“Bowling for Columbine” Misframes Gun Quandary

By Mike Males, 11/6/02

            It’s hard to imagine a message more thoroughly muddled than Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine.” The film’s humor, colorful interviews, indignant arraignments of corporations and right-wing gun nuts, and favorable audience reception all raise the troubling question as to why progressive thinking on gun violence issue remains so confused.

            Moore begins with the right question--why do Americans kill each other with guns at rates staggeringly higher than any other affluent society? He then invites us to dissect the issue logically. Popular hokum masquerading as explanation doesn’t cut it.

Is it America’s violent history? No. Germany, the UK, Japan, and other Western nations with minuscule gun-murder rates have bloody histories as well.

Violent games and movies? No. Other rich nations sop up blood-soaked entertainment.

Alienated kids? No shortage of those in less homicidal cultures.

Poverty? No, Moore says, confusing unemployment with poverty. Canadian and UK unemployment rates are higher than the US’s.

America’s guns? No.Canadians own plenty of guns and can buy bullets by the truckload.

Racial diversity? No, Moore says; Canada is also multiethnic.

Moore’s statistics are absurdly misleading. The U.S. is far more gun-infested (three times more guns, and eight times more handguns, per person than Canada), impoverished (poverty rates two to five times higher than Canada’s, especially for extreme and concentrated poverty) and diverse (blacks and Hispanics comprise 26% of the U.S. population compared to 2% of Canada’s, most of whose minorities are more affluent Asians with low murder rates). Moore’s level of basic factuality barely tops “Lyin’ King” Rush Limbaugh’s.

            What is this movie trying to say? On one level, complete nonsense. Moore presents white people’s fear of blacks and Hispanics, and consequent orgy of suburban gun-buying, as the cause of gun violence. He interviews the Flint, Michigan, District Attorney, who claims with a straight face that inner-city gun violence is not the problem; the problem is white suburban teens with guns. Moore lets him get away with reinforcing this liberal copout that both evades uncomfortable socioeconomic realities and reveals the extent to which white, upper-class politicians only get concerned when white people die.

            Moore and the DA forgot to consult Flint area vital statistics, which show 25 times more black inner-city teens than white suburban teens murdered by gunfire. Can’t get white folks concerned about that. Moore’s film follows the standard media rule: Gun killings are only important when they have white victims. Columbine’s school gun massacre is chosen as the focus not because it is a common or watershed event (gun massacres are common in America, but white school shootings are extremely rare), but because its victims were suburban.

Commenting on this conundrum, Moore contradicts himself again with a bizarrely racist comment. “Ninety percent of the guns in this country are bought out in the white suburbs where you don’t need them because there’s virtually no crime,” he told Phil Donahue (MSBNBC, 10/28). “And as the prosecutor says in the film, these guns then are stolen from the white communities and end up back in the inner city, creating all this violence.”

Moore claims the problem is that low-crime white people let guns get into the hands of violent black people? Imagine the liberal outrage if Rush Limbaugh said that!

Having told fawning Donahue the suburbs have “virtually no crime,” Moore reverses himself yet again, telling fawning Oprah (ABC, 11/8/02) that the result of all the suburban gun-buying is that “the majority of murders” are “between white people.” Not even nearly. The latest, 2000 figures from the National Center for Health Statistics show that of 10,801 gun homicides in the U.S., 2,900 (a little more than one-fourth) involved whites; seven in 10 involved blacks and Latinos.

            While demanding that conservative gun-rights groups and corporations honestly soul-search their self-serving illogic, Moore walks away from points that are difficult for liberals and leftists. Blacks, 12% of the population, suffer 52% of the nation’s gun homicide deaths--a rate 11 times higher than whites’. Nine in 10 murdered blacks are shot by other blacks, not by whites.

            Moore’s orgy of self-contradiction concerns a political problem facing liberals in general: blacks and Hispanics really do commit and suffer gun violence at far higher levels than do more affluent whites. Further, it is not whites shooting minorities but, as Tupac Shakur lamented, “It’s my own kind doing all the killing here.” Poorer whites also have high gun murder rates; one’s odds of dying by gunfire rise sharply in almost perfect syncopation with one’s poverty level. Instead of confronting these stark realities, Moore trivializes black and Hispanic gun violence as figments of white paranoia.

