Colorado and Warner Bros. Can Help Change Gun Laws

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was not seated in the darkened movie theatre in Aurora, Colo., on Friday night when a madman sprayed gunfire at a horrified crowd. But he dodged a bullet of his own two days later. Appearing on the ABC's This Week, he was asked by host George Stephanopoulos if the violent tragedy called for a reconsideration of his state's complicated gun laws.

"This wasn't a Colorado problem, this is a human problem," Hickenlooper said smoothly, averting a conversation about guns and talking instead about the killer's "diabolical" nature. Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan, who was seated next to Hickenlooper for the interview, merely echoed the governor's spin.

One thousand miles west, Warner Bros. studios was doing a bit of its own ducking and weaving. Misfortune had dealt the studio a bad hand: its Batman blockbuster, The Dark Knight Rises, was playing in the Aurora theater where the fiery assault took place. After scrambling for the appropriate response, the studio issued a statement that expressed condolences to the victims of the shooting and their loved ones. Warner then went the extra yard, canceling the gala Paris premiere of the movie. But nowhere in its public actions did the studio address the elephant in the room: the inescapable link between movie and real-life violence.

As the nation once again struggles to wring some clarity from yet another blood-soaked story, it strikes me that two such formidable institutions, a state government and a major motion picture studio, might join forces to find a solution to one of America's most pressing plagues. Why not use Colorado -- which now bears the infamy of both the Aurora and Columbine massacres -- as a testing ground for dramatic new gun laws? And why not rely on Warner Bros. -- no stranger to the machinery of public relations -- to support such an effort?

Since the 1999 Columbine high school shootings, in which two gunmen killed 13 people, including themselves, Colorado has made some placating efforts to curb gun violence. The state has tightened the regulations that govern gun show sales and banned third-party purchases of weapons for those who are not legally qualified to own them. But overall, the state remains largely in thrall to the NRA, with relatively loose laws regarding the issuance of gun permits and, just this year, a court ruling that allows for concealed weapons to be carried on the campus of the University of Colorado.

James Holmes, the lone suspect in the Aurora theater shootings, was able to purchase two pistols, one shotgun and an AR-15 assault weapon from local stores, and more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition online.

So why not try something revolutionary by introducing dramatic new laws in Colorado that would roll back pro-gun legislation enacted in recent years, while further tightening the restrictive ones already on the books. The new laws would exist for a set period of time -- say, a year or two -- to determine if such a legislative package could effectively decrease gun violence in the state.

We've already seen the success of such legislation on the national level with the Federal Assaults Weapons Act of 1994, which according the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, resulted in a 66 percent drop over a decade in crimes committed with the prohibited weapons. That law expired in 2004, but was never renewed by Congress due to pressure from gun enthusiasts.

Granted, such a draconian measure sounds implausible, especially considering the fierce pro-gun lobby that pulls together at times like these, barricading itself behind defensive and inflammatory rhetoric. But the fact is, an across-the-board, no-compromise anti-gun strategy has never been tried before in any state. And with Colorado having now become ground zero for two of the most deadly incidents of random gun violence in the history of the nation, doesn't it arguably fall upon the state to take the lead in the matter?

As for the inevitable backlash such a plan would trigger from the NRA, the response would be simple: You've had your way long enough. It's time to try something new.

And that's where Warner Bros. could lend a hand. As all moviegoers know, the film industry and its distribution arms are facile at delivering whatever message it wants to get across -- from the coming attractions and PSAs that regularly precede the feature films, to the heartfelt holiday-time appeals that have us digging into our pockets for spare change to donate to sick children. Surely Warner could mount a similar campaign on behalf of a "Project Aurora," which would beseech moviegoers to contact state officials in Colorado and ask them to support such sweeping legislation. Given its close ties to a vast community of A-list actors, actresses and directors, the campaign could even be star-studded. And having already revealed plans to donate some of its proceeds to Aurora victims, this would seem like a logical next step for Warner.

Could such an effort ever really happen? Not likely. The issue is too loaded and those forces that oppose gun restrictions of any kind are virtually unbudgeable. And yet the point remains, the state of Colorado and Warner Bros. studio have unwittingly found themselves in a historic crucible, and the search for a workable solution to the Aurora tragedy--and all tragedies like it--has only served to raise the temperature of the nation's anger.

From desperation come desperate measures. Isn't it time to think outside the box?

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This essay originally appeared in the online edition of USA Today, on July 24, 2012.