This story was first published after the October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, the deadliest mass shooting in our history. We will republish it every time America suffers another mass shooting. “Speaking Is Difficult,” the short documentary featured in this piece, has also been updated since its initial release. The most recent version can be viewed below.
A.J. Schnack remembers the calm in every town. No matter how hellish the shooting, or how many news crews came, things always went back to normal. So Schnack made a film.
“Every time, there’s people who think we need to do something about this violence, then the other side says, ‘Now is not the time,’ and then a few days go by and there’s just… nothing,” he said. “I wanted to make something that shows these events happening again and again and how they echo one another.”
Schnack’s film, “Speaking Is Difficult,” travels to Colorado Springs, Colorado; Charleston, South Carolina; Fort Hood, Texas; Tucson, Arizona, — and to 21 other cities and towns that have suffered mass killings. Now we can add El Paso and Dayton to the list. Will the pattern of nothing changing continue?
Schnack has seen how quickly the news cycle can move on even after deadly shootings with lots of casualties, like the 59 killed outside the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas or the 20-plus killed in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
“When we filmed at towns where a shooting recently happened, we saw a lot of memorials, like ‘Chattanooga Strong,'” Schnack said. “We’re seeing that now with ‘Vegas Strong.’ But after a certain point, there’s just nothing, and there’s no sign that anything had happened.”
Documentarians try to keep the gun discussion in the public eye after the news cycle has passed. Michael Kirk’s “Gunned Down,” a film for PBS’ “Frontline,” straightforwardly shows how the National Rifle Association became such a powerful lobbying force.
“Every time politicians and gun-rights people stand up and say, ‘This is the one that finally, we will get something done about this,'” said Kirk. “And the veterans of all of that, of watching those wars, almost always know, deep in their hearts, that nothing is going to change. As long as the NRA is empowered the way they are, and is as powerful as they are, as a lobby group in Washington.”
After their initial outrage subsides, many gun opponents move on to other issues. But Kirk found that the NRA never does.
“The strength of the National Rifle Association and the strong belief of the people who believe in their right to bear firearms overwhelms and is constant, when the others come and go based on the tragedy,” he said.
And while few federal laws have been passed in response to recent mass shootings — the main one being a recent ban on bump stocks — gun sales always spike.
“Gun owners will immediately go and buy more guns under the fear that the government may, this time, actually enact some legislation that will prohibit or restrict their ability to buy and have guns,” Kirk said.
Shari Cookson took a different approach with her HBO documentary “Requiem for the Dead.” Instead of focusing on the violence that makes national headlines, Cookson and her partner, Nick Doob, looked at gun violence that is rarely noticed: a gun that went off while a man cleaned it, a child who killed a friend by accident, a 42-year-old woman caught in a gang shootout.
Like Schnack’s “Speaking Is Difficult,” “Requiem For The Dead” eschews narration and interviews in favor of letting the victims’ lives speak for themselves. Pictures from their social media accounts are presented to show who they were in life. News and police reports piece together the stories of their death.
“We focus on shootings like Orlando and Las Vegas, but 32,000 people die from gun violence every year, and most of them happen by accident or by these impulsive acts of anger,” Cookson said. “We wanted to capture that. We wanted to show the human cost of these daily incidents and how it happens to people who never thought these things could happen to them. There was one teen we focused on whose last social media post before he was killed was about how prom was the best night of his life.”
Cookson said she’s received thanks for putting a face on the human loss that comes with these daily shootings, but says that shootings like the one in Las Vegas have been especially difficult to see in the news after she has spent so much time focused on gun violence.
“There’s always a part of you that hopes this movie will create change, and I still believe that documentaries can play a vital role in societal change,” she said. “But to make a movie like this and then see that nothing has happened, it is somewhat disheartening.”
In some respects, moving on is just a natural part of the human condition. But many who lost children don’t want to move on — they want progress. Kirk said families who lost children in the Sandy Hook killings were devastated by their powerlessness to enact change.
“They were just literally, they were heartbroken at how difficult that was to do,” Kirk said.
In fact, during Schnack’s filming for “Speaking Is Difficult,” Newtown was the only place where the effects of a shooting could be seen. That’s because he arrived as Sandy Hook Elementary was being demolished. At least in that town, gun violence had changed the community’s physical landscape forever.
Ashley Boucher contributed to this story.