Moore Bowls Gutter Balls in Columbine Film

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Moore Bowls Gutter Balls in Columbine Film

by Ari Armstrong, November 13, 2002

What are we to make of a documentary that claims to discuss violence in America, but fails to even mention a policy responsible for raising U.S. homicide rates at least 25%? At the end of his film Bowling for Columbine, director Michael Moore bowls a strike. Unfortunately, his film is less successful. He heaves mightily and knocks down a few pins, but he also rolls some gutter balls.

Economist Jeffrey Miron of Boston University found "drug and alcohol prohibition have substantially raised the homicide rate in the United States over much of the past 100 years," by an estimated 25-75%. Why? Prohibition creates violent black markets. It's a simple theory supported by the evidence. So in his rambling exploration of many other facets of violence in America, why does Moore completely ignore the domestic consequences of prohibition? Such an omission is inexcusable, and it indicates Moore's social agendas trump any serious effort to come to grips with the problem.

That said, at times Moore's work is chillingly poignant. During one segment, he shows frame after frame of botched U.S. foreign policy moves. The U.S. helps kill or otherwise remove one leader of a struggling nation, only to see the rise of an even worse leader. The U.S. has supported both Saddam and the Taliban, though in retrospect that support seems to have been unwise. Moore's critique of American "foreign entanglements" mirrors libertarian concerns.

On the morning of the Columbine murders, Moore points out, President Clinton was on television announcing the latest American bombing raid in Kosovo. Just an hour later, Clinton was back on TV discussing the suburban terror. Is senseless violence on the personal level linked to the mass-violence of the state? It's possible, but Moore doesn't demonstrate a causal connection.

Shock-rocker Marilyn Manson continues this theme by pointing out the President has more influence than Manson does. Manson blames the "campaign of fear and consumption" constantly bombarding Americans. However, Manson's suggestion that his music is a healthy "escape" is as ludicrous as his critics' assertions that Manson's music somehow drives people to mayhem.

Moore notes the Columbine killers also attended a morning bowling class, so why not blame bowling instead of Manson? Moore's comparison is silly, but he does raise the excellent point that people shouldn't look for scape-goats following a tragedy.

Which brings us to another of Moore's gutter balls. Scape-goating is precisely what Moore does, only his victim is the American gun owner rather than Marilyn Manson.

At one point, Moore places a picture of the young victim of the Buell school shooting against a ledge of Charlton Heston's house. Moore seems to think Heston is somehow to blame for the death, and he asks Heston to apologize. Moore took a couple Columbine victims to K-Mart and used media pressure to convince the chain to stop selling ammunition. He describes this as an "overwhelming victory." Yet his self-serving media stunt accomplished the same thing keeping Manson out of Denver accomplished: exactly nothing.

Moore rightly rails against racism. Many white Americans have an irrational fear of black males, and this encourages a violent mindset. That's a needed criticism. Unfortunately, Moore seeks to replace bigotry against blacks with bigotry against gun owners.

Many of my gun-owning friends are doctors, lawyers, professors, and professionals. Does Moore interview anybody representative of the American gun owner? Of course not. Does he interview any scholar who is an expert on crime and firearms, such as David Kopel, John Lott, Gary Kleck, or Don Kates? Of course not. To do so would be to treat the matter seriously rather than fan the flames of prejudice.

Moore cites the gun-homicide statistics for a variety of countries with lower numbers than in the U.S., but he conveniently omits countries with more stringent gun laws and higher gun-homicide rates. He also ignores the fact that England's gun bans have been followed by an increase in violent crime there, including gun-related crime. All the evidence that demonstrates lawfully carrying a handgun or keeping a defensive gun in the home deters criminals is totally suppressed.

Moore does wonder why Canada has a relatively high gun-ownership rate yet fewer murders. He concludes there is something wrong with American culture. He's right about that: there is something wrong. He rightly points to poverty and America's racist past as part of the problem, even though he looks to failed welfare schemes to solve poverty whereas libertarians look to repeal the government interventions (such as prohibition) that have perpetuated it.

But Moore overstates his case. He thinks America is a nation of fear and paranoia. But in some ways he feeds into the same media frenzy he criticizes in his film. Yes, some Americans have problems with violence, bigotry, and paranoia. However, the vast majority of Americans, including the vast majority of American gun owners, lead basically responsible and healthy lifestyles. This basic fact seems not to assist Moore in his quixotic crusades.


The above was written as a self-contained, short article. There is a lot more to say on the matter, of course. What better place to start than with the insightful response of Michael Huemer?

I don't know, Ari, I think you're way too soft on Moore. This would be my review: "Condescending, sanctimonious, dishonest, crude and shameless propaganda" would be a fair description. If you are really just having a hard time finding enough one-sided leftist harangues out there for free, then by all means, pay $7.50 to listen to Michael Moore's personal ideological rant. If you'd like to hear bizarre theories about how the Evil Corporations and the American military are responsible for school shootings; if you'd like to hear amateur speculations about complex social phenomena by someone with no qualifications to talk about it and with no statistics or other relevant evidence; then this is the film for you.

