A moving target: films and crime

January 17, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

Many law-enforcement officials and social scientists say there is a connection between Hollywood and crime. But it's difficult to track the effect of a gun's screen appearance and its criminal use.

According to Joseph Vince, chief of the crime gun analysis branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the biggest problem is juveniles between the ages of 17 and 24. "No offense to Arnold Schwarzenegger, but if he came out with some goofy, swashbuckling movie with a bizarre-looking weapon, it would influence all those people to get it. Over a period of time, we have noticed that [illegal] sales of certain weapons have gone up because of this."

Vince adds that in some gangs, members have to own a certain brand of gun to belong. "We have certain young gangs [in which] to belong to the gang you have to have a Glock," he says. "They don't shoot you, they 'Glock' you."

Rich Young, special agent in the Baltimore office of the BATF, says that because they so often have to be thrown away, most guns used in crime are the cheapest and most poorly made. They're also small and concealable, whereas most guns used on screen tend to be big in order to be seen better.

Still, he adds, "from my experience, there's always some segment of the criminal population that wants the hottest and the newest -- like when Arnold Schwarzenegger holds out the Desert Eagle."

According to Jeffrey Roth, director of crime-control policy studies at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, some kids who acquire guns will be more influenced by the movies than others.

"Kids use handguns in two different ways," Roth explains. "One is to kind of make a statement through which they may gain some status, control situations they couldn't control otherwise and be able to deal with their own fears by carrying a gun. It's almost as if they're wearing the gun in some sense. So you want the biggest, baddest-looking gun you can find. And if it has a big reputation from the movies, so much the better.

"The other use, of course, is to commit crimes with them, not to make a statement. And in that case nearly always what a youth or young adult wants is something that's small and concealable and typically inexpensive."

When guns are the stars, the most surprising fallout from the movies to real life may be in the area of national security.

In the 1986 movie "Aliens," one of the characters carried a machine gun attached to a Steadicam, a movie camera that is worn by its operator using a harness, thereby obtaining steadily moving shots. Once the science-fiction thriller was in theaters, armorer Rick Washburn says, he received a phone call. "It was the Defense Department asking if we had done that. I said no, but I know who did. And they said they had been trying to develop a squad machine gun on a Steadicam just like that one."

Washburn adds that after he modified a shotgun for the 1970s TV series "Miami Vice" by adding a pistol grip and repositioning the barrel, he received a call from the Secret Service wanting to know if it worked.

"They wanted to use it to protect the president, then President Reagan. I told them I had invented it, and they asked if I had any copyright on it, and I said, 'No, be my guest.' So the Secret Service adopted that specific design to protect the president. We call it the 'Miami Vice' Special."

(Representatives of both the Defense Department and the Secret Service reacted to Washburn's anecdotes with skepticism. Both agencies said his claims were not credible.)

Tales of life imitating weaponry art

When guns are the stars, the most surprising fallout from the movies to real life may be in the area of national security.

In the 1986 movie "Aliens," one of the characters carried a machine gun attached to a Steadicam, a movie camera that is worn by its operator using a harness, thereby obtaining steadily moving shots. Once the science-fiction thriller was in theaters, armorer Rick Washburn says, he received a phone call. "It was the Defense Department asking if we had done that. I said no, but I know who did. And they said they had been trying to develop a squad machine gun on a Steadicam just like that one."

Washburn adds that after he modified a shotgun for the 1970s TV series "Miami Vice" by adding a pistol grip and repositioning the barrel, he received a call from the Secret Service wanting to know if it worked.

"They wanted to use it to protect the president, then President Reagan. I told them I had invented it, and they asked if I had any copyright on it, and I said, 'No, be my guest.' So the Secret Service adopted that specific design to protect the president. We call it the 'Miami Vice' Special."

(Representatives of both the Defense Department and the Secret Service reacted to Washburn's anecdotes with skepticism. Both agencies said his claims were not credible.)

The Hollywood Gun Show

Guns in movies represent more than just visceral thrills. They also help create brand recognition. When Clint Eastwood brandished his .44 Magnum at bad guys in the "Dirty Harry" films (above), Smith & Wesson benefited. Since then, gun manufacturers -- like corporations such as Coke, Nike and Ford -- have learned an important lesson: have your product appear in a movie and get a lot of free advertising.

Pub Date: 01/17/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.