Barbara Kopple on Gun Rights, Freedom of Speech, and Virginia Tech

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Reuters/Phil McCarten

In her more than three decades as a filmmaker, Oscar-winner Barbara Kopple has made documentaries about Kentucky coal miners (Harlan County U.S.A.), the Yankees (The House of Steinbrenner), the Dixie Chicks (Shut Up and Sing), and more. Her latest project may be her most controversial yet: Gun Fight, a film about the gun rights debate in America that premieres tonight on HBO at 9:30.

She spoke with The Atlantic about the shootings at Virginia Tech and in Tucson, her personal views about guns, and the state of freedom of speech in America.


When did idea for Gun Fight first come about?

Four years ago. In fact, one of our first shoots was going to Virginia Tech a few days after it happened.

And what drew you to the project?

Mark Weiss, one of the producers, called me up and said, "How would you like to make a film about guns and America?" I went, "Oh, I don't know about that. That's such a huge, huge issue, and I don't know that much about it."

We did a lot of talking, and then I started doing a lot of research, and I said, "Alright." And then we pitched it to HBO, and Shelia [Nevins] said, "Ok, go for it, go do it." And then the realization hit: "Ok, how do you get a handle on something like this, that is huge, and it's passionate. Because guns, you know, there's no coming back from it. People dying in a split second. It's such a major responsibility to do a film like this. So I guess that's kind of where it started.

In an interview with IndieWire a few years ago, you said,"I don't go into a film with any particular agenda ... But [I] often do have a point of view on the subject." What was your point of view going into Gun Fight?

I think my point of view is I'm not a gun person. Although if you just looked at Harlan County, there were so many guns in Harlan County—everybody had guns. The first or second day I was in Harlan County, they taught me how to shoot. I would never carry a gun during the day, but during the nighttime we would all sleep on the floor with mattresses and stuff, because when the strike got really intense, they would shoot.

So it was sort of interesting for me to be able to be on the gun ranges and to really see people's love of guns. There was [former NRA lobbyist] Richard Feldman talking about, "This is Mr. Smith and this is Mr. Wesson, and I never go to the door without my two good friends."

It was very foreign to me—I curious to see the other side, to see how people thought and felt and their whole passion about what freedom is. Even [Executive Director of Gun Owners of America] Larry Pratt, who's in the film, who talks about shooting the government, and then that horrible thing happens in Tucson. It's hard to wrap your head around it all. It's such a huge issue.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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