Taking Aim – celebrities on both sides of the gun control debate

Taking Aim – celebrities on both sides of the gun control debate – Brief Article

Robert Ito

HOLLYWOOD WRESTLES WITH ITS DEEP AMBIVALENCE ABOUT FIREARMS

WHY ARE CELEBRITIES IN HOLLYWOOD SO RELUCTANT TO take a stand on gun issues? Michael Beard, veteran president of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, has a quick answer: Charlton Heston. “He has a lot of friends and a lot of respect in Hollywood,” Beard says. “He and [wife] Lydia are liked personally.” According to Beard, even Gregory Peck, chairman of the coalition’s board of directors and one of its most active members for 15 years, has kept a relatively low profile to avoid butting heads with the NRA’s most volatile point man. “They’re friends, and he doesn’t want to take that kind of visible public role,” Beard explains. “I know that Mr. Peck does not want to be the anti-Charlton Heston.”

But in the face of a spate of high school shootings and growing congressional pressure for Hollywood to clean up its often hyperviolent act, celebrity involvement in national gun control issues has been on the rise. “I think a lot of celebrities are saying enough is enough, we need to do something,” says David Bernstein, spokesperson for Handgun Control Inc., a group that counts George Lucas, Jerry Seinfeld and Rosie O’Donnell among its supporters. Beard, whose organization has brought in members Harrison Ford and Ed Asner, agrees. “Twenty-five years ago, we were literally begging people to say nice things about us,” he says. “Now, we can just sit back and respond.”

This increasing involvement has led to some very public skirmishes between antigun advocates and pro-NRA celebs. When Barbra Streisand released last year’s The Long Island Incident, a television movie critical of the NRA, Heston called Streisand a “profiteer” and “the Hanoi Jane of the Second Amendment.” Last May, O’Donnell redefined the term “good host” when she blasted Heston for “using his power as a celebrity” to advocate gun violence, then engaged former NRA pitchman Tom Selleck in a bizarre on-air fight that left her stunned studio audience squirming in their seats. Later that month, Sharon Stone got the LAPD to make a highly publicized house call to dispose of her cache of firearms, and days later Spike Lee told an interviewer in Cannes that Heston should be shot “with a .44-caliber Bulldog.”

Despite the number of Industry elite who have joined national organizations opposed to gun violence, many celebrities worry about taking a more vocal public stance. According to Beard, the fear of stalkers and pro-NRA “gun nuts” keeps many from speaking out. “There is a very nasty organized opposition that will go after individuals who take a strong position on the issue,” Beard says. “If there’s somebody you don’t want angry at you, it’s somebody who carries guns and believes they’re somehow sacred.”

Of course, a more obvious reason for Hollywood’s continued weak stance against gun violence is that so many celebrities pack heat. Ted Szajer, co-owner of L.A. Guns and arms dealer to some of Hollywood’s most famous shooters, claims to have clients on both sides of the gun debate–although he won’t name names. “I’ve had [celebrities] in my store buying guns from me,” Szajer admits, “that have been very vocally antigun in the past.”

Not even the possibility of breaking the law can keep some stars from exercising their constitutional right to bear arms. A quick scan of police reports turns up Christian Slater, Al Pacino, Harry Connick Jr. (concealed weapons charges), Martin Lawrence and James Caan (Lawrence’s infamous 1996 gun-toting meltdown in a busy Sherman Oaks intersection, and Caan’s 1994 arrest for allegedly pulling a gun on rapper Derek Lee).

One of the few places in L.A. where sharpshooters can openly revel in their mutual gun love without fear of police intervention is the Hollywood Celebrity Shoot, a rifle and handgun competition that draws competitors like Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Robert Stack and Jerry (“the Beaver”) Mathers. Attendance at the NRA-sponsored event has grown steadily, and organizers this year upgraded the popular airgun competition to a compulsory event featuring 9 mm carbines. Event co-host and sporting clay shooting champ Lou Ferrigno prefers to play down the NRA politics and emphasize the social and recreational aspects of the sport.

“I shoot with guys like Tom Selleck, [director] John Milius, Steven Spielberg,” says the former Mr. Universe. “It’s like golfing with the guys.”

Adds T.J. Johnston, an organizer for the Celebrity Shoot and a member of the NRA’s board of directors, “I’m heartened to find that people who come out and shoot [at NRA events] find that the falsehoods propagated by the media really are untrue–we’re not out here with assault weapons and cop-killer bullets.”

Not everyone sees the shoot as an innocent sporting event, however. According to Beard, the NRA created the competition–formerly the Charlton Heston Celebrity Shoot–in order to recruit gun-friendly spokespeople for the cause. “They were very upset that they didn’t have any [celebrities] on their side, so they started specifically courting the Hollywood community,” says Beard–in particular, kinder, gentler stars like Selleck and Cybill Shepherd to replace perennial NRA icons like Heston and John Wayne.

“After George Bush resigned [from the NRA] so publicly, their P.R. firm said they had to change their image,” says Beard. “You can’t have guys wandering around the woods in camouflage anymore.”

COPYRIGHT 1999 Los Angeles Magazine, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group