Behind the Bullet. 2019. Directed by Heidi Yewman.
Featuring Daron Dwyer, Will Little, Kevin Leonard, Taylor Dwyer, & Christen McGinnes.
Not Rated. 81 minutes.
Behind the Bullet premieres today at the Slamdance Film Festival (before this, it was also a book). The documentary takes a hard, emotional look at four stories from the United States of America concerning the repercussions involved in gun violence. Each story is vastly different: one woman’s face was destroyed by a bullet after she tried to kill herself; one man cuts hair in a barbershop and gives speeches in halfway houses, having taken up a new life of advocacy after going to jail for third-degree murder; another man’s left a shell after killing a home invader in self-defence; and a teenager grows up in the shadow of accidentally pulling the trigger on his mom’s handgun and murdering his brother.
These tales twist together to form a broad narrative about America’s deadliest disease. Director Heidi Yewman isn’t looking to tell us the answers. She gives us a glimpse into the lives of those left picking up the pieces after suicide, homicide, and unintentional shootings. A picture emerges of a nation unable to let go of the right to bear arms, and what it means for those who become the victims of that right. Some people featured in the documentary have distanced themselves from guns. One man’s only further pulled into firearm paranoia. Another family would rather place everything in God’s hands, and the youth surrounding them have accepted violent death as part of a greater plan out of their control.
Second Amendment lovers in the U.S. will respond to Yewman by saying her entire ‘argument’ is based not on fact— as if the right-wing were ever fans of the facts— and entirely in emotion. Not a lie, though several stunning facts are presented onscreen before the end credits roll. It isn’t a good criticism, either.
Why’s emotion not allowed? Why do gun-loving Americans want to live in a nation devoid of any emotional connection? When there’s no emotion connecting people as a country, there’s more dehumanisation, and when people are dehumanised it’s easier to pull a trigger.
If there’s any concrete message in Behind the Bullet, it’s that our emotions are valid. Yewman doesn’t particularly focus on ‘the Left’ or ‘the Right’ here. She brings perspectives from all walks of life. She’s challenging Americans to stop worrying solely about a constitution written centuries ago by men using gunpowder with muskets and start thinking of the flesh and blood humans dying across the country.
“It’s not a guilt placed, it’s a guilt shared.”
The documentary presents its cases with emotion, fact, and, perhaps most importantly, lightly touches on the ideology behind gun culture without devolving into politicised diatribe. Three of the people featured are white, which is significant. In other documentaries, this might feel lopsided in terms of race. In a conversation about guns, where people of colour are all too often stigmatised by racists, it feels like Yewman’s choice is working to beat back the existing narrative about gun violence amongst POC. America can’t hideously pretend gun violence is only an “inner city” problem. Gun violence occurs everywhere in America, even in small, supposedly safe neighbourhoods.
Part of the strategy of the NRA, and right-wing nuts, is to make people appear as the Other, and make it seem like the real problems with guns lie in the Other or solely in the Other’s neighbourhood(s). Again, the dehumanisation helps justify violence. It isn’t only the dehumanising that does the job, it’s paranoia, as well. Right-wing politicians and gun fetishists work best through the rhetoric of fear. Like Will mentions in one of his scenes, he began to believe, at a certain point, that whatever he did to someone trying to steal from/harm him was justified, and in this sense he was effectively dehumanising himself into someone who could take a life without flinching.
One man, Kevin, shot an intruder in his home and had to watch him die while police and paramedics rushed to the scene. He has guns for self-defence and that night he had to use one. But he feels no safer since then. His dreams are haunted. He feels the guilt and stares of people in town, only to be greeted now and then with: “Hey, Kevin— kill anybody today?” This last part’s especially unsettling because some gun owners treat killing in self-defence like a sport (not unlike community response to a shooting in Joe R. Lansdale’s fictional novel, Cold in July), whereas Kevin’s lived through it, and, though he isn’t sorry for defending himself, he’s forever marred by what he was forced to do.
