“You can’t pick and choose among the Amendments to the Con­stitution.” 

General Thomas L. Wilkerson is president-CEO of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, dedicated to promoting awareness of the medal and its recipients as a way of encouraging sacrifice and selflessness. Wilkerson pursued a 31-year military career and talked to Variety’s Peter Caranicas.

What is wrong in this country with regard to shooting violence, and how can it be fixed?
You presuppose that something is wrong. I don’t support the idea that any kind of violence inside the country is right, but at the same time there are mechanisms today that make our entire nation a village, and therefore a lot more publicity is given to acts of violence. Everyone is informed and everyone is concerned. In some ways that might feed the violence, but at the same time it gives the appearance that there’s a lot more violence.

In addition to violence being more publicized, has media depicted it more graphically?
No doubt. Violence appears in the movies in a lot more graphic detail than ever before. When I grew up the movies and television made heroes out of cowboys. And the cowboys never bled, and the bad guys died without ever flopping around. The great heroes were Davy Crockett, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger. (Perhaps it’s more graphic now) because that’s what some folks want to see, and it sells.

Should the government regulate media?
The Senate is about to investigate “Zero Dark Thirty.” Think about that. They’re probing a movie that’s not even purporting to be a documentary. It’s a fantasy. And yet the Senate is going to investigate it. Go figure that out. That’s crazy Washington.

Should Second Amendment guarantees extend to assault weapons?
I think first we need to ask a larger question. Let’s choose Sandy Hook as an example, because that’s the most recent one. The guy who did it was almost guaranteed to be certifiably insane. Should we then legislate against mental illness? So that’s one thing. Second thing: If we were to legislate against guns, period — I’m not talking just assault weapons — would that prevent another Sandy Hook from happening? Would it narrow the margin of risk? If it did, I’d say that’s something we need to consider. (Does) the Second Amendment (let you) own a bazooka or an RPG? It doesn’t say. But on the other hand, if it specified you could not, if terrorists or nuts wanted to use an RPG or automated assault rifle like an AK-47, would they be able to find it? You bet.

You’re saying laws can’t stem violence?
We have legislated for years against the use of drugs. We have gone out into countries and attempted to help them stop the production. We’ve spent billions on it. How have we done? (Nothing’s been) worth a damn… because there’s a marketplace in America for drugs, and it is big enough that those who supply drugs are willing to use violence and to risk being caught by the law. I look at guns and say, sure, we can narrow the margins maybe by restricting the use of assault weapons; I think that’s worthy of consideration. But I think the Second Amendment was put there for a purpose, and Americans should be able to have guns. You can’t pick and chose among the Amendments to the Constitution, embracing only those you like, and still have a functioning democracy. The question is, how should we apply the advances in firearms technology against the Second Amendment reality that Americans have the right to bear arms.

Do you own weapons?
No, I don’t own any guns or carry any. I’m a career Marine officer, a retired fighter pilot, and the only weapons I ever drove were big airplanes in the sky…

How do you view this country’s future?
America is usually only one generation away from not being a democracy, and what helps us to stay a democracy is citizens who are informed. Americans have to make up their minds based on what they hear, see, read — and movies fulfill some of that. The question is whether people believe fantasy and take that to heart, or whether they search harder and discover what they think to be the truth about violence. The debate needs to continue. That’s where the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation comes in. As heroes, the recipients of the medal offer hope and inspiration at a time when we desperately need it. It isn’t about guns or violence, it’s about courage, sacrifice, selflessness and patriotism. Look at the teachers who protected their children at Sandy Hook. They sacrificed their lives for something larger than themselves, just like those who wear the Medal of Honor. The question is not about guns, its about character. You can teach character but you can’t legislate it. The more our citizens engage and celebrate the virtues of character in the community, the better off America is going to be. The media can help. Look at “Lincoln,” look at all the great movies… not just the fantasies but the ones that educate; the ones that celebrate character; the ones that can really make a difference.