Many of the assignments Katie Couric has handled during her 37 years as a journalist has had her talking with people during the darkest moments of their lives. She often wondered why people who had been part of a tragedy would be so willing to open up and talk.
One of the most recent examples of this openness comes in the documentary, “Under the Gun,” slated to be broadcast on the cable channel EPIX. Couric not only narrates the film but also is one of the executive producers. She and director Stephanie Soechtig look at why, despite an increase in gun-related deaths, no meaningful actions have been taken.
Couric talks with family members of those who were impacted by the mass shootings in Newtown, Aurora, Isla Vista and Tucson. The veteran broadcaster and reporter’s chief explanation of why people are willing to share their stories is that in some way it is therapeutic.
“It is a very important part of the healing process. In some way it gives what happens some purpose, it makes people feel that the lives lost were not in vain,” Couric says.
Subjects and organizations featured in the documentary include: Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly (Americans for Responsible Solutions); Jackie and Mark Barden (Sandy Hook Promise); Sandy and Lonnie Phillips (Jessi’s Message); John Feinblatt and Richard Martinez (Everytown for Gun Safety); Victoria Montgomery (Open Carry Texas); Shannon Watts (Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America); Pamela and Tom Bosley (Purpose Over Pain); The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence.
The struggle for Soechtig was to present the emotional side of the stories without coming across as being exploitative. A big part of accomplishing that task was to embed the camera crews with the subjects to make sure they would be telling the entire story.
Soechtig says it was obvious that it was hard for some to relive the tragedy. But when parents would talk about the children they lost, she would see their faces light up.
“It was really healing for them and they were incredibly generous with us. They want to tell their stories so others don’t have to be in that situation,” Soechtig says. “This is a polarizing issue, but I see this documentary as a character-driven film.”
“Under the Gun” mixes in the stories of family members and friends who have become active in trying to get changes made to the gun culture in America. A big part of that story is the battle by the National Rifle Association to strike down the registration process before a gun can be purchased.
Richard Martinez, father of the University of California Santa Barbara sophomore, Christopher, who was killed in the Isla Vista shootings, talks about how he didn’t do anything after hearing about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. After he lost his son, he wondered if things would have been different if he had tried to make a difference.
The film looks at many like Martinez who have become so frustrated with the lack of movement at the highest political levels despite there being more places in the United States to buy a gun than all the McDonald’s, Starbucks and Subways combined.
Registration, only necessary when a gun is purchased from a dealer in a store and not at a gun show, takes only a few minutes. The NRA argues this is nothing but a way for the government to have a list of what guns a person has in case they decide to confiscate all weapons.
Many have started grassroots campaigns to change gun laws, especially registration. This is an important part of the movie to the director, whose past work includes the documentaries “Fed Up” and “Tapped,” because she doesn’t want to make a movie that leaves the viewer depressed. Grassroots efforts show that changes can be made.
Mark S. Greenberg, president and CEO of EPIX, says, “During this presidential election year, we at EPIX want to contribute to the national dialogue on the major issues affecting our country today. The gun debate, with its core issues of gun rights and gun violence, is one of the most polarizing taking place in our society today.”
More than a year and a half was spent on the project, and footage was being collected during the final editing process. The mass shooting in San Bernardino occurred just as the director was wrapping up the movie.
Soechtig had the advantage that Couric had interviewed many of the subjects over the years, often just days after tragedy struck their lives.
“I think they all understood that Katie was very sensitive to their loss,” Soechtig says. That sensitivity came from Couric having dealt with the death of her husband, John Paul Monahan, from colon cancer in 1998 when he was only 42.
Couric’s motivation to make the documentary came down to the confusion she felt after events like the massacre at Sandy Hook. There was a massive disconnect between the 90 percent of Americans who supported universal background checks and public policy. Even the majority of NRA members, according to the film, support gun registration.
She wants this film to help people have a better understanding of how we got to this point.
“Now is the time for a truly informed, rational conversation about gun violence,” Couric says. “You can make a difference. One person can make sure the registration issue is on their radar screen. You can get involved at a local level. Your voice matters, and complacency is the worse enemy.”
Under the Gun
- 8 p.m. Sunday, May 15, EPIX