Anyway, here are a couple things you forgot to mention: The (slanderous) implication that the NRA is a racist organization. The apparent assertion that the U.S. has the highest murder rate in the world. The assertion that the guns used in the Columbine shooting were "believed to have been purchased legally." (This might be true if by that he meant that *at some point in their history*, those guns were legally purchased, though not by the shooters themselves. But this would be an example of what I mean by dishonest propaganda.) You mentioned that Moore doesn't interview any of the gun-rights scholars. You might mention whom he interviews instead: Terry Nichols' brother, the Michigan militia, and some bomb-making guy who was suspected by his school of calling in bomb threats.

The film isn't very coherent, jumping from one leftist idea to another. Moore is allegedly trying to 'figure out' what causes the high rate of violence in the United States. He deceives viewers into thinking that we have the highest crime rate in the world, or something like that. He then assumes that a phenomenon of this sort has a single cause. He then asserts that it is caused by the government's promotion of violence, by means of our having a military (Lockheed is accused of causing the Columbine shooting because they make missiles) and having military actions overseas. There's no attempt to present any evidence of a causal link there. No statistical correlations, no interviews with criminals who stated that they were influenced by that, no psychological studies suggesting such a link, no evidence of any kind. As you (Ari) note, he fails to consider any but a few causes of violence, ignoring perhaps dozens more relevant factors, including the role that the war on drugs plays. Other ignored factors include: our criminal justice system and how it deals with criminals, what the probability of a criminal being caught is, how much they stand to gain, the rate of drug use, the proportion of youths who are gang members, numbers of people who come from single-parent households, the effects of religion or lack of it, what sort of moral beliefs are prevalent, what sort of moral training children receive. I'm sure a social scientist could think of a dozen more. He doesn't bother to do even such a simple thing as looking at a breakdown of murders by victim's relationship to the murderer, or probable motivation of the murder, or race, age, sex, etc. I can't believe that even the most leftist social scientist would waste his time listening to Michael Moore.

As to the 'scene' in which Moore 'discusses' various past American foreign policy initiatives: it wouldn't convince anyone of anything, unless they really wanted to believe the conclusion already. He flashes on the screen some one-line summary of some foreign policy action, which, in each case, accuses the United States of killing some large number of people. It's on the screen just long enough to read the one line, then he goes on to the next. All is set to the song "It's a Wonderful World." In each case, there's no indication of what the United States was trying to accomplish, no indication of what the situation was, and very little indication of what the actual United States action was. But even if you completely agreed with Moore about foreign policy, there's no evidence of any sort of link with school shootings or other domestic violence.

The Onion's review: Although the Onion's review is mixed, I think they hit the nail on the head with such assessments as "petty bullying", "something condescending about his tendency to turn politics into a black-and-white morality play", and "Moore's climactic meeting with a doddering Heston, meanwhile, would have seemed crass even if the director hadn't baited the fading icon with a picture of a murdered child."

* * * * *

Speaking of Heston, Moore also gets Heston to admit that he personally is not in too great a danger from criminal attack. Who is, then? Mainly, people living in poorer neighborhoods. Ironically, the types of gun laws Moore advocates will hurt poor people by pricing them out of the market for defensive guns and ammunition and erecting paperwork barriers. John Lott found concealed carry programs reduced crime most in big cities. Moore thus takes a patriarchal attitude toward the poor: "Here, let ME help you... but don't you dare try to help yourself!"

Even in wealthier neighborhoods, though, one reason crime is so low is that criminals know many residents own guns. In America, the "hot" burglary rate -- thefts when the residents are home -- is tiny compared with the rates in, say, England. Firearms can be useful in situations of self-defense, of course, and they are useful hundreds of thousands of times (at least) in America every year (a fact Moore totally ignores). But gun ownership also reduced the crime rate through deterrence -- criminals simply don't commit as many crimes because they fear armed resistance.

* * * * *

Moore's suggestion that Americans are somehow particularly prone to "snap" and go on murder sprees is nonsense. Every region on earth has suffered such violence. That's not what drives America's crime rate, though. Two drivers are drug prohibition and institutionalized poverty. And most crimes are committed by a tiny fraction of the population that consists of habitual criminals.

* * * * *

In his incoherent badmouthing of corporations, Moore neglects to remind us that his film was released by a large corporation, his equipment was manufactured by corporations, and his work was advertised by corporate web pages and media outlets. This doesn't prove Moore's case is wrong, but it does prove he's not self-reflective.

* * * * *

Moore opens his film by getting a free gun with new bank account. Apparently realizing this alone fails to make a point, he asks, "Do you think it's a little dangerous handing out guns at a bank?" Moore could have instead used the case to make the interesting point that crime is much lower in rural America, where gun ownership is common, than it is in big cities, where gun ownership is highly restricted.

* * * * *

As Huemer points out, Moore selected the least sympathetic gun owners to interview. He also related the story of a hunting accident in which some idiot strapped a loaded gun to a dog for a photo op, and the gun went off resulting in injury. But a quick look at the Darwin Awards reveals that some people manage to do stupid things with every tool ever invented by man. Failing that, they use their bare hands and natural objects.

