THE BLOG

Should Liam Neeson Have Spoken Out About the Problem of Guns in the United States?

22/01/2015 16:57 GMT | Updated 23/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Last week A-list Hollywood actor Liam Neeson got himself into a fight he might not win. Talking to Dubai's Gulf News the actor famous for his roles in gun-heavy films like Taken and A Walk Among The Tombstones said: 'There's just too many... guns out there...Especially in America.'

His comments have unleashed a torrent of news reports and angry commentaries.

One major argument was from the not insubstantial horde of 2nd Amendment advocates who reacted strongly to anyone who comments on America's gun industry.

Leading the charge on this has been the firearms company that provided the guns for Neeson's latest movie Taken 3. Last Saturday they attacked the star for his comments about US gun laws. PARA USA said it 'regrets' having worked with Neeson after the Irish born actor was quoted as saying the numbers of guns in the US was a 'disgrace'.

The company has said it is going to cut its ties with the Taken franchise and has asked other gun-suppliers to do the same. They also said Neeson's comments reflected a 'factual ignorance'.

It is no surprise that a gun company would take a strong view on what Neeson said, but was what he said, indeed, factually ignorant?

The actor commented in the interview: 'There's over 300 million guns. Privately owned, in America...Every week now we're picking up a newspaper and seeing, "Yet another few kids have been killed in schools."'

Are these statements true?

The numbers of civilian guns owned in the United States has been estimated to be between 270,000,000 and 310,000,000, so perhaps Neeson was saying the higher figure for effect, but many people do quote over 300 million guns, so that was not factually ignorant, per se.

And in terms of school shootings, between January 2013 and June 2014 there were calculated to have been 74 school shootings in the United States. That's 74 attacks over 126 weeks.   So Neeson should, really, have said: 'a few times a month kids have been killed in schools'.

Yet he is certainly not ignorant. He just focused, perhaps, too much on 'fatalities'.

Consider this: about 35,000 American children and teens are reported to have suffered non-fatal gun injuries in 2008 and 2009 - six times more than those shot and killed. This is the equivalent to 700 school classrooms of 25 students each; a number greater than the US military personnel wounded in action in Iraq and double the number wounded in Afghanistan.

Schools in the United States are by far the most dangerous centres of learning in terms of gun violence in the developed world.

The second argument against Neeson is that he was hypocritical. How could Neeson have the temerity to speak out, given that he has appeared in so many films as the gun-toting good guy?

In one such attack, Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, was quoted as saying: 'The rank hypocrisy of an actor who uses guns in his films and attacks gun ownership at the same time is way over the top. I guess you don't need brains to act.'

Yet there are plenty of actors who have spoken out about violence (and accordingly gun violence) and the accusation of being hypocrites is not levied at them. A number of UNICEF goodwill ambassadors - of which Liam Neeson is one - have touted guns on celluloid; Roger Moore, Danny Glover, Orlando Bloom, Amitabh Bachchan, Susan Sarandon and Jackie Chan included. Are they hypocrites working for both a children's charity and acting with guns in their hands, given the number of children who die annually at the end of a barrel?

The truth is that, to be a successful film lead in today's entertainment world you will be asked to pick up a gun at some point in your career. According to a study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University and Annenberg Public Policy Center on average violence with guns occurs more than twice an hour in both PG-13 and R-rated pics. Levels of gun violence in mainstream American films have more than doubled since 1950, and the levels of gun violence in PG-13 rated films now outpace those of R-rated films.

It might be seen as hypocritical of Neeson to speak out against the American freedom to carry guns, but his comments would not be widely publicised if he was not a famous male actor. And you can't be a famous male actor without being willing to pick up a pistol on camera. Catch-22.

Ironically, the one thing that Neeson was possibly wrong about was not linking violence in the movies with enacted violence when guns are available.

The star, who took the role of ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills in all three of the Taken films, told his interviewer that the US' gun problem was not connected to Hollywood's action movies.

'I grew up watching cowboy movies, loved doing that [gun gesture] with my fingers, "Bang, bang, you're dead!" I didn't end up a killer,' he said. 'A character like Bryan Mills going out with guns and taking revenge: it's fantasy.'

Yet there is evidence that some people are unable to make such a separation of fact and fantasy. Researchers have repeatedly looked at what happens when children are exposed to violent media and concluded that it increases aggression and was a 'significant risk to health', something endorsed by six leading US health pediatric organisations. The saturation of guns in films normalises them, reinforcing to many the belief that you need one to survive. And that, as another study found, 'the presence of weapons in films might amplify the effects of violent films on aggression'.

Such research suggests that films do indeed have a part to play in America's gun problem.

The sad thing, though, is that the attacks Neeson has had for his justifiable comments may well deter future actors from doing the same.

Gun control may even become a taboo subject for A listers, born out of fear of alienating swathes of American movie goers. And so a valuable voice - that of the celebrity - in the battle against the impact of gun violence both in the US and worldwide is in danger of being silenced.