Cutting through political talking points to focus on facts and firsthand accounts, “Under the Gun” is an essential primer on the rise of gun violence in the U.S. With this follow-up to the food-industry takedown “Fed Up,” director Stephanie Soechtig again proves her knack for crafting advocacy docs that resonate. One of four films in this year’s Sundance lineup to deal explicitly with mass shootings, “Gun” acknowledges the solutions to this ongoing problem are neither easy nor obvious, while persuasively arguing that more, surely, can be done. With the right handling, the passionate pic could easily surpass “Fed Up’s” solid $1.5 million domestic gross.
Like its predecessor, “Under the Gun” potently combines statistics, expert commentary and personal stories into a well-researched and easy-to-consume piece of nonfiction filmmaking. It’s not necessarily artful, but it’s also never less than compelling. If anything, Soechtig has only refined her skills at packaging a slick, audience-friendly documentary with a subject that feels even more urgent.
The core frustration fueling this film is one shared by many Americans: Even after an event as horrific as the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., the U.S. Congress demonstrated its complete impotence in dealing with the issue. When a popular bill mandating near-universal background checks on gun purchases died in the Senate, it was a wake-up call for many. The steady pace of mass shootings since has only underscored the urgency of finding grassroots solutions to the problem.
Sandy Hook parents Mark and Jackie Barden, who lost their youngest son, Daniel, in the shooting (and are also featured in Kim A. Snyder’s more elegiac Sundance premiere, “Newtown”), are the first among many family members of gun-violence victims profiled by Soechtig and returning “Fed Up” narrator-host-exec producer Katie Couric. There’s more than just tragedy uniting the diverse group — from urban Chicago mother Pamela Bosley, whose son is one of numerous black youths in the city whose murders remain unsolved, to conservative gun owners Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter Jessica was killed at the 2012 movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. Each of these grieving parents has been rallied into action, and seeing their stories may have a similar effect on viewers.
Again and again, the film’s boogeyman is the National Rifle Assn. Soechtig is careful to draw a distinction between the lobbying org’s leadership, who have close ties to gun manufacturers and actively work to block the most common-sense attempts at gun regulation, and the rank-and-file membership, who are presented as more supportive of responsible measures (like background checks) in national polls and man-on-the-street interviews.
While “Under the Gun” is firmly on the side of stronger gun regulations, it’s not anti-gun. There’s an attempt to be as inclusive as possible, and time taken to explain why common refrains by the opposition — that certain government leaders want to take away everyone’s guns, the real problem is about mental health and not guns, or that the only way to prevent gun violence is to own a gun — are easier said than defended with factual information.
But the goal here isn’t to change minds; it’s to reignite the anger of the silent majority — those familiar feelings that bubble up and then dissipate whenever another mass shooting occurs. “Under the Gun” understands the typical cycle of shock, outrage, hopelessness and complacency that follows such events in the 24-hour news cycle and aims to channel those initial instincts into action.
By focusing on the specific (and frequently heartbreaking) stories of the aforementioned parents, former Congresswoman and gun-violence survivor Gabrielle Giffords, and Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts — who was motivated to action by Newtown and unwittingly sparked a grassroots movement on Facebook — the film lays out the gaping holes in the system where regulations are needed, and offers hopeful examples of activism in the face of what often feels like an insurmountable problem.