In today’s scattered NRA press conference, the group’s Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre placed the blame for the Sandy Hook massacre on everything from hurricanes to celebrities. When referencing violent movies, he did a little digging: “We have blood-soaked films out there like American Psycho, Natural Born Killers. They’re aired like propaganda loops on Splatterdays and every single day.”
A few notes: “Splatterday” is not a thing. Neither of those movies air every single day – or at any frequency close to that. And the references are a little dated. American Psycho came out in 2000 (and the novel was published way back in 1991). Natural Born Killers, on the other hand, is over 18 years old: it was released August 1994.
Timely or not, there’s a reason Natural Born Killers is invoked so often in the “violent movies cause violent crimes” argument: it’s the easiest target. While Oliver Stone says he intended his film to be a satire on the media’s obsession with and inadvertent glorification of violence, some viewers missed the point. Among them, over a dozen murderers who either cited Natural Born Killers or were linked to the film after their crimes.
The most relevant example in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre is Columbine High shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Harris referred to April 20, the day they murdered 12 students and one teacher, as “the holy morning of NBK.” In discussing how Hollywood would eventually adapt their story, Klebold and Harris proposed (among others) Quentin Tarantino, who is credited with writing the story for Natural Born Killers.
But the controversy over Natural Born Killers predates Columbine. One of the most infamous cases is the shooting of Bill Savage and Patsy Byers, which spawned a legal battle over whether or not the film (by way of Oliver Stone and the Time Warner company) were responsible for inciting violence. John Grisham wrote an excoriation of Natural Born Killers in a piece for the Oxford American in 1996 called “Unnatural Killers.” He argued that through the movie, “Oliver Stone is saying that murder is cool and fun, murder is a high, a rush, murder is a drug to be used at will. The more you kill, the cooler you are.”
Grisham acknowledges that Stone intended the movie to be a satire, but it can’t be, he argues, because “a satire is supposed to make fun of whatever it is attacking.” (I'd argue that Natural Born Killers does make fun of what it’s attacking: the media’s bloodlust and the celebrity culture of murderers.) Grisham, who says killers Ben Darras and Sarah Edmonson had no history of violence, goes on to say that Natural Born Killers “has inspired several young people to commit murder.”
Here is the crux of Grisham’s argument, which he approaches from a legal perspective: “A case can be made that there exists a direct causal link between the movie Natural Born Killers and the death of Bill Savage. Viewed another way, the question should be: Would Ben have shot innocent people but for the movie? Nothing in his troubled past indicates violent propensities. But once he saw the movie, he fantasized about killing, and his fantasies finally drove them to their crimes.”
Patsy Byers, who was rendered quadriplegic after being shot by Sarah Edmonson, sued Oliver Stone and Time Warner using a “product liability” claim, as advised by Grisham. (It’s worth noting he had a personal stake in this: Grisham had been friends with murder victim Bill Savage.) The case was dismissed in January 1997 on the grounds that Stone and Time Warner were protected by the First Amendment. Byers appealed, and in March 2001, judge Bob Morrison dismissed the case for good, finding no evidence that Stone or Time Warner intended to incite violence.
And yet, controversy continues to dog Natural Born Killers: how else to explain why Wayne LaPierre would mention it in the wake of Sandy Hook? There is no evidence that murderer Adam Lanza had ever seen Natural Born Killers, let alone obsessed about it. In an effort to shift the blame, however, it’s not a tough leap to make: take a young person with no history of violence, expose him or her to violent entertainment, and that person will go on a shooting spree.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that LaPierre thinks Lanza was directly influenced by Natural Born Killers, but that the film remains (along with Mortal Kombat) one of the easiest scapegoats. When you mention Natural Born Killers in reference to Columbine, for example, you can sidestep the debate over gun control, overmedication, a culture of bullying, and Harris’ alleged clinical psychopathy.
So despite the fact that there are movies more violent than Natural Born Killers — many, one might argue, that glorify random acts of violence more than Oliver Stone’s satire — we continue to return to the 1994 example. It serves as a symbol for all that is wrong with Hollywood, and the idea (however erroneous) that a movie can literally transform a viewer into a murderer.