American Totem explores the topic of guns in America from a more nuanced approach than the standard “more guns versus less guns” debate. The film recognizes that Americans have complex, and often contradictory, relationships with firearms.
Attitudes about guns are as diverse as Americans themselves, from soldiers protecting national interests and hunters carrying on a long frontier tradition, to the casualties of inner-city violence and the anonymous victims of suicide and domestic violence. The modern gun-control/gun rights debate is distracting us from what we should be talking about, which is how to make our communities safer and our politics more inclusive.
This thoughtful and thought-provoking documentary film will not tell you what to think, but offers new ways to think about the issues. In this time of great political, social, and economic transformation, the film explores the national narrative that Americans have a “special” relationship with firearms, exposing how that story was constructed. It highlights gun-oriented organizations’ search for community and it spotlights the costs to communities and our politics of having easy access to firearms.
American Totem will take you on a journey through various worldviews of Americans that are often neglected in the modern gun debate, as well as the myths and misconceptions surrounding guns in America.
History, the Industrial Revolution, and Marketing
With the Industrial Revolution, the gun industry could produce more firearms than the American civil market demanded. Once the militaries around the world were sufficiently armed, the gun industry turned toward developing a domestic market. With “one of the greatest advertising campaigns in the history of the world”, Winchester Repeating Arms Company spent over $1 million in 1920 to create that market. That level of investment continues to this day, with marketing often blurring the critical issues.
American Mythology and Popular Culture
John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are enduring American icons, epitomizing the rugged individual, the frontiersman, the lawman. Their on-screen characters taught generations of boys how to be “real men”. Through the imagery of Hollywood, history was re-created and an American identity, wedded to the gun, was manufactured. This new identity is more entertaining than factual but has shaped the American national narrative.
Old Stories, New Realities
The current period of economic, political and social change, including the loss of blue collar jobs and the first Black president, has caused a national identity crisis. The old stories of how to be successful in American no longer reflect the paths open to many. Americans are looking to the iconic images of what it means to be a man and finding it in the military and gunslingers of the Old West.
The film looks at three organizations that make use of guns: The Minutemen Project, A Girl and A Gun, and the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. Through interviews and public statements, it becomes clear that the focus on the gun “debate” is a mistake. In fact, the gun is often a tool used to create community.
Suicide, Inner-city Violence, and Domestic Violence
Public mass shootings get intense media coverage, but the vast majority of gun deaths take place behind closed doors. The film reveals that the highest number of gun-related deaths are self-inflicted, predominantly by White, rural men. Inner-city homicide, predominantly African-American men, is the next highest category. And finally, the daily private mass shootings resulting from domestic violence, and including family members and even neighbors, are often dismissed by law enforcement as “domestic incidents” and ignored by the media.
Fear and Democracy
Gallup polls reveal that the reasons people are buying guns have changed over the last fifteen years. Formerly, most people reported they buying firearms for hunting. These days, gun owners report needing them for self-defense. However, FBI reports show that outside of inner-cities (particularly Baltimore, Chicago, and Houston) the murder rate today is half the rate it was at its peak in 1991. Yet people are afraid and are buying guns.