because there are more car-related fatalities than gun deaths.  Empirically-speaking she is correct (although that is now changing), but her logic that those numbers should somehow discourage me from researching gun violence was confusing. As I tried to respond to her statement, I realized that she was not looking for conversation. Her comment effectively stopped any possibility for dialogue, leaving no room to question or discuss, and certainly no option to disagree.

During my research since then, along with gathering the facts and figures about gun sales and gun violence, I started talking with anyone who would engage with me, from the university professor, to the former cop turned NRA gun instructor, to the guy sitting next to me in a restaurant. I found that not only do most people have an opinion about guns (based on varying degrees of reality), but that most people have an emotional response to guns, projecting meaning onto this object. It seems that the current debate doesn’t recognize the fact that guns have different meanings to different people.  For some, guns represent independence and self-reliance; it is part of their identity, part of tradition (mostly people on the political right). For others, guns represent violence and oppression, and something not appropriate in a peaceful society.

This film will include a glimpse into the emotional resonance of the gun for various segments of society. The point is not to justify a particular side of the debate but to allow us to humanize the “other” so we can approach the debate more productively.

2) Tell me about the advisory board of scholars you put together for this documentary and how they’ve shaped your work.

The advisory board was created to guide the content of the film.  Because guns, gun violence and the Second Amendment are such heated issues, I felt I needed experts that I could rely on to ensure the integrity of the film. Each advisory board member was invited to participate in an initial meeting to explore general themes of the film.  The academic disciplines represented on the board include history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology.

The initial meeting took place in Sacramento, California in January. The advisers and the project team gathered for a daylong meeting to discuss how we could shift the current debate.  The basic themes coming out of that meeting were: 1) The views of Americans are more nuanced than what the media suggest, 2) the current debate is based on statistics, which don’t address (and cannot change) the emotional aspect of guns, 3) many of the voices of everyday Americans are currently left out the debate.  These themes guide the overall strategy of the film.


  • Saul Cornell, Fordham University, history.
    • A Well-Regulated Militia: the Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America (2006)
    • The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America (1999)
  • Firmin Debrabander – Maryland Institute College of Art, humanistic studies.
    • Do Guns Make Us Free?: Democracy and the Armed Society (2015)
    • Spinoza and the Stoics: Power, Politics and Passions (2007)
  • Pamela Haag
    • The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of A Gun Culture (2016)
  • Jooyoung Lee – University of Toronto, sociology.
    • Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central (University of Chicago Press, 2016)
    • Gunshot (in progress)
  • Eric Mankowski – Portland State University, psychology.
  • Heral Shapira – University of Texas – Austin, sociology
    • Waiting for José: The Minutemen’s Pursuit of America (2013)

Sue and Dan 23) One interesting thing about your project is that you will not be looking at gun violence/gun culture in isolation, but rather in the larger political/social context in America. Why did you feel that was important?

Dr. Saul Cornell, project adviser, has written about various times in U.S. history when the question of the meaning of the Second Amendment has come up.  He explains that during times of great change we see a national questioning of the role of guns. For example, many state governments increased gun regulation following the Civil War in order to address the rise of the KKK, and to protect newly freed slaves.  Again, during Prohibition, the federal government outlawed automatic weapons in response to new technology in a time of economic depression.  This film will look at the larger political, social, and economic changes/transitions that are currently happening, as it should give us insight into the causes of the rise in gun sales and gun violence.

One little known fact is that the largest source of gun-related deaths is suicide. The next largest source is inner-city violence in poor, mostly black, communities. When we talk about gun violence in search of solutions, we must ask the question why?  Why are predominantly white, rural men killing themselves?  Why are young black men killing each other?  In order to answer those questions, we must understand the larger context. Once we understanding the causes, we can find solutions.

One obvious cause of gun violence is easy access to guns themselves, and addressing that is the work of organizations such as the CSGV, but we must also look deeper into the social, economic and political reasons for why the violence is happening. This film also explores the very real phenomenon that with societal change comes fear.  And with fear, for many segments of our population, comes a drive for self-protection.  Without acknowledging fear on all sides, strategies to reduce gun violence may be short-sighted.

4) Explain your documentary’s notion of “mythology” and “false history” when it comes to the gun debate.

All nations need a sense of national identity to maintain stability.  The stories we tell ourselves, the understanding we have about our place in the world, dictate how we behave.  The American identity is based on a notion that an armed populace is how the colonialists fought off the oppressive power of the British forces. We imagine that armed citizens keep government power in check, that the gun keeps the peace.  Although this is a good story, it is not based on facts.

