Locked & Loaded
The NRA and the entertainment industry interact publicly as mortal enemies. But as the number of weapons shown in movies and TV steadily increases — and stars like Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie make fortunes wielding guns onscreen — a co-dependence that keeps both churning is revealed: “making the liberal bias a lot of money”
BURNISHED BY THE LOW LIGHT OF GLASS-WALLED DISPLAYS, THEY seem like ancient artifacts, but the objects here are beloved contemporary icons. One case houses the massive Smith & Wesson Model 29 wielded by Clint Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" Callahan in the 1973 film Magnum Force. In another rests the Beretta 92F used by Bruce Willis in Die Hard. All the great shoot-'em-up classics — The Bourne Identity, Pulp Fiction, The Wild Bunch — are here. This exhibit, celebrating cinema, isn't in Hollywood; it's thousands of miles away, in a museum at the headquarters of the National Rifle Association in Fairfax, Va.
The NRA is proud of its "Hollywood Guns" exhibit. It's the most popular of more than a dozen rooms and multiple showcases, which include the gun that Theodore Roosevelt took on a 1913 expedition to the Amazon. The shiny allure of the Hollywood gun room comes last in the museum tour — "like a reward," says an NRA official.
The exhibit highlights the sometimes uneasy but fruitful partnership between the gun industry and Hollywood, where firearms are an integral part of life and storytelling. Meanwhile, gun manufacturers say that there's no better way to brand, market and sell a weapon than to get it placed in a big Hollywood production. And most of the time, it's free — product placement at its finest.
You could be forgiven for doubting the cozy partnership between the two industries. After all, in a speech earlier this year to the organization's members, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre repeatedly lashed out at Hollywood for societal ills ranging from violence to political gridlock and squarely blamed it for "dousing our kids with reckless, gratuitous, irresponsible gunplay." From the NRA's point of view, Hollywood is full of out-of-touch liberals who try to foment public hysteria in an effort to push gun control on America. Meanwhile, scores of movie stars, including prominent gun-control advocates such as Matt Damon and Liam Neeson who lambast real-world firearm violence, have made fortunes wielding guns onscreen.
We're talking about a lot of guns onscreen. Since 9/11, America's obsession with everything spy, terrorism and war-related has grown — and the content the population consumes increasingly reflects that. A 2015 report published by The Economist concluded that gun violence in PG-13 movies had tripled since 1985. And an analysis undertaken by THR found that the number of gun models pictured in big box-office movies between 2010 and 2015 was 51 percent higher than it had been a decade earlier, suggesting that the public's appetite to see guns in entertainment is on the rise. (In the real world, research shows that the number of new gun owners is declining, while owners are buying record numbers of guns.)
Simply put, two industries that position themselves as mortal enemies have a lucrative, symbiotic relationship. This is the story of how that relationship works.
Inside Hollywood's Armory
Hollywood’s love affair with guns dates to its earliest days. THR explores the complicated relationship between weapons manufacturers and entertainment producers, a business collaboration now more profitable than ever.
A CLASS OF ARTISANS SIT AT THE CROSSROADS WHERE THE GUN meets Hollywood. They're called armorers, and they have one foot firmly planted in each world. "Until they stop making films and outlaw weapons altogether, we're going to keep doing what we've been doing," says Gregg Bilson Jr., president of the American Entertainment Armorers Association and head of the Independent Studio Services, one of Hollywood's biggest prop houses.
ISS is a massive, family-owned business — renting everything from Chinese takeout containers to canoes. With more than 16,000 guns in its arsenal, nearly all real, ISS is the largest armory in Hollywood (about 80 of the guns at the NRA's Hollywood exhibit are on loan from ISS). Bilson's crew of armorers and gunsmiths helps finicky directors from Michael Mann to Oliver Stone find and use historically appropriate weapons, train A-list actors (like Bradley Cooper, Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro) in how to wield them safely and shepherd complex projects to completion. "You can't have a modern movie without a car rolling down the street or someone taking out an iPhone," says Larry Zanoff, an ISS armorer who has worked on many big Hollywood productions. "Seventy-five percent of the time there's at least one gun involved."
Bilson agrees: "We're just telling a story. Sometimes it's told with a meal and two actors, sometimes it's told in a hostage standoff."
Few visitors get to enter ISS' weapons department, but THR reporters were buzzed through the caged gate and into the linoleum-lined beating heart of Hollywood's gun culture. Tucked amid the scraggly foothills of the San Fernando Valley, big rigs queuing out back, it's a Willy Wonka wonderland for some, a nightmare war zone for others. Housing thousands of firearms of every conceivable type — from black powder pirate muskets to Uzis and flamethrowers, the ISS inventory is organized and displayed with an archivist's care. All are carefully modified to shoot blanks for the screen.
Need dozens of AK-47s to outfit a band of terrorists? How about a range of Glocks for a police procedural? It's all available in the weapons department, and if it's not, they'll make it for you. An industrial 3D printer can spit out precise custom parts. And the artists in the molds department create frames around existing firearms, or entirely new rubber ones of varying flexibilities, from firm to slack enough to pistol-whip.
Bilson, who took over the business his father founded in 1977 in his Culver City garage, built the weapons department. Today, Zanoff and Karl Weschta oversee a small staff of harried, passionate employees who manage the day-to-day of Hollywood's gun ecosystem. At any moment, between 5,000 and 7,000 of ISS' weapons are in circulation. On one day THR visited, carts were packed with guns marked for delivery to such popular shows as Pretty Little Liars, Preacher, Shameless and Scandal.
Unceremoniously tucked away in a black metal closet at ISS are shelves of firearms that were held by A-list protagonists in big movies: Tom Cruise's HK45 from Collateral, the M1 Garand utilized by Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, the silenced shotgun employed by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. Staffers call it the "hero cabinet."
LIKE ALL BELOW-THE-LINE SPECIALISTS, ISS PRIDES ITSELF ON its commitment to service and craft, manifesting a get-it-done mentality born of long hours, tight deadlines and demanding clients. Staffers are compulsive about ensuring safety on set, the specter of Brandon Lee's accidental 1993 shooting death in the midst of filming The Crow looming. "To be able to repeatedly do an action scene safely but still make it look like, 'Hey, that's fire and brimstone coming out of that gun!' — it's something that's highly engineered, highly regulated," says Zanoff, an Israeli Defense Forces reconnaissance unit veteran.
To serve Hollywood's marquee felons like Mark Wahlberg (currently brandishing a Glock 17 as a cop in Patriots Day) and Danny Trejo (most recently armed with an M1911A1 pistol in 2013's Machete Kills) — who aren't allowed by law to bear arms — ISS has a roster of realistic electronic guns (also known as e-guns or non-guns) that can stand in for everything from Smith & Wessons to Uzis. "They get a lot of use on hip-hop music video shoots," says one weapons specialist. Producers working with ex-cons or shooting outside in neighborhoods with noise restrictions rely on them since they discharge at a much quieter level. They also are used in close-fire situations like a point-blank execution scene, where real weapons firing blanks are deemed unsafe (e-guns don’t eject shell casings).
ISS' arsenal allows the firm to be on trend. "Right now, Gatling guns are sort of a fad, particularly with steampunk going on," says armorer Gary Harper (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) of the spring-loaded, hand-cranked forerunner to the machine gun, most recently seen in The Magnificent Seven and Westworld. "On The Last Samurai, we had two. I worked with ISS on that."
And then there’s the Gatling's descendent, the sixbarreled M134 Minigun, which fires 6,000 rounds a minute and initially was brought to market by General Electric as a helicopter-mounted weapon during the Vietnam War. Zanoff — who periodically is called upon by law enforcement agencies and military branches to teach trainees about weaponry they might encounter in action — observes that more blanked shots likely were discharged in the service of filming 2001's Black Hawk Down than there were real ones in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu incident that inspired it. Subsequent years saw a cinematic boom in M134 Miniguns — installed on helicopters (Jarhead, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Jurassic World), a truck cab (Terminator: Salvation), even a Ford Mustang GT (Death Race).
“Please don’t shoot dogs and children and don’t malfunction. That’s the bottom line.”
