While being interviewed for the documentary Gun Fight, former NRA lobbyist Richie Feldman showed the crew his arsenal of guns. He picked up one in particular and said, “I never go to the door without my best friend. If someone comes up and I don’t know who they are, I want to be prepared.”
It is scenes such as Feldman’s that two-time Academy-Award winning documentary director Barbara Kopple was able capture for the recently released Gun Fight, a documentary exploring the firearm debate in America. Kopple brought her cameras to the UC Davis Medical Center and filmed real-life gunshot wound victims.
The film, which premiered on HBO on April 13 and will be released on DVD, features a number of UC Davis emergency room physicians, most notably Garen Wintemute, a nationally recognized expert on the prevention of gun control violence, whose research has brought to attention the staggering number of illegal firearm sales that occur during gun shows.
Wintemute, who is also the director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, became interested in gun control early on in his career as an emergency room surgeon. After seeing the effects of gun violence in the ER at Woodland Memorial Hospital, he decided to study public health at Johns Hopkins University.
It was here that Wintemute learned that prevention was particularly important for firearm-related injuries.
“Most people who die from gunshot wounds in the U.S. die within minutes. They never make it to the ER. A number of emergency medicine physicians and trauma surgeons realized that if we wanted to reduce the number of people who died from gunshot wounds, we needed to reduce the number of people who got shot in the first place,” he said.
To capture the reality of gun-related violence, Kopple and her camera crews filmed firearm victims in hopes of capturing their stories. According to featured UC Davis physician Erik Laurin, the film’s ability to capture the realities of gun violence gives it extra impact.
“It’s rare that people actually get to see what happens to someone whose been shot. I hope it brings the message home that when someone does get shot it’s a very intense scene, with all the medical care behind it and all the resuscitation to make sure the person survives, and the rehabilitation and months and years of recovering,” he said.
Williams Cole, one of the film’s producers, believes the documentary format of the film will likewise help personalize the issue.
“I think documentary film has the power to give context to issues that often are defined by clichés and sound bites. Guns are one of those issues, they have become a symbol for many that is much more than steel and caliber,” Cole said.
According to Kopple, the original footage she filmed at the UC Davis Medical Center really provides this personalization, and gives the film emotional weight.
“It really shows you how someone suffers when they get shot. Their lives are so changed and they come apart – once you’ve been shot it just sticks with you,” Kopple said. “You really see and feel how in just one second a flash of a gunshot changes you. Like the woman that we filmed who, even after many years of being shot still had stitches in her neck, or the boy who was great at football and now he’ll never be able to walk again.”
Despite having cameras in the workplace, none of the doctors ever felt uncomfortable being filmed. This, according to Wintemute, is a testament to the sort of authenticity the film achieves.
“During their filming in the emergency department, I often simply forgot that they were there,” Wintemute said. “They did not want “performances.” They wanted regular people doing what those people would regularly do. And that’s what they got.”
One of Kopple’s main goals was to present a multitude of perspectives on gun control, including those who were passionately for and against it. The film features everyone from a victim of the Virginia Tech shootings to National Rifle Association (NRA) advocates, as well as doctors and policymakers. This range, according to Lynette Scherer, chief of trauma and emergency surgery service at UCD Medical Center and also featured in the film, will help the documentary start a national conversation about gun control.
“I think whenever you can get people talking about it, you are enhancing your ability to make a change,” Scherer said. “Change is slow, it takes decades, but if you’re not talking about it you have no hope for change. People will recognize there are two sides to this story, and will give us the chance to move forward.”
The decision to show both sides of the firearm control debate, without taking sides, according to Wintemute, makes Gun Fight an important reflection of the ongoing debate about firearm control in America.
“They refused to oversimplify or take a position of omniscience. It’s not a neat or happy film, but violence is neither of those things, either,” Wintemute said.
Kopple hopes that people will realize through the film that America needs to make real change in how it deals with gun laws.
“I really came away believing that something has to be done to limit gun violence in this country, and I do think that there are very sensible ideas to keep guns away from people who want to use it for violence. One thing Garen said is, ‘What will be enough to inspire a sensible approach to this issue?’ I personally would like to think that we’ve seen too much already,” she said.
Even with the heated emotions on both sides of the debate, Kopple went into filming with as unbiased an outlook as possible.
“I really try to come to a film with no agenda,” Kopple said. “Once I’m doing a film I just want to be able to soak and take everything in. When I was making my documentary about Mike Tyson, people were just shocked and said ‘Well how can you that, what about [everything he’s done]?’ But you make something that’s deeper and you allow people to feel comfortable, and we just want to learn and feel because that’s the only way we’re going to get to the bottom of the issue, particularly with gun control. If it was one-sided you wouldn’t be learning anything, there would be no complexity.”
Scherer believes that the technique that Gun Fight uses to show both sides of the issue reflects the method that she believes will actually bring progress on the firearm control issue in America.
“It’s going to be someone in the middle who appreciates both sides of this issue that will eventually solve it, and I think we [through this documentary] have the best chance of coming up with something that’s going to work with this issue. Watch it with an open mind.”
Whether you’re for stricter gun laws or not, Kopple reflects a sentiment every American can relate to when she repeats the words of featured Virgina Tech victim Colin Goddard.
“I just want a place in America where people can be safe.”
ANNETA KONSTANTINIDES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.