Kevin’s deep humanity is illustrated best for those who might be sceptical of his guilt by showing the relationship he formed with a dog after the shooting. We witness him have to put his fifteen-year-old dog down, burying it in the backyard in a beautiful makeshift grave, and – just like we were told he wept often after the shooting – he weeps for his dead canine friend. Although there’s no fist-pumping advocacy for gun ownership in the film, the scenes with Kevin do paint many who keep guns for self-defence in a positive light, revealing a human core amongst the usually corrosive right-vs-left divide.
Not every conversation on guns is about ideology, either. Some situations concerning guns are just about common sense. Like gun safety around the home, where kids playing around, or even an animal knocking things over, could potentially cause a gun to fire off. In a normal household without guns, a mom or dad gets distracted and maybe a child will get a cut, maybe they’ll fall down and get a knock on the head. In a household with guns, a child can get their hands on a firearm if it’s improperly stored, and if mom or dad get distracted it could mean serious injury or death, for them or their child.
The story of the family losing a son because their other son, Taylor, got his young hands on a gun at home is emotional and pure tragedy. Their blind faith in God makes it difficult to grapple with their reality, as an audience. In a late scene, a close friend of Taylor suggests God’s plan was for a child to be shot to death. Again, we see dehumanisation, except here it’s via religious faith. This is a scary merging of guns and God— not an uncommon thread in U.S. society. It’s precisely for these reasons that story feels conflicted.
Christen’s tale is more emotional for good reason. She bought a gun to keep at home for self-defence. Until she spiralled into suicidal ideation then turned the gun on herself. She didn’t die: half her face was blown off, to the point her father actually saw a piece of her jaw on the floor in the aftermath. Father Gore suffers from several mental health issues, and, admittedly, if he were in possession of a gun in his darkest of moments this article would not be written. This is simply another reason why guns shouldn’t be lying around our houses, no matter if in storage or not. These guns are bought for POTENTIAL, HYPOTHETICAL moments in our lives we’re not sure will ever actually arrive. A statistic at the end of the documentary sums things up well enough about the results of waiting around for a hypothetical break-in or for the government to descend on you in tyranny, in light of mental illness: “62% of gun deaths in the US are suicide. 10% of people who attempt suicide by firearm survive.”
One of the stories based in social change rather than emotional in those affected by gun violence is about Will. His use of a firearm to kill another young man landed him in jail. After he got out, he turned to advocacy and wound up in the barbershop cutting hair in his community. Instead of returning to the life he left on the outside, Will changed his life and dragged himself out of old ways. The biggest lesson in his story is part of the gun issue is certainly social, and again draws on ideology. The culture’s been built up in America so strong and so long it’s as much a religion as anything else. Will fell into one of the traps of that culture: “The streets told us what we were,” he explains to a group of men. Luckily he’s survived— to tell his story, to grow, and to help others grow.
Why can’t America focus on reducing crime instead of arming people for the possibility of crime? The chances of being attacked in a random crime is slim— it’s just as likely you’ll walk into the street and be hit by a car. So why is it when people walk into the road they don’t wear armour? Americans are less likely to admit guns are a social plague in their society than they are to fall back on an old document that’s only thread-bare relevant in a contemporary world. Gun violence is a “uniquely American problem” and a significant, ugly part of the country’s nervous system.
Behind the Bullet isn’t comfortable viewing. The stories are tragic, and some more tragic than others. Yewman’s documentary is important for 2019, when the U.S. shows no sign of slowing down their love affair with guns and ammo. It’s odd, to be a neighbour in next door Canada and, every week, watch a nation deny the intrinsic violence of their very existence.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1791— that’s over 200 years of gun violence embedded in the actual rhetoric of the country’s DNA. It isn’t the norm for countries to build the use of guns into the fabric of its society. But it continues to be normal for U.S. citizens to die on a figurative hill at the expense of the corporeal, violent deaths of people of all ages in America, whether they’re at home, in the streets, at the club, on the Las Vegas Strip, or out shopping in the mall.
If that’s normal, nobody wants to know what crazy looks like. Enough is enough.