A Review of Gun Use on Primetime Network Shows Found Far Fewer Guns on TV in September 2023 than in September 2022 – Except on CBS
CHICAGO – A study released by the gun violence prevention group Project Unloaded looks at how gun use on network TV shifted while writers and actors were on strike. The report, called Gun Smoke and available here, found that the shift to more unscripted content didn’t result in lower ratings, but it did result in fewer episodes featuring a gun on primetime network television. However, CBS was an outlier: Two-thirds of the shows with gun use that the report identified in 2023 appeared on CBS. Excluding CBS, the rate of gun appearances across other network shows shrunk from 29% in 2022 to 13% in 2023.
The research was conducted by the fourteen members of Project Unloaded’s Youth Council, a group of high school and college students that advises on the nonprofit’s work to change gun culture and save lives. The data and findings were then reviewed by Dan Romer, Research Director at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“This report should be seen as an invitation to those involved in developing scripted shows to really consider the messages those shows send about guns,” said Shiven Patel, a member of Project Unloaded’s Youth Council who helped lead the development of the report. “More guns make people less safe, but you wouldn’t know that watching most network shows that include gun use. As scripted content starts to return to television, creators and writers should pay attention to what their shows tell audiences about using guns – and if they really need guns at all to tell a compelling story. Gun violence is the number one killer of my generation. We need everyone with a public platform to do their part to help make us all safer.”
In addition, the study found:
- Television’s most violent night is Tuesday, with the most guns shown and fired on that night in 2022 and 2023. But shows without guns led the ratings on Tuesday nights both years.
- In 2022, shows without guns won 77% of time slots. In 2023, shows without guns won 96% of their time slots. The only show that did win its time slot and feature a firearm in the 2023 week we reviewed was not a scripted drama, but a Friday night episode of 20/20 on ABC.
- The real world impact of guns is different from how guns are portrayed on TV. While most gun deaths in real life are suicides, guns were shown or fired just once each year related to a suicide. Similarly, the dangers of guns were discussed just once across both years.
“As the study’s findings reveal, the maxim “if it bleeds, it leads” is now outdated,” said Nina Vinik, founder and executive director of Project Unloaded. “To reduce gun violence in our communities, the stories we tell about guns should be based on what’s true: More guns make us less safe. Spreading that message is our mission at Project Unloaded, and we’re hopeful that leaders in entertainment will join us in helping to dismantle the myths that live in the roots of America’s gun violence epidemic.”
Most Americans believe that having a gun makes them safer and that desire for added protection is the number one reason that people choose to get a gun. But homes with guns experience more homicides, suicides and other shootings. Communities with more guns also see more gun violence. To reduce gun violence, it’s necessary to set the facts straight. And research shows that the portrayal of guns on television can impact people’s views on guns in real life.
The Project Unloaded report offers recommendations for television creators and network executives to tell a different, more accurate story about guns. The recommendations include:
- Carefully evaluate whether the inclusion of guns is necessary to tell the story, as the report demonstrates that guns are not necessary for strong ratings.
- When a gun is used on television, consider using guns in ways that reinforce their real life impact, rather than reinforcing the false notion that guns increase safety.
- Avoid depicting guns as a “sure-fire” mechanism for safety and a frequent part of life as a police officer. Even for law enforcement officers, firing a gun is rare in real life and it’s unlikely they hit their target.
- Depict people deciding against getting a gun because of the increased risk of suicide and other shootings for families with firearms at home.
People are less safe when there’s a gun around. And cultural leaders have a significant opportunity to help spread that message.