- Gun licensing expert Angelina Giudice, on red flags for product placement
ISS collaborates with gun manufacturers on research and development of new products and accessories, particularly for government contracts. (The company wouldn’t disclose the names.) "They'll do some of their own R&D and testing with our weapons so they can go to the government and say, 'See, I have documented proof that [the modification] will work on an M240 or an M16,' and so on," says Zanoff. Occasionally these firms also will be inspired by the creative license ISS has taken with its merchandise for the screen to innovate their real-world product lines. Roughly 10 to 15 percent of the weapons department's workload is in these areas. Zanoff and other employees declined to discuss these partnerships in detail.
Of course, the deepest collaboration remains with armorers, prop masters and directors, including such repeat clients as Quentin Tarantino (four armorers worked on Django Unchained) and Eastwood. "For Flags of Our Fathers, we had nine people just handling the firearms alone," says Weschta, who notes that audiences' expectations for verisimilitude have increased dramatically. For American Sniper, ISS relied on a Navy SEAL Team 3 veteran, who served with Chris Kyle, to determine authentic equipment and usage. "Nowadays with social media," says Weschta, "if you don’t do it right — you don't use the proper prop in the correct way — you get in a lot of trouble."
9 Famous Movie Guns
From the Beretta to the Blunderbuss, these iconic firearms helped Denzel win an Oscar, battled the Pirates of the Caribbean, took on the Terminator and (almost) killed the great white in Jaws. Click the images to see the guns in action.
Remington 870 Short Barrel
Used In: The Dark Knight
This 12 gauge sawed off shotgun is first seen in the second installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy when a bank manager uses it to defend himself against Heath Ledger’s Joker and his goons. Once the manager is dispatched, the gun becomes Ledger’s weapon of choice for the rest of the film, often firing it one hand style (which looks super cool but would be extremely challenging in real life due to the weight of the bullets).
Used In: Django Unchained
The “Sheriff’s” model of the Remington 1858 is carried by Jamie Foxx throughout much of Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist Western from 2012. The pistol is similar to the Remington “New Army” model, which is one of two pistols Foxx uses in the bloody “two handed” gun fight in Candyland Mansion (the other being a Colt 1851).
Colt Government Model (Modified)
Used In: Public Enemies
Michael Mann’s 2009 period crime saga starring Johnny Depp as notorious 30s era gangster John Dillinger features a wide array of vintage pistols and machine guns, but none more exotic than this specially modified Colt pistol. Modeled after a gun Dillinger used in real life, the pistol is fully automatic, making it something of a machine gun in miniature. Oddly enough, Depp never fires the weapon in the movie.
Smith & Wesson 4506
Used In: Training Day
Denzel Washington relies heavily on two Smith & Wesson 45s in his Oscar-winning performance as corrupt LAPD detective Alonzo Harris, even firing one in the ‘sideways’ style that may look dramatic onscreen but is ludicrous according to armorers. In real life the powerful .45 caliber pistol was approved for use by the LAPD after the infamous North Hollywood Shootout in 1997 (which was itself reportedly inspired in part by the epic gun battle in Michael Mann’s 1995 crime epic Heat).
Used In: Serenity
Referred to as the “Moses Brothers Self-Defense Engine Frontier Model B” by Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillian) in Joss Whedon’s cult hit, this ornate handgun is really a perfectly normal-looking pistol that has been drastically dressed up. The gun’s design, according to Whedon, was intended to invoke the Civil War-era weapons created by the Volcanic Repeating Arms Company, a precursor to Smith & Wesson.
Used In: The Green Hornet
The double barreled pistol Christoph Waltz brandishes in Michel Gondry’s irreverent take on the masked crime fighter is actually a heavily modified Beretta 92F handgun. The normally compact pistol looks far more threatening with two barrels (which swivel, no less), a fact that the film employs to humorous effect when Waltz’s character earnestly asks “Is my gun not scary?”
Used In: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
This (intentionally weathered) shotgun, employed by Davy Jones’ crew in the second installment of the Johnny Depp franchise, dates back to the 17th century, when it and its pistol version – called a “dragoon” — were popular weapons on Naval warships.
Greener Harpoon Gun
Used In: Jaws
It may have taken an actual rifle to kill the great white shark at the climax of this Spielberg classic (it was actually an M1 Garand, a semi-automatic used extensively by the U.S. military in WWII), but it was the Greener that first slowed the beast down. This is the weapon Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) uses to harpoon the shark multiple times, mostly to no avail.
Krinkov Base Gun
Used In: Terminator Genisys
The AKS-74U, also known as a Krinkov, emerged from the 70s-era Soviet Union and can be seen in everything from 2013’s Fast and Furious 6 to 1994’s Police Academy 7. For Terminator Genisys, the gun was used as a base for an elaborate, futuristic cannon-like weapon that appears to be part grenade launcher, part flame thrower.
THE FIRST PEOPLE TO POINT OUT SUCH MISTAKES TYPICALLY are the editors of the Internet Movie Firearms Database. IMFDB.org is a wiki list-serve that functions as a clearinghouse for every possible bit of trivia, analysis and commentary on the interplay between guns and movies. Able to be cross-referenced by virtually any metric — actor, movie, firearm or manufacturer, for instance — the site is a testament to the appetite for information on Hollywood guns. There are 71 gun manufacturers listed and more than 1,500 pages in the "gun" category, along with thousands of actors and more than 5,000 movies.
"The only other product that gets people as excited when it appears in movies is cars," says Chris Serrano, 32, the self-described "geek" who started IMFDB in 2007 from his home in Glendora, 30 miles east of Hollywood. At the time, there was much discussion but little agreement about guns in movies on the web. Serrano, who worked in real estate at the time, thought IMFDB would be a good way to crowdsource consensus.
Interest was immediate. The first visitors were fans of Westerns eager to weigh in about history and authenticity. Some modern movies generated intense discussion. The entry on Michael Mann's Heat now tops two dozen pages. When Chad Stahelski and David Leitch debuted the 2014 thriller John Wick, IMFDB editors began itemizing the array of weaponry on display in the gun-heavy film. "As soon as it came out, it was big on the site," says Serrano, a gun enthusiast who says he likes "a nice lever action" rifle.
Today, IMFDB gets more than 1 million unique visitors a month and has a team of 12 administrators and editors scattered around the world. "I've gotten word that Hollywood people do come and do research," says Serrano. It's mostly prop masters and armorers, but sometimes actors also come to the site to do research for their shows.
Now a graduate student in computer science, Serrano sometimes detects the political currents that underlie discussions about guns and Hollywood but says most people just want to be entertained. "Almost no one considers
watching a film to be a political decision," he says.
AS IMFDB'S POPULARITY DEMONSTRATES, PRODUCTIONS CAN generate interest in firearms. And manufacturers are eager to capitalize. Typically, only small firms competing for market share entertain product-placement discussions. "They'll sell it to you at manufacturers' price, occasionally; most of them will give it to you at a percentage off of wholesale. That's how it works," says Louisiana-based armorer Bryan Carpenter (The Expendables, The Magnificent Seven), who ticks off as examples such boutique companies as Zev Technologies, Sons of Liberty and CZ-USA.
Name brand gunmakers are so inundated with merchandising opportunities from productions that they don’t even bother promoting themselves to Hollywood as equivalent automotive businesses and fashion houses do. This despite the fact that an appearance in the right gun-starring roles — Smith & Wesson's .44 Magnum Model 29 in Dirty Harry, various Beretta models in The Sopranos — can propel robust legacy sales for decades. "Smith, Glock, those companies don't have to do anything," says Angelina Giudice, an independent licensing consultant who spent a decade working with Smith & Wesson before joining big-time pistol firm Taurus this year. (Neeson carried its Millennium Pro PT111 in Taken, while its trademark M1911 is a regular film presence, prominently held by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby.) "They just have to sit back and wait."
What they’re waiting for, mostly, is red flags. "If the gun is going to [be scripted to] malfunction, you can't have my gun," she says, noting that arming antiheroes like Tony Soprano or Walter White is less thorny than it used to be. "Please don't shoot dogs and children and don't malfunction. That's the bottom line — other than that, let's talk."
Frank Harris, vp sales and marketing at Kahr Firearms Group, makers of the Thompson submachine gun (aka the Tommy gun, a staple from Scarface to Inglourious Basterds) and the Desert Eagle pistol (gold-plated in Austin Powers in Goldmember), notes, "We don't need to promote them. They are promoted all the time." The firm doesn’t charge producers to use its IP (as it would for a Desert Eagle T-shirt or Tommy-shaped gin bottle). "We feel like we're getting a good trade-off," he says.
Anatomy of a Scene: HEAT
A lot goes into making a good shoot ‘em up scene work on screen. The Hollywood Reporter breaks down a well-known sequence from Michael’s Mann’s 1995 thriller, Heat.
While getting a gun into a movie is relatively easy and often free, having it portrayed in the right way is a bigger ask. That's where Rolfe Auerbach comes in. As a licensing consultant who works on product integration, Auerbach helps some of the country's biggest gun manufacturers. In 2013, he negotiated a $250,000 deal with Beretta to have the firm's 92FS pistol featured in Peter Berg's Afghanistan war drama Lone Survivor, starring Wahlberg and Taylor Kitsch. "The movies provide a great opportunity to feature or highlight firearms with different groups of influencers like the military and law enforcement," says Gary Ramey, the former Beretta exec who negotiated the deal — the largest gun product-placement deal on record — with Auerbach. "That's where we focus our efforts."
Weaponry accounts for an increasingly large share of Auerbach's overall business, though he won't disclose figures. And it isn't just guns. Companies that sell bullets, scopes, tactical gear and other military and law enforcement products also are enthusiastic repeat clients. "I work with bombs, too," adds Auerbach.
Weapons manufacturers know a lot more about how Hollywood works than one might think. "They always want to know about the actors, they want to know about the director, they want to know about how many people are going to see it," says Auerbach. "They want to know what the distribution is, who the distribution is. Is it a major studio? Is it an independent that will go to the festivals?" They're pros, in other words, and guns are just another product. The sales vp at Sig Sauer used to work at CocaCola. Ramey came from Sara Lee Desserts.
When it comes to product placement, gun manufacturers place a premium on safety. "Lone Survivor was good," says Auerbach, "but a policeman coming home and locking up his gun in a gun safe so his family can't get to it, his kids can't get to it — that's the Holy Grail." Hunting and target practice also are good. "They're not looking to show people being killed," he claims.
While there's no magic formula for manufacturers, some deals work on multiple levels. Beretta was the official firearm of the Army at the time of the Lone Survivor deal, for example, and the movie package helped strengthen that relationship, explains Ramey. Colt saw a massive uptick in sales after the Dirty Harry movies, according to Paul Barrett's Glock: The Rise of America's Gun, which recounts some of Hollywood's history with firearms. Barrett points out that as the Glock gained notoriety in films and TV — first in the show The Equalizer and later in Die Hard sequels and other movies — it translated into market success. Summarizes Barrett, "Glock became an instant favorite of American gun enthusiasts."
Ramey says companies get approached a few times a year with deals. "[A big deal] would be awesome, but I haven't had that opportunity yet," says Gordon Bond of Bond Arms, which makes a derringer that has appeared, without paid placement, in scores of productions. "We've been in probably 20 different TV shows, and 80 percent of those we didn't know happened," says Bond. "It's free advertising."
The middlemen in Hollywood's gun trade are the armorers. There only are a couple dozen based in California, but they wield a lot of power to get guns into content. Mike Tristano, an industry veteran who runs his own armory with a few thousand guns in Woodland Hills, is one of them. Compact with a goatee and muscled arms, Tristano says he doesn’t like the term "mercenary" but concedes that he's worked all over Africa in anti-poaching missions as well as for small armies. All that real-world experience has made him an indispensable gun expert on set, where few others, if anyone, has handled a weapon.
Manufacturers, who also have become Tristano's friends over the years, often approach him looking for a backdoor into upcoming productions. Steyr's SSG sniper rifle appeared in Steven Seagal's Sniper: Special Ops in October, thanks in part to Tristano's relationships.
