A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013, issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The horrific shooting that killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn, has thrust some of the media's biggest stars into the growing debate over gun violence. In the wake of the Dec. 14 massacre by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, Piers Morgan has become unusually opinionated on his CNN program, asking a representative from the Michigan Coalition of Responsible Gun Owners: "How many kids have to die?" MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who enjoyed NRA support while he was in office, delivered a lengthy and emotional plea for reforms. "Our Bill of Rights does not guarantee gun manufacturers the absolute right to sell military-style, high-caliber, semi-automatic combat assault rifles with high-capacity magazines to whoever the hell they want," he said Dec. 17 on Morning Joe.
VIDEO: Anderson Cooper Honors Sandy Hook Victims on Emotional 'Anderson Live'
Morgan in particular has railed against the lack of a sustained outcry at the string of recent shootings -- at an Oregon shopping mall on Dec. 11, at a July screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo., and the 2011 shooting near Tucson, Ariz., that killed six and severely injured Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. "The conspiracy of silence doesn't just happen among politicians, it also happened with many in the media," Morgan tells THR. "The media has allowed this debate to be hijacked by the NRA, and that's not good enough."
MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell took NRA president Wayne LaPierre to task on his show Dec. 18, condemning the organization's position that guns like the semi-automatic AR-15 (used in Newtown and Aurora) are a Second Amendment right and characterizing them as "weapons of mass murder."
Morgan will host a live town hall Dec. 19, with Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J.; former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge; Tucson survivor Daniel Hernandez and others.
Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, meanwhile, confined the debate on his show to America's violent entertainment culture, singling out director Quentin Tarantino as a purveyor of "gratuitous violence." He also noted that he invited Tarantino and Django Unchained star Jamie Foxx to come on his show, but they declined.
But with few exceptions, it has been next to impossible to get Republican lawmakers or NRA supporters to agree to appear on TV. "I think the NRA-worshipping politicians who are afraid to go on television and talk about their positions are at this moment rethinking their positions," says O'Donnell, who hosted The Last Word from Newtown on Dec. 17.
Scarborough and co-host Mika Brzezinski worked the phones the weekend after the shooting in a futile attempt to book gun-advocate lawmakers. "We actually worked very aggressively to try to find somebody that would come on the show that was A-rated by the NRA and would take an opposing side," Scarborough says.
They ended up with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who like Scarborough, has had a change of heart about gun control in the wake of Newtown. And David Gregory's Meet the Press extended invitations "to all 31 pro-gun-rights senators in the new Congress to invite them on the program to share their views on the subject this morning," he said on his program Dec. 16. "We had no takers."
Meanwhile, the NRA -- which has campaigned aggressively against lawmakers who have supported stricter controls on gun purchases -- broke its silence Dec. 18, releasing a statement that said in part that the organization "is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again." The organization also said it would hold a press conference Dec. 21.
VIDEO: Jimmy Kimmel Tears Up Over Newtown Shooting in Opening Monologue
And television news continues to give gun-control advocates considerable airtime. Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has been a regular guest on CNN. And Meet the Press booked New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (who spearheads the bipartisan coalition Mayors Against Illegal Guns) and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (who will introduce a renewal of the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004) when Republicans declined to appear on the show.
"The media can either roll out days and weeks of platitudes and sympathies and slow music and all the rest of it, or they can be constructive and angry and vocal and passionate about what you do to try to prevent the next one," says Morgan.
But Scarborough notes that if the media does continue to take the lead on the gun control debate, it will do so from behind.
"Conservatives in Washington and people in my hometown of Pensacola, Fla., who are members of the NRA and have been hunters from an early age are saying they agree with me completely," he says. "We have been far too permissive when it comes to guns, when in comes to video game violence, when it comes to all the issues that have worked together to create one crisis after another."
VIDEO: David Letterman Addresses Newtown Tragedy on 'Late Show'
Of course, it was only about two weeks ago that Bob Costas was excoriated by conservative pundits when he used his halftime essay during NBC's Sunday Night Football broadcast to question America's rampant gun culture after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot to death the mother of his infant daughter and then turned the gun on himself. Scarborough, a member of the conservative inner circle, has not been the target of similar ire in the wake of Newtown.
"There are certain events -- Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 11 -- that change everything," Scarborough reasons. "And I think this changes everything. And perhaps the attacks will come. If I had said [before the Newtown shooting] what I said Monday, I would have been ripped to shreds by 6:30 in the morning. I'm still waiting."
Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie