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[The following story contains spoilers from documentary The Price of Freedom.]
During an otherwise hopeful ending, focused on the post-Parkland gun-control movement, newly released documentary The Price of Freedom, cuts back to the film’s National Rifle Association representative, David Keene, a board member and former president of the gun rights group, who cautions that the “the Second Amendment believer, whether he’s an NRA member or not, will rise up once that bell has been rung and do whatever’s necessary to guarantee the continuation of those rights.”
As director Judd Ehrlich puts it, “What the NRA has really been able to do is gaslight the American people and put out these myths into the American populace that have just permeated and have gotten into so many areas of our life and they’re out there. Even if the NRA were to stop existing tomorrow, we would still have a gun-violence epidemic in this country. There are underlying cultural ideas that are going to be with us for a very long time.”
It was wondering about the origins of the United States’ frequent mass shootings that led Ehrlich to turn his lens on the NRA.
“What is going on in this country with our understanding of guns in America, what guns mean and gun culture? Guns have been the root of this problem,” Ehrlich tells The Hollywood Reporter. “How did this start and how did we get here? So many roads led to the National Rifle Association.”
The resulting documentary, in theaters now, looks at history of the NRA and how it changed from supporting marksmanship, shooting sports and gun training to advocating things like “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun” in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting.
The film features numerous figures involved in the gun debate, including Rep. Lucy McBath, Senator Chris Murphy, activists Nicole Hockley, Fred Guttenberg and X González, as well as arguably its most high-profile interview subject, former president Bill Clinton.
While Clinton is reflective about the backlash to the Brady Bill and 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, Ehrlich is cautious about the prospect of similar legislation today.
“More Americans own these guns and they feel like you cannot take my property: we already own these weapons,” Ehrlich says. “It is hard to argue how it’s not going to be a difficult road ahead with something like that, but no one really knows.”
The director speaks to THR about the future of the gun-violence epidemic, getting Clinton to participate, interviewing Keene, crafting the film’s ending and why he wanted to show more recent incidents like the Jan. 6 insurrection and Kyle Rittenhouse’s vigilantism in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
It was surprising as a viewer to see that someone still involved with the NRA in David Keene was willing to be interviewed on camera. How were you able to get him to talk to you, and how much of a challenge was it to get him to open up?
It is absolutely true that the National Rifle Association has a history of being a very secretive organization of not wanting to speak to the press, of not wanting to participate, so we were not incredibly hopeful; we were realistic. But it was really important to get that point of view and for somebody to really give a full-throated defense of that side of the debate and let viewers decide which vision for this country do they want? David Keene is somebody that not only has been very involved in the gun-rights debate in this country but also in conservative politics, so he’s a very interesting figure and somebody, more so than like Wayne LaPierre, who’s willing to participate in dialogues and discussions. He sat for a very, very long interview. I think I sat with him for over five hours. And he was willing to answer every question. He himself did not have any interrogation at any point about the project itself, he was just actually very quite willing to talk. Obviously for the film, I think to me, it’s very important to hear that side of things and to hear how important it is for David Keene and I think the leadership of the National Rifle Association to connect firearms and gun ownership — this idea, really this myth, that what the founders believed was deregulated ownership of firearms and that’s something that simply wasn’t true. But we hear these sort of revisions of American history crop up again and again, and they’re effective in the culture war. And I think the genius of the NRA was really to tap into that and understand how that could be a motivating factor in getting people to really make gun-rights a voting issue, which is what they did for decades.
Did you try to get other NRA representatives to talk to you?
We did, and David Keene was the one. We did not receive a lot of response from other folks, like Wayne LaPierre and others. But the fact that David Keene did participate, that was important. But there are a lot of people in the film who are gun owners, and it’s not only the people who identify themselves as gun owners in the film. There are other people in the film who are gun owners. That was important too because this is not at all about people’s right to own firearms for self-defense or sport. It’s not about that. Gun owners and non-gun-owners alike in this country agree that there can be some common-sense gun reforms that we can have. There again, this debate has been warped by the NRA to get us to this point where really the will of the people is not being carried out.
On the other side, the documentary also features an interview with Bill Clinton. How did you get him to participate?
