It may not be possible anymore to conduct civil discourse with Americans on guns. But Katie Couric hopes to change that.
The former “CBS Evening News” and “Today” anchor, now Yahoo’s global news anchor, is behind the Epix documentary “Under the Gun,” which aims at combating misconceptions about responsible gun ownership and background checks.
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and has its TV debut on Sunday, comes during a presidential election season in which gun control hasn’t been a major campaign issue — at least, not yet. “I’ve interviewed a number of the candidates, all 27,000 of them initially. The gun debate wasn’t a part of the conversation,” Couric told us recently, on stage at a panel discussion for “Under the Gun.” “We’ve seen Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders talk about it, which is a welcome thing, it has its place in the conversation. It will be very interesting to see what will happen in the presidential debates. Each candidate will have to put their view on the line out there.”
Couric and “Under the Gun” filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig previously collaborated on the 2014 documentary “Fed Up,” about childhood obesity. Soechtig grew up near Newtown, Conn., the site of the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which inspired them to make “Under the Gun.”
“I said to Stephanie, ‘I just don’t understand the disconnect: 90 percent of people in this country support background checks and yet when it comes to the federal level, nothing is getting done,'” Couric said. “What is happening here? Usually the question ‘why’ leads me on these journeys. That’s how we started doing this film.”
The film ends with a call to action, urging viewers to contact their elected representatives or find a way to make a difference. “We wanted to arm people, so to speak, with the information they needed to have an intelligent conversation about it,” Couric said. “A lot of gun owners have come up to us after this film and said, ‘Thank you for representing us, showing our point of view.’ I don’t think they feel accurately represented by the gun lobby in this country.”
“Under the Gun” avoids showing photos or mentioning the names of any shooters involved in this country’s massacres. Among gun owners actually campaigning for background checks and other safety measures is Sandy Phillips, whose daughter Jessica was killed at the 2012 theater shootings in Aurora, Colo.
Phillips recalled being stunned by the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Colorado: “I was sitting by the television saying, someone has to do something,” she said. “I now wonder, if I had become active then, maybe my voice would have made a difference and my daughter would be alive today.”
Other figures profiled in the documentary include former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in 2011. The doc also looks at the impact of guns in the inner city. “That was so critically important,” Couric said. “Underserved communities are often marginalized and completely ignored. [Calling shootings] ‘gang related’ is a way of diminishing and marginalizing whats happening.”
The film also dives deep into the power of the National Rifle Association, which has managed to keep the Centers for Disease Control from studying gun violence as a public health issue and prohibit the ATF from having computerized records of guns involved in violent crimes. “Even as someone who covers this issue, I never was really able to connect the dots and understand how it all fit together,” Couric said. “The tentacles of the gun industry are so wide-reaching… I don’t think the average American has any idea of these underreported levels of malevolence.”
In the movie, Shannon Watts, head of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, recites violent messages she has received on the Internet from her critics. “Thank you, Katie, for making me infamous, at the age of 45, as a stay-at-home mom, for using the phrase ‘dick in your mouth,'” Watts quipped at the panel. “I’m honored for that to be my legacy.”
Despite those awful notes, Watts is optimistic that there can still be common ground in the gun debate. “I do think what we hear on Twitter and see in the media is a very vocal minority,” she said. “A minority that the NRA has convinced that their guns are going to be taken away, that they’re under attack, that they need a gun to go to the grocery store. It has to be a conversation about responsible gun ownership, not gun confiscation. President Obama has about 200 days to take everyone’s guns away. I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
“Under the Gun” premieres on Sunday, May 15, at 8/7c on Epix.
Stay on top of the latest TV news! Sign up for our TV news email newsletter here. Meanwhile, here’s a look at Couric’s and Soechtig’s previous documentary, “Fed Up.”