BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (2002)
PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Political philosophy, gun control
SYNOPSIS: On April 20, 1999 Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado – a suburb of Denver – and in a 15 minute shooting spree killed 13 people and wounded 21 others. In this documentary, filmmaker Michael Moore examines the causes of the shooting and the American ethos that lead to it. Moore suggests that the shootings are part of a larger American culture of fear that prompts us to act with violence. In the course of the documentary he interviews survivors of the Columbine shooting, members of the Michigan Militia, Marilyn Manson, Dick Clark, officials at K-mart (which sold Harris and Klebold the bullets), and finally Charlton Heston, president of the National Rifle Association. In a Denver lecture after the film’s release, he sums up the message of the film: “It’s all part of the same American mentality that says it’s OK to use violence as a means to an end, whether it’s in the home or whether it’s in Iraq. That has got to stop.” The film won the Academy Award for best documentary. In his award ceremony speech, Moore attacked George Bush for launching war against Iraq.
OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR MICHAEL MOORE: Roger and Me (1989), The Big One (1998)
1. Moore interviewed members of the Michigan Militia – the organization to which the Oklahoma City bombers formerly belonged. One member – a real estate negotiator – stated “Its an American responsibility to be armed. If you’re not armed, you’re not responsible. Who’s gonna defend your kids? The cops? The federal government? It’s your job to defend you and yours. If you don’t do it, you’re in dereliction of duty.” A woman similarly stated, “When a criminal breaks into your house, whose the first person that you’re gonna call? Most people will call the police because they have guns. Cut out the middle man. Take care of your own family yourself. If you are not going to protect your family, who is?” What response would a gun control advocate make to this argument?
2. One member of the Michigan Militia stated the following: “We’re not racists, we’re not extremists, we’re not fundamentalists, we’re not terrorists or militants or other such nonsense. We’re concerned citizens, we have a desire to fulfill our responsibility and duties as Americans, and an armed citizenry is part of that.” Are militia groups such as this more damaging to the American way than this militia member suggests?
3. James Nichols, brother of Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols, stated the following: “If the people find out how they’ve been ripped off and enslaved by the government, the powers that be, they will revolt with anger, with merciless anger. There will be blood running in the streets. When the government turns tyrannical, it is your duty to overthrow it.” Nichols’s argument parallels the social contract defense of revolution that we find in the Declaration of Independence. Are there important differences between Nichols’ views and those of the founding fathers?
4. Moore asks Nichols, “Well, why not use Gandhi’s way. He didn’t have any guns and he beat the British Empire.” Nichols responds, “Well, I’m not familiar with that.” Why would someone like Nichols not adopt Gandhi’s approach?
5. Moore asks Nichols if he should have the right to have weapons grade plutonium. Nichols answers “That should be restricted.” Moore counters “Oh, so you do believe in some restrictions.” If, by Nichols’ own concession, the government can justly restrict weapons grade plutonium, shouldn’t the government also be allowed to restrict guns from “wackos”, such Nichols himself appears very much to be?
6. A spokesperson for Lockheed at Littleton Colorado (in Columbine school district) said that his company made a $100,000 contribution to an anger management program for high school students. The assumption is that angry kids won’t shoot schoolmates if they first learn to control their anger. Would a program like this help?
7. Moore suggests that the gun-owning mentality of Americans is intertwined with our aggressive military actions in foreign countries. In one segment of the film Moore presents a series of film clips relating to U.S. military intervention in foreign countries – removing democratically elected rulers, installing ruthless dictators, and invading countries. Are the two really symptoms of the same American problem, as Moore suggests?
8. Ten days after Columbine, Charlton Heston held an NRA pro-gun rally in Denver. During the rally he stated, “I have a message from the mayor, Mr. Wellington Web, the mayor of Denver. He sent me this, and it says don’t come here. We don’t want you here. I say to the mayor, this is our country. As Americans we are free to travel wherever we want in our broad land. Don’t come here? We’re already here!” Was Web justified in his request?