            Is racism justified, then? Are whites right to arm themselves in fear of poorer gun-toters? No, as Moore’s walking tour of southcentral Los Angeles to counter media fear-mongering about black killers symbolically demonstrates. Of course L.A., even its most supposedly dangerous neighborhoods, is safer for whites than they believe. Nearly all of the relatively small number of murdered whites (84 murder victims in 2,000, in L.A.’s white population of 3 million) were slain by their own relatives, neighbors, and acquaintences.

            Meanwhile, LA’s scourge of black gun homicide (308 murder victims in a population of 900,000) is 12 times that of whites, and 100 times higher in Southcentral than among LA’s suburban whites. Moore not only fails to mention this awful fact, but--in a film supposedly concerned with gun violence--he jokes about police responding to a gun incident that occurs right on the street where he is filming.

Still, American whites, hardly poor as a group, suffer gun murder levels 2.5 times higher than Canadian citizens. What is America’s problem? (We might as well blame bowling, Moore says. The Columbine student gunboys rolled a few frames before shooting up their school.)

            Again and again, Moore wrecks his message with grandstanding. He confronts Kmart managers with Columbine students seeking to return store merchandise, the bullets lodged in their bodies. He wins a store promise to phase out ammunition sales. Liberals cheer. So what? Wal-Marts in peaceable Canada sell bullets by the ton, as Moore himself demonstrated.

            Moore badgers impresario Dick Clark for owning restaurants that hire welfare-to-work program recipients at low wage. More audience applause, but why? Moore earlier claimed poverty and unemployment don’t cause American’s gun carnage. And why hound an ignorant celebrity when he could have gotten better answers by calling out Michigan’s welfare director?

            Later, Moore interrogates National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston over gun proliferation. Enthusiastic audience hosannas, but to what purpose? Moore admits Canadians also own lots of guns but don’t perpetrate our level of slaughter. And if he wanted answers, the NRA’s legislative director would be the one to grill.

            Moore includes a lengthy roster of America’s use of military violence. What is his point? He admits gun-free European nations have similarly bloody records.

Is “Bowling” an incisive documentary, or just crowd-pleasers staged for liberals?

            Moore’s disingenuous confusion hijacks “Bowling” completely when he highlights the murder of the white 6 year-old Michigan girl by a first-grade black boy. Moore assigns blame to the poverty of the shooter’s mother caused by (a) auto industry plant shutdowns that created chronic unemployment, and (b) Michigan’s harsh welfare-to-work mandate that forced the mother to work long hours at low-paying jobs, resulting in time away from mothering and eviction from their home. But Moore earlier dismissed unemployment and poverty as factors causing American gun violence--a standard liberal subterfuge that completely undermines his best point.

            However, “Bowling” does reveal two uniquely American traits that may explain our gun carnage: Americans fear each other intensely and are indifferent to their fellow citizens’ well being. Those directly affected by a gun tragedy are the only ones who care about it. Others are detached, motivated by political opportunism, media ratings, flagship merchant services, and commercial interest. Moore’s otherwise pointless interview with Heston accuses him mainly of insensitivity: the NRA staged rallies in Colorado and Michigan following local gun tragedies. Was bad manners really the sin?

            Perhaps so. American’s callousness to fellow citizens’ suffering, revealed countless times in and by “Bowling,” is a key point. Canadians seem concerned about the welfare of other Canadians and willing to translate that empathy into generous social programs and trusting attitudes that don’t hold their fellow citizens in poverty and suspicion. Americans fear and suspect other Americans. We reject common responsibility out of the assumption that our own countrymen would freeload. We buy guns for protection from each other and wind up shooting the people around us in vastly outsized numbers.

            But why are Americans, inhabitants of the same country with shared interests, so extraordinarily indifferent and fearful toward one another? This callousness is shown in Michigan’s welfare system, NRA rallying at tragedy sites, the phony press and politician exploitation of firearms murders, and the Flint District Attorney’s and Moore’s own indifference to inner city gun violence. “Bowling” demonstrates the extent to which Americans obsess over trivial symbols and rigid ideologies to evade fundamental issues of state-generated inequality and the violence it engenders. Of course, had Moore pursued the tough socioeconomic issues instead of clichéd liberal nemeses, he wouldn’t have a film screening in 700 theaters.


Mike Males teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and has written four books on youth issues.

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