Cops with guns. Gang members with guns. Women with guns. Cowboys with guns. The gunslingers are all over prime time television -- thrilling American children with their flash and power.
Hollywood has helped glamorize guns, and now a group of public health officials wants Hollywood to help undo the damage.
The Harvard School of Public Health is launching a five-year, $850,000 campaign to help change Americans' view of guns and violence. The lobbying effort will urge TV producers to stop depicting guns as exciting, and instead show the damage they do. The campaign also will promote story lines with nonviolent means of settling disputes.
"We've got to rectify the imbalance" on television, said Jay Winsten, head of the Center for Health Communication at the Harvard School of Public Health.
The public health effort, financed with foundation grants, begins as Congress holds hearings into the effects of TV violence; states including Maryland are considering gun-control measures; and the networks have started labeling shows that contain violent scenes.
Yesterday, Attorney General Janet Reno urged programmers to police themselves. "If significant voluntary steps are not taken soon, government action will be imperative," she told the Senate Commerce Committee.
"Why should Hollywood go along? Public responsibility," said Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. "Why might they actually go along? Because groups are hassling them. So they may take some steps to alleviate the pressure."
It's unclear how effective new story lines might be in changing the public's attitudes toward violence, he said. "Presenting a positive message -- like 'If you drink, don't drive' -- is specific and targeted. But if you have a show in which someone doesn't get shot, does that convey a positive message? I think not."
But programs that present the negative consequences of gun violence -- for example, a child shot -- might have some effect, especially if part of a campaign that includes public service messages, he said. "That's how all good advertising works: repetition a hundred times. You have to break the connection between guns and glamour, guns and power."
Mr. Winsten and others in the Harvard project are convinced that television's role in shaping public opinion is powerful and can help reduce the tolerance for gun violence.
"You see all these studies that show that kids watch seven hours of TV a day," said Deborah Leff, the president of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, which provided $50,000 for planning the project. "If you can change the values that are transmitted to kids in their daily dose of television, you've gone a long way toward changing attitudes about guns and violence."
A survey done for the School of Public Health last summer said guns have become so commonplace in the lives of U.S. children that 59 percent of students from sixth grade through high school say they could get a handgun if they wanted one -- and a third of those said they could get one "within an hour."
The campaign, called the Harvard Project on Guns, Violence and Public Health, is modeled on a Harvard project aimed at curbing drunken driving by popularizing the "designated driver." Since that effort began in November 1988, 160 prime time TV episodes -- including "Cheers" and "L.A. Law" -- have devoted entire shows to drunken driving or mentioned a character who wasn't drinking so he could drive his friends home, Mr. Winsten said.
In combination with other steps to curb drunken driving, such as the public education efforts by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the project has changed public views about responsible driving, a change measured by polls and surveys, he said.
The time, Mr. Winsten said, is right for a shift in television's emphasis on violence. "It's in the air," he said. Even wealthy leaders in the entertainment industry understand they cannot insulate themselves from crime, as prominent show business figures have become victims of muggings and burglaries.
Some producers already are changing the way guns are depicted on television, Mr. Winsten said. In an episode of the NBC series "Blossom," the teen-age lead character notices a gun in another student's locker and has to decide what to do. On the Fox series "Beverly Hills 90210," a character gets a gun after a carjacking, but the weapon does not prove to be the protection he hoped for.
"What we are doing is showing the consequences of living in a violent world," said Charles Rosin, executive producer of "Beverly Hills 90210."
Mr. Rosin decided to create a story line about gun violence last spring, after hearing a radio report that said 20 people in Bosnia were killed by guns in one weekend while 24 people died in gun violence in Los Angeles. Then a friend's teen-age daughter reported going to a party in the suburbs that was really fun because, for a change, no one brought a gun.
"It's an effective time for people like Dr. Winsten and [gun-control crusader] Sarah Brady to say, 'Enough is enough' and push for change," Mr. Rosin said. "Whether Dr. Winsten will find enough allies in the Hollywood creative community, I don't know."
He added that "the position of the Writers Guild is that it would rather that Capitol Hill, instead of coming here and telling us what to do with our programs, pass some effective gun control.
"All we are is a television show."
Besides lobbying the TV industry, the Harvard project also will hold forums for business leaders on guns, violence and public health. And it will meet with editors, reporters and editorial writers to seek changes in how newspapers report crimes involving guns.
Crime reports have become so routine that Americans have come to view gun control as "a no-hope issue," Mr. Winsten said. "It leads to a belief that it's gone too far, that there's nothing that can be done." Instead of feeling hopeless, the public must believe it can help control violence, he said.