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Behind the Scenes of 'After Newtown: Guns in America'

How a critical PBS documentary took shape, as told by the show's narrator and senior producer

By Richard Harris | February 20, 2013
How a PBS documentary on a complex topic of gun control and the Newton CT shooti
"After Newtown: Guns in America" airs Tuesday, Feb. 19 on PBS. Check your local listings.
Courtesy of Jonathan Silvers/Saybrook Productions

I grew up north of Boston, blissfully unaware of any hunters or guns of any kind in our family or among friends. I wasn't anti-gun, just ignorant of firearms. What I knew about guns for sport came from The American Sportsman TV show. But the celebrity hunting trips might as well have been on the other side of the moon, given my suburban experience.

As I grew older, I learned about guns with increasing frequency, sadly, in the news. Like most Americans my age and older, Nov. 22, 1963, was a day forever seared into my brain. I was a 9-year-old fourth grader trying to process how a man named Oswald used what turned out to be a $19.95 mail-order rifle to shoot the president of the United States from high above his motorcade route in Dallas. And a few days later, I watched in horror, on live television, as Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald point blank. I grew up a lot that November weekend.

Fast forward to Dec. 14, 2012, nearly a half century later. The horror of Sandy Hook grabbed the country by the throat and forced every American to ask: How did we get to this ugly place where children could be mowed down in their classroom?

In the immediate aftermath, every news organization imaginable descended on Newtown, Conn., to capture a community in shock and grief. Public television decided to do something different — we would wait and turn this wrenching event into a teachable moment. Shortly after the other media were doing live shots outside makeshift memorials, PBS was planning a special series for mid-February on all its programs and platforms to try to jump start a national conversation about guns and gun violence.

(MORE: Newtown Shooting: A 50+ Mom's Plea for Action)

So just after the New Year, I was asked to be part of a team producing one of several stand-alone gun documentaries, this one on the history of guns in America. The idea: To understand where we are in 2013, we need to go back to Colonial days to appreciate how guns have been part of America's DNA from the get-go.

It was a daunting assignment. In essence, our unit from Saybrook Productions was asked to do in six weeks what Ken Burns does in a year or longer — craft a seminal chapter of American history and not only make sense of it, but also make compelling television. So our team split up and raced around the country like the proverbial chickens without heads. Several of the producers talked with historians and a family in Chicago that lost a son to gun violence, a result of spraying bullets and a missed target inside a city bus.

Over one weekend, I flew from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco to interview Bill Cosby, who lost his only son to gun violence. I also spoke with the former head of the Black Panthers Party, Elaine Brown, who told me the Panthers took up arms in the 1960s because “we believed we had the right of self-defense against an armed, an occupying army, as we saw it, of police.”

Less then 24 hours later, I was back on a red eye to D.C. so I could interview the President of the National Rifle Association at the NRA National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va. This, after a trip to Philadelphia to sit down with Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who like other urban police chiefs, will tell you how difficult it is for the men and women in blue to keep up with the growing firepower on the streets.

Several hours and a world away, in a rural hamlet north of Gettysburg, I sat down with Steve Williams, a hunter and former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He’s quick to point out that hunters and gun manufacturers, through license fees and excise taxes, are the biggest supporters of conservation. And he worries that every episode of gun violence, especially mass shootings, will impinge on the sportsman. With some frustration and disdain, Williams observed that people who live in rural areas use guns “for enjoyment, not for crime.”   

Like the history of guns in America, this assignment has been a strange but revealing odyssey. Six weeks is hardly sufficient to take the full measure of the gun divide. But it was enough time to realize that beyond their wanton misuse, there are two primary reasons to own guns: sport and protection. And there are two Americas, rural and urban, that don’t always talk with each other. It’s not simply a gun rights and gun control fault line.
 
Even in a compressed timetable, we managed to wrestle interviews that spanned centuries of history and thousands of miles of geography into an engaging hour. It might just make you understand how we became a country with more than 300 million personal firearms, about a third of the total supply on the planet.

No matter where the public policy debate between gun rights and gun control goes from here, the genie cannot put those guns back into the bottle.

After Newtown, a weeklong series, begins Monday, Feb. 18 on PBS, check your local listings.  Watch After Newtown: Guns in America online here.