The real-word impact of firearm representation in police programming like Dragnet, children’s shows and in storylines that feature female gun owners are among the trends explored in a new study and media guide released by the Hollywood, Health, & Society at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center.
Published Tuesday, Trigger Warning: Gun Guidelines for the Media is first-of-its-kind resources — a combination of research and suggested approaches to the representation of firearms in news and entertainment media. The 20-page report not only examines firearm trends in media over the last 20 years, but offers ways for storytellers to “change the narrative, reset the bar and provide representation of safe, acceptable behavior when it comes to firearms,” according to the Norman Lear Center.
The guide features a statistical overview of gun-related murders and deaths by suicide, firearms impacts on children and “officer-involved shootings,” or people killed specifically by police. It also explores myths around guns and gun violence, before touching on safe gun storage, mass and school shootings, how gun violence is covered on the news, particularly through the lens of race and suicide.
For those working in entertainment, several sections feature representational data and address tropes about firearms in dramas and comedies, kids programming, and women and guns as related to intimate partner violence. Using findings from research published in 1992 and collected by George Gerbner, founder of the Cultural Indicators project, the guide highlights that an American child has seen “40,000 simulated murders by the age of 18,” with the introduction of cable, streaming and YouTube likely resulting in even more exposure.
According to social learning studies shared by USC Annenberg Normal Lear Center, children are likely to mimic the behavior — good and bad — they see on the screen. In one 2017 study exploring the effects of in movies on children’s real interest in guns, the data found that greater exposure to guns in PG-rated titles resulted in children playing with a real gun longer and pulling the trigger more times than children who viewed the same title without firearms featured.
Additionally, the onscreen representation of characters using guns has the ability to not only desensitize children to “the consequences of guns but increases their interest in them.” The guide suggests this to be true even for guns with unique colors, that are strangely shaped or futuristic, encouraging storytellers to opt for firearm alternatives like holstered ice cream scoops, teddy bear catapults and rubber duck bubble gooshers.
Gun prevalence is not just present in children’s programming, either. According to multiple featured studies, “nearly one in three episodes of popular television portrays at least one character discharging a firearm” and “60 percent of popular television includes gun-related content.” And the majority of that firearm representation across comedies and dramas comes from police shows.
The guide credits the 1960s series Dragnet as the source for much of TV’s familiar — and inaccurate — cop tropes onscreen in the decades since the series was released. (At the time, the final scripts for the police procedural show were verified by LAPD Chief William Parker.)
When examining the depictions of gun safety on television, the guide cites a 2022 MIP study, which found that more than “9 in 10 law enforcement characters with guns were portrayed as sympathetic compared to few civilian characters.” A 2020 report from Color of Change and the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center reported similar findings, with criminal justice professionals on TV who commit wrongful actions often presented as “routine, harmless, necessary, or even noble” people who rarely face consequences and whose bad actions are framed as “relatable, forgivable, acceptable, and ultimately good.” As a result, this can give audiences the impression that actions by law enforcement, including the shooting of civilians, are justifiable.
Historical portrayals of police also have a tendency to portray them as diverse “good guys,” with predominantly white TV “bad guys” getting shot by officers. That doesn’t reflect the real-life data, which has found Black Americans are three times more likely to be killed at the hands of law enforcement.
“This inaccurate representation of gun casualties masks and distorts the ways in which shootings by law enforcement disproportionately affect communities of color. In reality, this violence is far from colorblind,” the guide states.
The guide also details stats on domestic violence. Despite a 2014 study reporting that women who purchased a gun died by firearm homicide at twice the rate of women who did not, a 2019 Everytown report counters that women living in households with a firearm are at a greater risk of homicide. The resource guide notes that media and storylines advocating for women to be armed with guns is dangerous because “access to a firearm is directly associated with an increased risk of intimate partner homicide.”
“The number one cause of death for children and teens in America is gun violence. So it makes sense that guns seem to be everywhere in our media, too. From late night news to Saturday morning cartoons, cop shows to comedies — guns are ubiquitous on our screens,” the guide’s intro notes. “But film and television have the power to shape public perception, normalize habits, and even effect policy, which is why the way we talk about and depict guns and gun violence matters so much.”
Hollywood, Health & Society has consulted on over 2,600 storylines between 2012-2020, having worked with networks and shows to produce PSAs and other informational spots offering resources to audiences. Shows HH&S has consulted on include Grey’s Anatomy, This is Us, Will Trent, Euphoria, NCIS, and more.
“I couldn’t be prouder that the Center which bears my name is releasing this report about gun safety and the entertainment industry,” Lear said in a statement. “How guns are portrayed on screen should reflect the public health crisis we are in, and help portray responsible gun ownership.”
Marty Kaplan, director of The Norman Lear Center, adds, “The Lear Center’s message to the creative community in this report comes down to this: Treat guns in your stories as if they were real. Because your audience does.”