Who Has Held the Most Gun Models in Hollywood History?
When working with A-list actors, Tristano often takes them out to a range, sometimes for weeks at a time. They need to learn how a real weapon feels, he says, and for certain scenes, they need to know what it feels like to shoot with live rounds. Directors often ask for his advice on what weapons are appropriate for historical pieces. Tristano is happy to weigh in — he has seen too many Westerns featuring rifles that didn’t exist in the period, and it frustrates him.
Sometimes armorers find that their onscreen handiwork worms its way back into real life. John Patteson, a Florida-based armorer (Cape Fear and Bad Boys II), recalls an experience on a 1980s TV show that he will not name in which a director wanted two guys with semiautomatic handguns to fire while standing next to each other. Patteson pointed out that the ejected rounds from one gun would hit the second man, at best creating an annoyance and at worst a potential safety hazard. "The director says, 'How about we ask the left guy to tilt his gun sideways, so brass goes up and arcs away?' " Patteson adjusted the scene accordingly, but "next thing you know, I'm seeing guys in 7-Eleven videos holding the guns sideways." There's no way to trace whether incidents of sideways shooting in real life increased as a result of movie portrayals, but the anecdotal trace of his craft in real-life criminal activity left Patteson feeling disconcerted. At some point, he says, people do get "educated" by cinema: "A lot of the time, unfortunately, it takes on a life of its own."
After nearly three decades as an armorer, Tristano has begun to feel like an endangered species in Hollywood. He longs for the old days, working with his heroes like Charlton Heston. Producers look at him askance because he's the guy with the guns. "I see you as a necessary evil," one told him not so long ago while the two were on set. On another occasion, a producer called saying that the armorer on his movie needed help. "If you already have an armorer, what do you need my help for?" asked Tristano. Turned out the armorer on set had what's known as an Entertainment Firearms Permit — an easily obtainable certificate issued by the state — but never actually had handled a real weapon. Says Tristano, "Give me a break."
A TOUR OF HOLLYWOOD’S ARMORY
Take a room-by-room tour of ISS’ Weapons Department, home of the entertainment industry’s largest cache of real firearms.
The ISS Complex
Long Gun Room
National Firearms Act Room
Modern Revolver Room
Semi-Automatic Pistol Room
Semi-Automatic Pistol Room
Features a vast array of the small firearm type, from Japanese Nambus to World War II-era German Lugers.
National Firearms Act Room
Internally referred to as the “fun room,” and locked behind a special vault door, this chamber features ISS’ fully automatic weaponry and all other weapons that require extra licensing, including grenade launchers, flame throwers and anti-tank rifles.
This is where the armaments are customized, blanked and cleaned with dedicated mills and lathes. ISS is licensed to make any firearm or part.
Carts filled with firearms are lined up for productions, including Preacher, Rizzoi & Isles and Pretty Little Liars. Decals decorated the walls, nodding to past work on everything from Gangster Squad and Justified to Criminal Minds and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
The home of the rifles and shotguns, along with other assorted weapons that require significant vertical storage space, including net-throwing guns and tranquilizer guns.
This space features double-action revolvers dating back to the 1870s.
Possesses everything the durable Hollywood action genre might require, from Derringer pocket pistols and single-action revolvers to Gatling guns.
Independent Studio Services is located in Sunland, California, in the northeastern foothills of the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles.
MICHAEL PAPAC PERHAPS IS HOLLYWOOD'S BEST KNOWN AND most respected armorer, with credits on Iron Man, Die Hard, True Romance and the Lethal Weapon franchise. After years working on the Warner Bros. lot, Papac started his own prop company, with a specialty in guns. A devoted Trump supporter and self-described "gun guy," Papac was the armorer for Bruce Willis, Robert Downey Jr. and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He says hypocrisy is baked into the relationship Hollywood maintains with the gun industry, pointing to the dozens of actors who are "totally anti-gun, vilifying weapons," even as they make movies where they "kill everybody and shoot a gun all day."
