Just about every documentary made to deliver a sociopolitical message winds up preaching to the converted. From abortion to economic inequality to gun control, hot-button topics make for provocative films, but mostly attract audiences predisposed to agreeing with a particular filmmaker's underlying point of view.
New Orleans-based writer-director John Richie circumvents this problem by focusing on a single, crucial facet of the debate on gun violence in the U.S. The title of his 91%: A Film About Guns in America refers to the portion of Americans who support universal background checks on people seeking to purchase firearms. Why make a film about an issue on which almost everyone agrees? Overwhelming public support for background checks has not been enough to persuade Congress to close a hole in existing federal laws. The result has been seemingly endless mass shootings and loss of life often perpetrated by people who never would have passed a background check.
Richie's thoughtful and even-tempered 91% has two tacks that illuminate this issue. The director crisscrossed the country from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut to the Blacksburg campus of Virginia Tech to allow survivors and those who lost loved ones in mass shootings to tell their own, often heartbreaking stories. Sometimes they're difficult to hear, but these stories illustrate the true cost of political inaction. The abstract arguments that typically drive gun law debates recede quickly in light of real-world human experience.
The film also spotlights the political and societal forces that conspire to prevent universal background checks. Leading the discussion are award-winning journalist Alec MacGillis and Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Their primary task is explaining how the American gun lobby — led by the National Rifle Association (NRA) — has managed to defy the will of its most fervent supporters. As the film reveals, 74 percent of NRA members support universal background checks, according to Republican pollster Frank Luntz.
Federal law requires background checks for gun purchasers and bars felons, those convicted of domestic abuse, underage buyers and others from acquiring guns. But those laws only apply to federally licensed firearms dealers, which does not cover internet or gun show sales. The gun lobby — which has received tens of millions of dollars in support from gun manufacturers — currently opposes all legislative efforts to limit lawful access to firearms. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seem to live in fear of a poor grade from the NRA.
Among those who share personal stories in 91% is Gambit contributing writer Deborah "Big Red" Cotton, one of 19 people shot at a May 2013 Mother's Day second-line parade in New Orleans. Reflecting on her experiences and ongoing recovery, she mentions that both shooters had "charges against them that should have prevented them from even having guns." Cotton's quiet resolve speaks volumes about the need for background-check legislation and supports the film's refusal to sensationalize tragic events, even when they hit you right where you live.
Unlike documentaries that use fly-on-the-wall techniques to justify the absence of essential, contextualizing information, 91% skillfully builds a complete argument for common-sense reform. Though it's only 63 minutes long, the film manages a persuasive call to the most basic form of political activism: Know your representatives in Washington, D.C. and support those willing to fight for your interests. Sometimes preaching to the converted is exactly what circumstances require.