We knew the ’90s and Bill Clinton’s presidency would be a part of this film, whether or not he agreed to be interviewed. It was a time when the NRA had a lot of power. Wayne LaPierre took over as executive vice president in 1991, and Bill Clinton and the Democrats come in just after that, really with control of both houses of Congress and propose the Brady Bill and Assault Weapons Ban, which were really major pieces of legislation, and it really ended up activating the NRA and changing the course of American history where Newt Gingrich and the right came in following the ’94 midterms. [Getting Clinton to participate] was really a process of explaining what we wanted to do with the film and what the overarching goal of the film was, but the president was incredibly gracious. I found him to be incredibly relaxed during the interview and it felt like he wanted to speak, he wanted to be honest about what he did accomplish and also the mistakes he made and how he really, looking back, feels like he may have been a bit naive to underestimate the NRA and to not heed the warnings — that as a kid from Arkansas who grew up with firearms and grew up hunting, he really felt like he could speak to those folks and say, “I’m not coming to take your firearms, I’m coming to talk about things that help with gun-violence in this country.” With that defeat in ’94, I think it really is something that still weighs on him, and he still feels like it changed the course of the country, so that was very powerful to hear from a former president who’s reflecting on what he did and didn’t do right. I think what’s so powerful is when he comes back at the end of the film and says, “Look I couldn’t do it but now there are people who can do it. I’ve seen them do it.” To have somebody who’s been in public life over that time and dealt directly with the NRA, to be able to hear that, you can say “OK, I can believe that there’s some shred of hope there.” The other thing about the Clinton interview, and this is in the film, is this idea that, after the ’94 elections, he says, “It doesn’t matter what the opinion polls say. What matters is how you vote.” I think it’s something that when you think about it is simple but so often in this debate, those statistics will be cited of how many people agree with something like background checks, but it doesn’t matter what you feel or how you answer unless you actually act on that. If you don’t vote, if you’re not out there advocating for this cause, nothing’s going to change and it doesn’t matter how you feel. It’s a very simple idea, but it’s something I think he learned the hard way and I think coming from him, that was powerful.
The end of the film explores the Parkland shooting and March for Our Lives and there’s a strong sense of optimism at the power of these kids to organize and mobilize but then you have Keene saying something like every time people thought the NRA would disappear it didn’t and that won’t happen now. As you were crafting an ending to this film, how did you decide where to leave it?
I wanted people to feel a sense of hope and optimism and still see the real change that happened in the 2018 midterms and that’s happened in states across the country. We show earlier in the film states flipping to really deregulate guns to the furthest extent with permit-less carry, what the NRA calls constitutional carry, where you don’t need a background check, you don’t need a license, you don’t need any form of training on this firearm, it’s just your God-given right to own a firearm in this country. So when you see these states, even led by Republican governors, flipping back after Parkland, that’s a testament to X González, March for Our Lives and so many other groups and activists and individuals, who really coalesced after that year. There wasn’t really a movement to counter the NRA. The NRA, even though they don’t speak for gun owners, people believe they speak for gun-owners. It was one behemoth organization on that side, and on the other side are kind of a lot of splintered groups that arose, really after Sandy Hook. After Parkland they really coalesced and were able to show how they could do the same thing that the NRA had been doing for years and really take a page out of their playbook and say, “Yes, we’re going to make guns the No. 1 voting issue, but we’re going to have a different agenda around guns.” So there’s a lot of hope there. But you’re right to point out David Keene and it was so important to put that in there because, yes, the NRA seems to be on the ropes. They’ve dealt with a lot of things in the past. They’ve had financial mismanagement and internal battles throughout their history and, as David Keene says, we’ve been counted out before and we’ve always come back. We need to really interrogate our history. We’re doing it in a lot of ways in this country and this conversation around guns needs to be part of it.
Based on your work on the documentary, does it seem like something like the Assault Weapons Ban could be passed again?
As we talk about in the film, sales and marketing took off after the Assault Weapons Ban lapsed. It’s difficult to know how many because of registration of guns but there are millions of assault weapons in this country, maybe 10 million. Before the Assault Weapons Ban, it was a few hundred thousand. And that’s part of the NRA’s relationship with the gun industry, it’s part of a strategy of putting guns in common use so that they are harder to take away. What you see with any social movement in this country is it might seem impossible at the beginning, and it’s only through the work and tenacity of activists and advocates and everyday Americans who care about this to make it a top issue that they are talking to people about constantly and going to the streets and voting. I think there’s a way but I think you have to acknowledge at the same time the National Rifle Association has been very effective over decades in putting guns in more places, more types of guns, with less regulation, around ideas that more guns are going to make Americans safer, which is just not true.
One of the things that we see in the film is the Jan. 6 insurrection and the incident in Kenosha with Kyle Rittenhouse. Why’d you want to include those more recent events, which happened while you were making the film?
We made this film during the pandemic, during the summer of 2020 that saw uprisings across the country, and we were seeing many of the scenes that we were dealing with when looking at the history of the NRA and looking at the culture wars of the ’60s playing out again in American streets. Those connections were just coming through so strongly to all of the groundwork that had been laid by the NRA and what we were seeing happening in the streets of this country. It seemed really important to draw those lines and make those connections. As you see in the film, from the endorsing of Ronald Reagan to the presidency of Donald Trump, it’s the furthering of the rhetoric that leads to a Kyle Rittenhouse, that leads to the idea that an armed citizen is a good citizen—this idea of vigilante justice that a hero with a long gun has the ability to not only protect their home and their community but other things and that they should do that. And entangled in all of that, like so many things in this country, are issues of race and that’s part of what the NRA has played on for a long time and part of what we wanted to investigate in the film.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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