Papac enjoys working with certain publicly pro-gun actors like Willis but says he has learned to keep his politics to himself. "Now I know that actors are portraying a character in a film, but be a little realistic," he says. "It's hypocritical for someone to do that and then vilify what they're doing." But he also knows that the hypocrisy flows both ways and acknowledges his own complicity in a double standard. "My existence in Hollywood is hypocritical," he says. "But if I didn't do it, somebody else would."
More problematic, he says, is the way Hollywood and the gun industry go at each other publicly while masking the extent of their mutual interest. He describes the Hollywood display at the NRA museum as "a little bit of a conundrum." Papac shakes his head resignedly. "Wayne was vilifying the motion picture business, but he has actually some of those same firearms on display."Hollywood itself can be exceedingly reticent to discuss firearms. THR reached out to more than 50 actors, producers, writers, directors and showrunners who have been outspoken gun-control proponents while also utilizing firearms in their storytelling. Only four talked.
The silence may be chalked up to a re-evaluation of Hollywood's potency to advance progressive causes. "This election has shown that the power of this industry's voice is perhaps overstated," says Modern Family showrunner Steve Levitan, who gathered 50 TV writers and producers on the Fox lot in June to discuss gun violence on behalf of advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. "It's become very easy to dismiss Hollywood types as out of touch."
Still, those same Hollywood types disagree that the industry's use of firearms in storytelling undermines their gun-control advocacy. "I think rational people can see the difference between escapism and real life," says Levitan. Clark Gregg, who wields a gun as the star of Agents of SHIELD, disputes as "facile" the notion that onscreen violence correlates to incidences offscreen, noting that "every other country has the same access to video games and films and television that we do, and they don't have the same epidemic levels of gun violence that we do."
Dustin Lance Black, whose screenplays for Milk and J. Edgar incorporated guns, contends that Hollywood's long-standing relationship with firearms legitimizes its outspokenness. "As storytellers who use these guns in our stories and who should be aware that manufacturers do benefit from them, it's all the more reason to advocate for common-sense gun reform," he says.
Tom Arnold (who wielded a range of firearms in True Lies, acting alongside late one-time NRA president Heston) agrees with his colleagues — to a point, arguing that Hollywood's politics are mercenary. "If you’re telling certain stories, you'll need to have guns," he says. "But I don't see smoking anymore [in productions]. Look, everyone talks about 'liberal Hollywood,' but I don't know that that's the case, particularly with guns. This is an industry where, if the tax credits were right, we'd probably be shooting movies in Syria right now."
AT ISS' WEAPONS DEPARTMENT, IN A NO-NONSENSE ROOM CALLED the shop, firearms are cleaned, customized and blanked. Amid the emergency eye wash and cans of WD-40 sit well-worn mills and lathes, the machines of gunsmithing. The month's shotgun-toting calendar girl from Dillon Precision (specialists in bullet reloading equipment) smiles from one wall. This is the domain of ruddy-faced Brian Rogers and younger, goateed Nick Norris, who's just a few years out of the Colorado School of Trades.
Elsewhere at ISS, in a large office, owner Bilson — a self-described moderate "weapons enthusiast, not a weapons nut" who believes "there needs to be additional commonsense legislation" such as a national database "and a lot of other things that the NRA is against" — remains in the political cross fire. When he's not ducking the NRA's LaPierre's verbal salvos about Hollywood violence ("We felt like we were thrown under the bus"), he's navigating byzantine local, state, national and international gun laws (California legislation is the country's strictest). ISS regularly is audited by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the state Department of Justice and the Los Angeles Police Department.
As president of the American Entertainment Armories Association, Bilson is in close contact with the MPAA to carve out exemptions, such as a far shortened waiting period to get ahold of a handgun. "[Armorers] can't wait 10 days — they need it that day or the very next day on set due to the speed of production," he says, noting more generally, "There aren't really rules governing what it is we do. So [legislators] have kind of fit a square peg in a round hole, and we have adapted to it as best as we can."
Despite its challenges, Bilson sees his weapons department just like all of the others at ISS. "We're telling stories with props," he says. In the modern revolver room, surrounded by hundreds of double action firearms, he adds: "There is a liberal bias within Hollywood. But these stories are being told, and they are making the liberal bias a lot of money. I don't see that changing anytime soon."
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