The simple fact remains, however, that the overwhelming majority of gun owners handle their firearms safely and responsibly. Similarly, the large majority of car owners handle their cars safely and responsibly, though there are obvious exceptions.

I recently saw a racist publication that recounted the crimes of blacks and Hispanics, then intimated all blacks and Hispanics are somehow thereby suspect. Moore uses the same technique to demonize gun owners.

* * * * *

Moore asks a representative of Lockheed Martin whether he thinks the company's "weapons of mass-destruction" were related to the Columbine shooting. The representative said, "I don't see that connection," and pointed out the weapons are intended to defend the U.S. against aggressors. Now, I don't doubt for a moment that the U.S. has often used weapons for purposes other than defense of the nation's citizens. But fundamentally self-defense is both a right and a responsibility. Moore never distinguishes between legitimate self-defense and acts of aggression.

* * * * *

Tom Mauser, a gun-restriction activist whose son was murdered at Columbine, appears several times in the film. To his credit, he didn't try to take the simplistic path and claim gun ownership is the driving problem behind American violence. Obviously, he thinks laws further restricting gun ownership will help, but when asked why America suffers from violence he said simply, "I don't know."

* * * * *

It was a little unusual for me to sit in a movie theater and see people on the screen I've met and events I attended. For instance, I was at the rally at which a local youth pastor denounced Manson. (I spoke against legal restrictions of concerts at another rally the same day.)

It was pretty emotional for me to see the live footage of the murders in progress and to hear others talk about the atrocity. I guess Mauser spoke at the film's Denver premier; I don't know how he got through the thing.

* * * * *

Moore thinks it uncouth for the NRA to defend the right to bear arms following a tragedy involving firearms. But the real problem is that disarmament activists demonize gun owners following such tragedies. For instance, as Moore reminds us, Denver's Mayor Webb asked the NRA to cancel a scheduled event in Denver following the murders.

Let's go back a few decades, when racism against blacks was out in the open in many segments of society, to the country's great shame. Now let's draw up a hypothetical. Let's say a civil rights rally had been scheduled for a particular day, but a few days prior to that a black person committed some heinous crime. As Moore himself notes, racists tend to blame not the individual but the entire group. What would have been the appropriate response to a political leader who demanded the cancellation of the civil rights rally? I think we all know the appropriate response to such a politician would be, "Go to Hell."

* * * * *

Moore criticizes the military-industrial complex as well as the American media machine. However, while many libertarians agree with Moore's criticism of the military -- many libertarians protested the Vietnam war in the streets side-by-side with the lefties -- libertarians also champion the basic human right of self-defense and gun ownership.

What Moore totally ignores is that his calls for more disarmament laws entail a massive, centralized police state to enforce those laws. To enforce arbitrary gun laws, the ATF breaks down people's doors in the middle of the night wearing ninja masks and pointing assault rifles at residents' heads.

In fact, America's unconstitutional and unjust disarmament laws feed the prison-industrial complex by sending non-violent offenders to prison for long periods of time.

Disarmament is a most illiberal of causes. It takes power out of the hands of individuals and places it in the hands of the political elite. It leads to unequal enforcement -- just as early gun laws were passed solely to disarm black people (a point Moore actually mentions but fails to pursue). The simple truth is that rich white folk -- "Stupid White Men" -- will almost always dodge stiff punishments for petty firearms violations, while the poor and politically unconnected get hauled off to prison.

No true "liberal" can support disarmament laws. No true liberal harbors bigotry toward any group, and that includes gun owners.

* * * * *

So what do I like about Moore's film? As mentioned, he does some good work criticizing the military-industrial complex and racism.

Besides that, he offers some needed criticism of American media, especially television news programs. One person Moore interviews notes that, even as the American murder rate plummeted, television coverage of murders dramatically expanded, thus giving viewers a false impression of reality.

He notes television has played a role in portraying a stereotype of black males. It also seems obsessed with violence. Why is the show COPS so popular? Why isn't there a "Corporate Cops" show instead? That's "not exciting television," one producer explains. The media and the public share a codependent relationship that almost glorifies violence and blocks out discussion of more serious problems.

But again Moore is not sufficiently self-reflective, for he too sensationalizes violence and loses track of reality.

* * * * *

Moore also notes the overreaction by school administrators following the murders at Columbine. This only further alienated some students. One school administrator said dealing with students is akin to "guerrilla warfare." Another said children were seen as "something to fear."

Matt Stone, a creator of South Park, said school administrators often pressure students to "succeed" academically, and they tag some students as "losers forever" who get off track. The truth of the matter, says Stone, is that academic "losers" sometimes go on to lead more successful lives than straight-A geeks. Yet if students begin to think of themselves as unsalvageable losers, they may give up. Or they may decide to blow up the school, because who cares?

Nothing excuses the reprehensible actions of the murderers. Still, I think Stone is on to something here. Moore didn't pursue the point, but it could have led to a discussion about the school system and, on a deeper level, parenting.

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