As Pamela Haag, project adviser, argues in her book The Gunning of America, the image of the American gunslinger was created by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in order to sell more guns.  In her research she found that in the early part of the 20th century, Americans were moving to the cities and didn’t need guns as they did in the country.  Winchester and other gun companies recognized this fact and set out to create an emotional connection to the gun through a highly successful marketing strategy. Their campaign made the gun more than a tool, instead the gun became a symbol of what it means to be a man, to be an American, thus increasing sales.

To continue this re-imagining of America, Hollywood helped solidify the imagery with on-screen heroes like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Clint Eastwood.  Although good entertainment, these movies perpetuate a false history. By correcting this history, we are freed from the manufactured identity that ties Americans to gun-ownership.

5) In your Kickstarter campaign video, you talk about “governing ourselves as a community” and ask an important question: What makes a good society and how do we get there? What’s your answer to that question?

My idea of what makes a good society isn’t important in this film, as there are many different visions of a good society in our diverse nation.  However, I am a true believer in democracy.  I have faith in the wisdom of the people to collectively create a society that honors the freedom of the individual, balanced with public safety and security.  Unfortunately, the pro-gun arguments about the Second Amendment and the rights of the individual seem to trump any discussion of how citizens take responsibility for our collective future.

The Framers of the Constitution recognized the potential for a “tyranny of the majority” having the power to take away the freedoms of the minority, which is why they incorporated the Bill of Rights.  The problem today is that the pro-gun view of individual freedom seems to diminish the power of the majority’s desire to shape public policy.  Currently the arguments of the pro-gun movement are winning, leaving those folks little incentive to engage in dialogue about guns. The gun violence prevention folks must figure out how to act collectively to reclaim and reframe the debate.

Sue and Dan6) Why do you see guns on campus as such a critical issue as far as democracy is concerned?

Democracy is not only a system of government where authority to rule comes from the will of the people, but it is also a way of being in society.  It is a declaration that citizens will discuss and negotiate and compromise as we make decisions affecting society. Democracy requires a general openness to others and their ideas, and a basic trust of fellow citizens.  It requires a willingness to engage in dialogue.  Schools, particularly colleges and universities, are where we learn to be democrats, where we practice democracy.

As project adviser Firmin DeBrabander writes, a university setting, in particular, is where most students are exposed to new ideas for the very first time. Challenges to their worldview are often unsettling, and to the newly initiated, responses are often passionate. The acceptance of guns, a symbol of coercion, into a learning environment, contradicts the original purpose of the free exchange of ideas and it is an admission of unwillingness to engage intellectually.

A gun is not only capable of causing injury and death, but it is a symbol of a willingness to use violence, particularly when one feels threatened.  A gun is the manifestation of fear, and contrary to the values required in a democracy, and as DeBrabander argues, has no place in a learning environment.

7) How can folks support your project? And if you get the funding you need and the documentary is ultimately completed, what do you hope to achieve with it?

People can support this project by contributing to our Kickstarter campaign.  This is only the first stage of our fundraising efforts, but an important one if we are to complete the film by September 2016.

My goal for this film is to offer news ways to approach the problem of gun violence.  For example, the most common proposal for reducing gun-related deaths is to reduce access to guns.  Of course this is true, however, if we increase mental health access, we can reduce the causes of suicide. Or, if we focus on education and economic opportunities in inner-cities, we can reduce the homicide rate.

Another goal of the film is to offer a deeper understanding of the “other side.” For example, pro-gun folks tend to view gun ownership as part of their responsibility and their identity.  An attempt to “take their guns away” by regulations is considered a personal attack. By understanding each other as people, and not sound bytes, I hope real dialogue can happen.

Add your opinion

The Discussion

  • Dana: March 23, 2016 7:25 pm

    Gun owners see owning guns as a right, which is not negated by the killing of innocent human beings, which, of course, includes babies, children, and the elderly, all of whom have no one to protect them, as a general rule. This is my greatest concern about gun ownership. The suicide and homicide issues mostly involve adults or near-adults, which, in my opinion, is a different kind of responsibility concerning guns. The innocent must be protected from being killed by guns, which is a dilemma, because as long as human beings own a single gun, there is no safety for the innocent. The innocent become second-class citizens. Their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is compromised. As long as there is gun ownership in society, there will be the advantage of the gun owners over the citizen who has no way to become equal without also owning a gun. The citizen who does not own a gun and has no desire to own a gun, even to protect oneself, is at a disadvantage. The citizen who chooses not to own a gun, may perceive the gun solely as a killing machine, and in that case, sees killing another human being as morally wrong. On the other hand, gun owners believe it is their “God-given right”, although that right from above only exists in their fear-based minds. As long as fear is in the equation, someone will be at a disadvantage, and there will be no equality.. The American Constitution guarantees life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For some citizens, the fear of being hurt or killed by guns compromises their chances of having a life of freedom and the ability to pursue their personal happiness.

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