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“Tiger King” and the Dangers of Unfettered Firearm Access

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Like seemingly everyone else on Twitter, I recently binge-watched Tiger King, the viral Netflix series about big cats and the outrageous world of people who collect them. It’s quickly become a favorite topic of discussion among friends and coworkers looking for a distraction from the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s full of ridiculous and meme-worthy moments, like these homemade music videos:

Another noteworthy, and much less-discussed, aspect of the series is the prevalence of guns. Throughout the series, these guns are used to threaten or intimidate others—sometimes with tragic consequences.

*Spoilers follow—if you haven’t finished the series and want to avoid the discussion of plot points, check out our recent report on extreme risk protection orders in Broward County instead*

Irresponsible gun ownership is no joke

Tiger King catalogues in excruciating detail the pitfalls of irresponsible gun ownership, and the potential for tragedy when individuals intending to do harm are armed. Joe Exotic is often seen pointing loaded guns at people, firing warning shots, and threatening “another Waco” if federal agents attempt to take away his big cats.

He repeatedly “jokes”—including in live-streamed video—about killing his enemy, Carole Baskin, going so far as to blow up her effigy. Other employees at the G.W. Zoo dangerously mix firearms and drug use and frequently treat guns not as dangerous weapons that need to be handled with consideration but as toys, props, and jokes.

The consequences of such carelessness are all too real. In one of the most devastating moments of the series, Joe’s husband Travis dies after pointing a loaded gun at his head and pulling the trigger, one he said he “didn’t think would fire without a clip.” Unfortunately, tragedies like this are all too common in our country: unintentional shootings are responsible for thousands of emergency room visits and hundreds of gun deaths each year. The risk of tragedy is particularly acute for children living in homes with unlocked and loaded firearms.

Ultimately, Joe Exotic ends up in prison for paying someone to kill Carole—an arrest that agents were only able to make after money actually changed hands, even though Joe had been making credible threats about taking her life for months.

Responsible gun owners understand that the Second Amendment right comes with responsibilities—and that guns don’t belong in the hands of people threatening to kill other people. Fortunately, tools exist to temporarily disarm individuals who pose a documented threat to themselves or others.

Extreme risk protection orders can save lives

Gun violence—particularly mass shootings and firearm suicide—is often preceded by warning signs. The Parkland massacre in February 2018 is a prime example of this: the shooter was the subject of multiple tips to the FBI and calls to law enforcement, yet because he hadn’t committed a crime that prohibited him from owning firearms, he was able to murder 17 of his classmates and former teachers and injure 17 more.

In response to the shooting, the Florida legislature passed a range of gun safety measures, including an extreme risk law. Florida’s extreme risk law allows law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily remove guns from individuals who pose a demonstrated risk to themselves or others. Despite the gun lobby’s predictable attempts to stir up fears around “gun confiscation,” due process protections are built into the law, including a hearing that gives the respondent an opportunity to contest the order.

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Earlier this year, we released a report about the first year of the law’s usage in Broward County, the same county that contains Parkland. Our report found that Broward County law enforcement used the state’s extreme risk law to safely and effectively disarm more than 200 individuals threatening serious violence.

Florida’s extreme risk protection order law was used to remove firearm access from a man who threatened to shoot or strangle his neighbor over an argument, a man who threatened to commit a school shooting, a teenager struggling with depression who told officers he wanted to shoot himself with his father’s gun, and a woman experiencing delusions who unintentionally shot herself, among many other incidents.

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To date, eighteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of an extreme risk protection order law. Oklahoma, home to Joe Exotic’s G.W. Zoo, is not one of these eighteen states. Giffords believes that this lifesaving tool should be available to law enforcement and concerned family members in every state, and is working to help legislators around the country draft, enact, and implement these laws.

Law-abiding gun owners understand that gun safety laws go hand-in-hand with responsible gun ownership, and that individuals who make threats against other people’s lives and use loaded guns to threaten, intimidate, or joke around shouldn’t be armed.

Long after Tiger King and Joe Exotic’s DIY music videos fade from our collective consciousness, hopefully we will continue to remember the tragic consequences of unfettered gun access and reckless gun ownership.