What Katie Couric Learned from Making Her Gun Violence Documentary Under the Gun: The NRA 'Co-Opted the Conversation'
“Before this film is over … 22 people in America will be shot.”
That’s how Under the Gun, the powerful new documentary about gun violence produced by Katie Couric and directed by Stephanie Soechtig, begins. Eight of those people, they caution, will die within the two-hour run time.
It’s a grim opening for a film that explores the gun control debate across both political aisles, anchored by vignettes of interviews with grieving parents who’ve lost sons and daughters from both highly publicized mass slayings like Newtown and the still unsolved shootings that claim Chicago’s children every night.
“As heartbreaking as all the individual stories are, I think the common thread is that they are all very active … and they are so committed to trying to do something about this problem,” Couric tells PEOPLE. “I think that’s so commendable to see these people go through so much personal anguish and turn it into a movement.”
Both women – who previously collaborated on the 2014 childhood obesity documentary Fed Up – say America isn’t as split on the issue National Rifle Association would have people believe. Couric says the lobbying group “co-opted the conversation” to silence gun owners who actually do support reasonable restrictions.
“You can say people are pro-gun, and none of these measures would take anyone’s gun away, but I don’t think anybody can be pro-gun violence,” the veteran journalist says. “No one can support the taking of innocent lives because they support gun rights.”
“The NRA has been driving the narrative on this story up until now, and they’ve really written it to their advantage,” Soechtig adds. “The truth of what’s going on in this country is quite different. … We’ve all been a bit hoodwinked, definitely since Newtown, by the narrative that nothing’s changed. It’s definitely not accurate. But it’s really fascinating to see how misled the country’s been and how a very small, small group – the NRA only represents five percent of gun owners – and how that small minority has really been driving this narrative.”
Check out Under the Gun‘s website for the latest list of screenings, and read more of PEOPLE’s talk with Couric and Soechtig below.
Congratulations on your Sundance premiere. How did it feel to get standing ovations?
Katie Couric: It was very moving. I think people became so invested in these people we profiled, I think to see them walk on the stage, I think they wanted to express support and compassion for these people who are willing to tell their stories and understand the impact of these events on our lives.
What surprised you the most about what you learned during the process of talking to people with different viewpoints on gun control?
Stephanie Soechtig: What surprised me most actually was less from the people with different points of view as much as our main characters. I couldn’t believe the resilience and dedication to stopping gun violence. If this happened to me, I feel like I would crawl into a hole. I don’t think I would be able to be out there advocating for other people. All of them said to us separately, “We’re doing this so that you don’t have to be in our shoes.” And that sort of compassion and dedication, I just found it incredibly moving and powerful.
KC: From a policy point of view, I think one of the most surprising things was that there’s so many people who are in the NRA whose views are not represented by the NRA’s leadership, and it made me very optimistic that there’s a lot of common ground that we don’t hear about in the debate, that we really rarely hear about in the current debate. So that made me believe that there could be some solution and that many people in this country, even though we think of it as such a polarizing issue, that the majority of people in this country really agree that there are measures that could be implemented that will reduce gun violence in this country. So I found that surprising and a reason to be hopeful.
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Is there a particular person or family affected by gun violence who you think will strike a chord most with viewers?
: I think all the families are so incredibly compelling, but I think, for me, two families represent the facets of this conversation: Lonnie and Sandy Phillips, members of the NRA, Republican, gun owners. Watching their evolution and watching as they go through this process having lost their daughter Jessie in the Aurora theater massacre is very compelling, because I think they had a lot of preconceived notions, and they really do through a transformation in terms of their views. I think their story was really important.
And then the story of Pam and Tommie Bosley in Chicago. Mass shootings get so much attention that we often forget that there are daily shootings on the streets of many of our cities across the country. Pam and Tommy, I think, epitomize that story that is often untold, and one thing that I thought is so important is that we often categorize that – and the media say – as quote-unquote ‘gang-related.’ It was very important for us to show that these are families who are doing the right thing. Their kids are in school. They’re great families, they’re in tact families, and more often than not this isn’t gang-related. It may that they’re sort of caught in the crosshairs of urban violence, but the kids are good kids. So for me, those two stories I think were particularly important to include.
SS: Early on, we were playing with the idea of juxtaposing the Bosleys of Chicago with the Bardens from Sandy Hook, because they’re both parents who both had three children, who both lost a son, and the response from the country to the two families was so very different, and it left all of us going, why? They both lost a son, why is the country galvanizing for one but not for the other? And so I think that’s really interesting.
But to your original question, you can’t really pick favorites. The personal details of each of them, the little things that they do, how Rich Martino drives his son’s car, or how Mark Barden still tries to find hairs of Daniel at his home that he keeps or smells his jacket. They were so gracious about opening up their lives and sharing it with us. All of them are so compelling.
