Because of their role as pedagogical tools directed at students and the general public, educational films have often been the subject of controversy, especially when they tackle fraught social issues from a particular point of view. While it might seem like the debate on gun control, mass shootings and police violence has only recently mushroomed to extraordinary proportions — at least as far as its coverage in the print, broadcast and electronic press is concerned — the issue has a much longer history, including in documentaries and non-theatrical films.
One such film that originated as a TV documentary special on NBC, but whose inclusion in the Internet Archive’s educational films collection indicates its distribution in the K-12 and college film circuit, bears the rather poignant title A Shooting Gallery called America (1975).
The early 1970s were a period fraught with debate about gun control, especially after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
Interestingly enough, a pamphlet issued the previous year by the National Coalition to Ban Handguns had the exact same title, providing evidence of a coordinated campaign for gun control that deployed statistics, testimonies and visual materials calculated to have an emotional impact.
The program caused as polarized a response in 1975 as one would expect a similar broadcast to cause today. NBC received thousands of letters from supporters of both sides of the debate (starting before the program had even been broadcast!) with arguments that have remained almost constant to the present day.
Said one: “We can give you our opinion of your Sunday, March 2nd special ‘Shooting Gallery Called America.’ It stank.
“We found it nothing more than a rehash of the same tired old theme: blame the instrument, not the criminal.”
Another read: “I would like to commend NBC for its coverage of the gun problems in this country. The special, A Shooting Gallery Called America, was very informative. I would like to see it again.”
Producer Lucy Jarvis who would go on to direct many similar documentaries on social causes, later recalled the storm of controversy unleashed by this special:
“People knew we were doing it, and we began to get lots of mail,” she said. ” Probably they were alerted by a national organization. Because there was such an emotional reaction, I didn’t want the program to go until I was doubly sure that everything was checked out.”
As a result the airing date was pushed back on two occasions.
The statistics presented by the journalists — number of handguns and rifles, number of victims in shooting crimes and accidents — have only gotten worse with the passage of four decades. But the visual vocabulary established by documentaries like this one, from footage of shooting ranges to interviews at gun shows on the one hand and with families of victims of gun violence on the other, will be more than familiar to viewers of cable and network news in 2016.
As a recent article revisiting the program and its reception forty years ago put it in a rather rhetorical fashion: “Why has nothing changed in 40 years?”