9. Later in the speech Heston stated, “We have work to do, hearts to heal, evil to defeat, and a country to unite. We may have differences, yes, and we will again suffer tragedy almost beyond description. But when the sun sets on Denver tonight, and forever more, let it always set on we the people, secure in our land of the free and the home of the brave. I for one plan to do my part.” Heston’s point is that, although Columbine was a tragedy, the potential loss of our freedom (specifically freedom to carry guns) is a greater tragedy. Is Heston right?
10. Moore discusses the impact that the Columbine shootings have had regarding increased school security throughout the country. One school superintendent stated, “It’s almost like guerilla warfare; you don’t know from which direction the enemy will be coming.” Is the comparison legitimate?
11. Moore notes that many social influences were blamed for the Columbine incident, such as angry heavy metal subculture; absent parents; violent movies; South Park; video games; television; entertainment; Satan; cartoons; doom; society; toy guns; drugs. Although Moore rejects all of these explanations, are any more compelling than others?
12. Moore notes that other countries are also exposed to the above influences, yet have only a fraction of the gun killings that occur in the United States. Moore’s theory is that we are driven by fear. Crime rate has been dropping, but fear of crime has been increasing. The most poignant fear, he believes, is white people’s fear of black people. Are racial fears really behind the American tendency to act violently – domestically and in foreign conflicts?
13. Much blame was also placed on shock rocker Marilyn Manson, to whom the Columbine attackers listened. Manson in turn stated that the atmosphere surrounding Columbine was grounded in fear and consumption: “keep everyone afraid, and they’ll consume.” Manson’s point, which Moore agrees with, is that businesses encourage fear since it sells products. Is this a compelling explanation of the cause of fear?
14. Moore contrasts the high level of fear that Americans have with the low level of fear that Canadians do. News broadcasts in particular radically differ. Moore states, “Night after night the Canadians weren’t being pumped full of fear.” In a speech he gave after the release of Bowling for Columbine, he tells his audience to turn off the TV. Perhaps Moore has the causal connection backwards: American news broadcasts more show violence than Canadian broadcasts because there is more violence to report. This being so, wouldn’t it be irresponsible for news broadcasts to omit such stories?
15. Some of the ammunition used in the Columbine shooting was legally purchased from the local K-Mart store. Moore and two of the victims approach K-Mart executives requesting that the stop selling ammunition. K-Mart agreed. What might have been behind K-Mart’s reasoning?
16. Moore notes that Canadians lock their doors less than Americans. One Canadian stated, “You’d think as Americans that the lock is keeping people out of your place. We as Canadians see it more as when we lock the doors we imprison ourselves inside.” Is locking our doors a self-imposed restriction on our liberty, and, if so, is that worse or better than the restriction of our liberties through gun control?
17. Discussing the American tendency towards violence, one Canadian states, “Everybody reacts over there just like that; they just don’t stop and think. Their first reaction is pull the gun on them; you’re on my property.” This is clearly an overgeneralization, since most Americans do not own guns and in fact call the police to resolve issues. Do governments have responsibilities to root out the hotheads?
18. Moore felt that, since Canadians have as many guns as we do, there must be some other reason for the high level of gun killings in the United States. However, it seems that Moore’s comparison neglected some key variables, such as types of weapons available, typical gun owners, rural vs. urban usage. A standard explanation for much gun violence is a combination of poverty, unsupervised youth, drug abuse, and easy availability of guns. Is this better or worse than Moore’s “culture of fear” explanation?
19. Discussing the school shooting of a six year old girl in Flint Michigan, Moore suggests that part of the problem was Michigan’s “Welfare to Work” program which the shooter’s single mother was participating in. Specifically, she had to travel an hour and a half to work every day to pay off the welfare. What are the pros and cons of the Welfare to Work program?