The NRA declined to be interviewed for your film. The 54 senators who opposed expanded background checks declined to be interviewed. Why do you think they don’t want to even discuss the topic on the record?
SS: I think it goes back to out Katie said it, that they’re co-opted the discussion until now, and so engaging in a more meaningful and substantive conversation will sort of disrupt this narrative that they’ve written. There’s also this NRA mythology that if you go against the NRA, you won’t be elected again. We have a former gun lobbyist who says NRA stands for Never Reelected Again. So there’s this perceived fear, but as we show in this film, in many ways it’s unsubstantiated that the NRA is as powerful as we have been led to believe.
Stephanie, to what extent did other documentaries on mass shootings affect your filmmaking process? People are already comparing Under the Gun to another Sundance hit, Bowling for Columbine, and how it could make a similar impact.
SS: That would be great. I think we’re very different filmmakers than Michael Moore is, nonetheless I think we started a conversation, but unfortunately not much as changed. I think the country is reaching a tipping point, and I think what are film offers that’s different perhaps than other films is hope and solutions. We really show you what needs to happen if people really want to stem the tide of gun violence. Katie is so accurate in saying I think we can all agree that we are all against gun violence. Nobody’s going to say, “I like gun violence,” it’s just not going to happen.
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What do you think about how the presidential hopefuls have been addressing – or maybe not addressing – gun control?
: I think it’s been part of the political discourse for the first time in a long time because of an increase of attention, because of the shootings we’ve witnessed in the past couple of years. I think at the beginning of the campaign, nobody was really discussing it, and now, there’s Republicans and Democrats who it seems to be on the front burner of what we’re hearing on the campaign trail. I think that’s a good thing.
Just going back to the last question, I think what we’re seeing what’s different right now is better organization of people who support sensible gun laws. Before, a lot of people felt that way, and that was reflected in the polling, but it wasn’t really an organized effort. And now, thanks to people like Mark and Gaby Giffords who have their organization, Americans for Responsible Solutions, they want to represent reasonable gun owners. And then there’s Everytown, which Mayor Bloomberg is behind, that is very organized. And then you have people who are behind ballot initiatives.
So I think what has changed is there’s much more organization of people who may disagree with the NRA, and I think that’s helping to galvanize other people. I talked to a guy from Austin, Texas, the night of the premiere, and his son was one of the editors, and he said, “You know, Katie, the people who are so adamantly opposed to anything, any kind of regulation or anything happening, is such a small minority.” And I said, “Well, then why do you think they’re so powerful?” Because they’re single-issue voters, which is something we talk about in the film. And for other people who may disagree, it may be the fourth, fifth or sixth thing that they consider when casting their vote. I think it’s now moving up and people are making it a much higher priority and understanding that they have to make their feelings heard on election day.
One thing that I think is also very heartening is we’re seeing so much activity on a grassroots level, and I think that is also galvanized through social media, and that’s something that I’ve noticed that’s happened for a variety of causes. And I think this one is no exception.
SS: I think we’re forgotten in this country that democracy is a participatory sport. We hear all the outrage after a mass shooting, and everyone is up in arms about how could this happen, how could this keep happening, but how many of us doing something after it? I didn’t, before this film. I was just as outraged about Newtown and even Columbine prior to that, but I didn’t do anything.
At the end of the film, one of the mothers says she doesn’t want our prayers, she doesn’t want our sorrys, she wants our action. What is something tangible that an everyday American can do?
KC: I think they can obviously vote, that’s really important. They can consider where a candidate stands on this issue. They can get involved with Moms Demand Action. They can call their congressman or senator and tell them how they feel about this issue. They can associate with any member of advocacy groups. They can encourage a conversation with people from all different points of view. My main goal in doing this documentary was to understand the issue better, and I think a better understanding leads to more intelligent conversation. I think if they can talk about it and engage in the debate at a higher level in terms of their understanding of the issue, they can find out what’s going on in their own communities. They can see if there are bad-apple gun dealers. They can unite with like-minded people. I think they can do all of those things.
SS: The reason why the NRA is so powerful is not necessarily financial. It’s because their members pick up the phone day after day, and they call their congressperson and they say, “You better vote on this.” It speaks to what Katie said about being a single-issue voter. I haven’t picked up my phone to call my congressperson. Katie was telling the story about how Mark Kelly said that the first thing Gaby did when she went in was said, “Who’s calling? What are they talking about?” That has so much more power than I think any of us have really realize, making yourself known to say, “Hey, this is really a priority to me.” I think that’s a really easy thing to do, to call your elected official and say, “How are you going to vote? It’s going to matter to me next election cycle.” We have a great quote in the film from a former NRA lobbyist. He says, “Money matters, but money doesn’t vote,” and I think that is great. Right? People vote. We need to remember that our elected officials work for us, and we need to hold them accountable.
This interview has been edited and condensed.