Katie Couric: Is Civil Discourse About Guns Even Possible?

The documentary Under The Gun exposes the dangers of unregulated gun ownership and the difficulty of passing even minimal regulations when the opposition won’t discuss the options

Executive Producer/narrator Katie Couric, Epix CEO Mark Greenberg, director Stephanie Soechtig

Is it possible to have a normal back and forth conversation about the regulation of firearms in America today? It doesn’t seem so.

Most of the debate around efforts to get minimal gun registration laws, even in Congress, are scuttled by well-financed, highly organized fear mongers who spread untruths threatening government confiscation of all firearms.

The refusal to even talk about the subject was a point made by journalist Katie Couric early on in a panel discussion after a screening of the new Epix documentary Under The Gun in Beverly Hills this week.

Couric told moderator Michael Schneider, Executive Editor of IndieWire, that it is her hope the documentary will start a dialogue on this important subject. She then added ominously: “If it’s still possible in this country to have civil discourse, if it’s not an oxymoron at every turn. We were hoping we could promote an educated, informed conversation.”

The end credits of the documentary made clear a real dialogue is unlikely to happen. After facts, graphics, news footage and dozens of interviews aired, there was a card at the end with a long list of those who would not participate, led of course by the National Rifle Association, but including many top elected officials.

It is not a surprise. In the age of Twitter, Fox News, Glenn Beck and the 24/7 web full of questionable information, American politics is more polarized than ever before. Some of the blame goes to the effect of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizen United, given corporations the same rights as real people. A lot of that “dark money” has been used to link gun rights to other “freedoms” that people fear government will suppress.

The end result is that those who want to push anti-regulatory views do so no matter what the other side has to say. That is clear in this documentary which lists a litany of ways the opposition has built their power and used their bully pulpit.

This all leads to why with the vast majority of American’s in favor of reasonable gun laws – even many NRA members - the legislative trend in many states has been to do the opposite – eliminating barriers to ownership and allowing people to openly carry deadly weapons.

Meanwhile, every effort at gun registration or limits to stop felon or the mentally ill from buying guns on a federal level has been scuttled by this forceful angry distrustful opposition.

L to R: Michael Schneider, Katie Couric, Shannon Watts, Dan Gross, Zach Silk, Sandy Phillips

I went to the screening of the upcoming Epix documentary Under The Gun, executive produced and narrated by Couric, who is also Global Anchor at Yahoo!, seeking a fair-minded effort to sort out the complex debate and that is what is delivered.

As I told Epix CEO Mark Greenberg, with such virulent opposition, it even takes courage to make and market this documentary, which puts a very human face on the tragic gun massacres that have become all too common in America.

Greenberg told me that was the exact reason it was important.

Couric talked about how she got involved. She said that after her 2014 documentary Fed Up, which looked at the childhood obesity epidemic, she was looking for another project to do with director Stephanie Soechtig.

Couric said there is pressure on journalists in the digital era is to keep everything bite size. She said that cripples many investigative efforts.

We saw the challenge journalists face in the Academy Award winning movie Spotlight, and how rare it is to be given that opportunity – the time, resources and backbone – to do tough stories.

“In this day and age when we are accosted with dribs and drabs and short stories,” said Couric, “and everyone’s attention spans are so truncated now it is hard to do a deep dive into an important issue.

“So after Fed Up I said to Stephanie, who is from the town next to Newtown (Connecticut), it is obvious so many people here and around the country were so affected by what happened at Sandy Hook elementary….I just don’t understand. There is a disconnect. Ninety percent of the people in this country support background checks and yet when it comes to getting anything done at the federal level, nothing is happening. What’s going on here?”

Couric said it was a huge undertaking because this is a “complicated multi-faceted issue.” She praised Soechtig for “weaving the policy and the vernacular of gun violence, along with these incredible personal stories, like those of Sandy and Lonnie Phillips.”

Sandy Phillips took part in the panel along with Dan Gross of The Brady Campaign and Zach Silk, who led the successful Initiative 594 in the state of Washington that made gun registration into law.

The program was part of Epix’s campaign called: “Everytown for Gun Safety.” The co-hosts included actress Bryce Dallas Howard, who attended the event.

Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action was also on the panel, and discussed ways to get around opposition who will not even discuss any compromises to license gun owners the way we do drivers and automobiles, or any other way.

Her idea is ask concerned voters in the elections later this year to pay attention to a candidate’s position on guns.

Watts said what she often hears reflected in the media and on social media is “a very vocal minority, a minority the gun lobby has made afraid that their guns are going to be taken away, that they are under attack, they are at risk, that they need a gun to go to the grocery store, and it isn’t the truth.”

Since there isn’t going to be a real discussion of the issue, added Watts, “we have to focus on how to use our voice and our votes to change the country. We aren’t voting on this issue. When we go to the polls, especially women who are the majority of the voting electorate, people are going on education and health care and the economy. But I can’t worry about those things until I know my kid is coming home from high school.”

“So what I would ask is when you pull that lever,” said Watts, “know where your candidate stands on this issue. If they have an ‘A’ from the NRA, that means they support guns for domestic abusers, suspected terrorist and an array of very bizarre things….

“If people start thinking of this as a voting issue,” added Watts, “then the debate can be less polarized.”

Couric said that after some earlier screenings, she was surprised that gun owners, some of them NRA members who don’t agree with everything the leadership is saying, came up to thank her: “They said thank you for representing and sharing our point of view . I don’t think they feel adequately represented by the gun lobby in this country.”

Under The Gun premieres on the pay TV service Epix on May 15 and will also have a limited release in movie theaters through Lionsgate.

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