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Bowling for Columbine
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I'm back from my trip, and last night I stopped by my local video store and rented Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine.

Let me first say that there are moments in the film that are genuinely emotional, others that are horrifying, and others that are laugh out loud funny.

However, it was nowhere near an honest attempt to explore the issue of violence in American society, which on the surface it purports to do. It is in many ways a rambling, incoherent film that ultimately doesn't make a central point, conflicts itself, and leaves the viewer wondering just what the hell kind of point Moore was making.

But I will try. Moore's documentary screed covers virtually every issue on the map, but ultimately seems to be about violence in America and the underlying reasons behind the Columbine tragedy (when Moore asks someone for an interview, he tells them that he is working on a movie about these topics).

Now, I expected the movie to be very anti-gun, or at least advocating heavy gun control. I half expected to agree with many of Moore's points. I personally believe that handguns should be illegal, that the 2nd Amendment should only extend to the ownership of shotguns and rifles (sufficient to arm a militia). I'm not just for 5-day background checks/waiting periods on handguns. I want them outlawed.

But here's the far as I can tell, Moore doesn't agree with this position. It's strange, because I can't really tell what he thinks. But there is a segment of the film where he rhetorically asks: So why is American culture so violent?

Our violent history? Well, Moore says, that can't be it, since other countries that currently have lower crime rates have at least or much bloodier histories (e.g. Germany, Britain, and Japan).

So is it all the guns we own? No, according to Moore. He uses Canada as a counterexample, but as with most of the statistics he throws around in the film, he cites no sources, nor even time frames. His "evidence" for comparable gun ownership in Canada is a guy speaking from the front seat of a car, and a visit to a local Canadian shooting range. He asks these people anecdotally about gun ownership, and uses their estimates as gospel, going on to draw the conclusion that it is not the level of guns in American culture, but some other factor.

Now, I realize that statistics are often extremely misleading, but here's a 1996 Canadian study comparing firearm ownership between various countries:

Canada was in the mid-range of firearms ownership. Nearly 22% of Canadian households possessed at least one firearm. Possession was highest in the United States (48.6%) and lowest in England and Wales, Scotland, and the Netherlands.

So the rate of gun ownership is nearly double, according to the Canadians themselves. But what are the populations of the U.S. and Canada? Well, the current estimates are around 32 million Canadians and around 290 million Americans (according to the CIA World Factbook).

Now, Moore flashes up some comparisons of gun-related homicides during one segment (again, without a source or reference), and he says that there are 165 Canadian gun deaths a year and 11,127 U.S. ones. But
when you take into consideration that our population is nearly 9 times that of Canada's, and gun ownership is nearly double, I don't think the number seems so staggering anymore.

It's still bad...don't get me wrong. But I would blame it on handguns. Moore wants to blame it on something else.

What? Well, as far as I can tell, he seems to be making the point that we're a more violent culture than nearly anybody else in the world because we're fed a steady diet of fear and paranoia by our politicians and media, partly as crowd control, partly to distract us from the real problems (like corporate malfeasance and pollution).

He interviews Barry Glassner, author of "Culture of Fear", and tries to hammer this point home endlessly. The media, from local news broadcasts to COPS, apparently drums up fear of young black men, even through coverage of "Africanized" Killer Bees. But if I'm following Moore's point, he's indicting xenophobia and racism fomented by our politicians and media. This fear and paranoia, he seems to be saying, are the cause for all our gun-related homicides.

But if that were the case, wouldn't most homicides be between racial groups? I can't seem to find statistics on this, but without seeing compelling evidence to support it, I would doubt that most homicides are racially-motivated. Which seems to be the point Moore is making. The maddening thing is, he never really makes a point. His style is all innuendo.

But I think one can reasonably draw the conclusion that he doesn't think gun ownership is the underlying problem of gun-related homicides in America.

So then, what should be make of the famous scene where he takes two victims of Columbine to K-Mart headquarters to try to get them to stop selling handgun ammunition? They apparently succeed in getting K-Mart to phase out and eventually stop selling handgun ammunition in their stores. Moore himself calls this a victory.

But a victory for what? From what I can tell, he's been saying all along that guns (and bullets), are not the real problem. After all, Canada has just as many guns, but not nearly the violence, right? So what good will it do for K-Mart to stop selling handgun bullets?

His point, if he has one, is utterly incoherent. He's spent most of the first hour of the film trying to convince us that the culture of fear is the reason for our violent nature, but then he goes after the people retailing weapons. Doesn't make sense.

It's interesting that this report just came out in the news today:

Violent and property crimes dipped in 2002 to their lowest levels since records started being compiled 30 years ago, and have dropped more than 50 percent in the last decade, the Justice Department reported Sunday.

One would think, if Moore were right, that the fear promulgated by the events of 9/11, and the racist/xenophobic paranoia peddled by the Bush Administration since it took office, would have led to higher crime rates in the past few years. After all, if we were a culture of fear before 9/11, we're even more so now, right?

Look, basically I think Moore's full of crap on this. We have more gun-related deaths each year because (guess what?) we have more guns (specifically handguns) and looser gun laws. Why can't Moore just make this point, instead of all this nonsense about the media acting as a tool of a Right-wing conspiracy to make you live in fear so they can ruin the environment and embezzle corporate earnings?

Finally, Moore's filming and editing style is downright misleading. See this overview for a decent rundown. I think Heston does make a fool of himself in the penultimate interview, even though it is heavily edited. But his editing of the post-Columbine rally in Denver is downright irresponsible.

Still, I think it's an interesting film. I don't like supporting Moore or his work, but I do think the film is at least worth a rental, because even in its clumsy, disingenuous way it still confronts and provokes important issues.

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