On Monday, I wrote about “The Cartridge Family,” a Simpsons episode containing one of the best soccer parodies ever made. But as the title suggests, the ninth-season classic is really about gun ownership. It’s a fairly evenhanded look at the issue—but it still managed to scare Fox and rankle the NRA, which completely missed the point of the episode. Of course, few things (not even the PTA disbanding) cause as much hysteria in America as an entity daring to comment on the place of firearms in our society. Not that the prospect of controversy bothered Mike Scully.
“The idea of Homer with a gun is just such a funny notion,” the then-Simpsons showrunner says. “Because we’re animated, we got to get away with a lot of stuff. I’m not even sure if we could do it now.”
In between talking about fútbol sequences, Scully took me through the making of the episode. He says he’d actually pitched the idea of irresponsible galoot Homer packing heat a few years before, but his colleagues, wary of being preachy, nixed it. “It’s very easy to say guns are bad,” Scully says, “which is what most sitcoms said at the time.”
The staff finally caved, however, and “The Cartridge Family,” written by John Swartzwelder, aired on Nov. 2, 1997. After a soccer riot wreaks havoc on Springfield, Marge implores her husband: “We need something to protect this family.” Homer then heads to the “Bloodbath & Beyond Gun Shop,” where he immediately asks for the store’s deadliest gun.
The ensuing scenes, starting with the one in which a salesman shows Homer an accessory kit that includes a “silencer,” a “loudener,” a “speed cocker,” and a bazooka-looking device “for shooting down police helicopters,” are among the most morbidly funny in Simpsons history. They’re also some of the most terrifying. When a mesmerized Homer is told that he needs to abide by the standard waiting period before obtaining a revolver, he says, “Five days?! But I’m mad now. I’d kill you if I had my gun.”
Following a montage fittingly scored to “The Waiting” by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Homer returns to pick up his piece. Even after ticking off his past problems (“You’ve been in a mental institution, frequent problems with alcohol, beat up President Bush…”) and deeming him potentially dangerous, the clerk still sells Homer a piece.
“If I didn’t have this gun, the king of England could come in here any time he wants and start shoving you around,” Homer tells Lisa, who’s frustrated when her dad informs her that owning a gun is his constitutional right. Trouble comes quickly. Among other things, Homer riddles the snack bar at the gun range with bullets, twirls his gun in Apu’s direction, and skeet-shoots dinner plates. Fed up, Marge eventually takes the kids to live in a motel. The local chapter of the NRA, which had welcomed Homer at first, soon boots him after he’s caught using his gun as a can opener.
Krusty scolds Homer, saying, “Guns aren’t toys. They’re for family protection, hunting dangerous or delicious animals, keeping the king of England out of your face.” This is as close as the episode gets to being preachy.
It’s no shock that the subject matter worried Fox. The censors originally objected to a few scenes, including one where Homer points the gun at Marge’s face, and another where Bart—“And the next marksman is … William Tell, Jr.!”—aims the gun at an apple in Milhouse’s mouth. “You can say wanker but you may not put an apple in the boy’s mouth,” Yeardley Smith, who voices Lisa, says in the DVD commentary. (Also in the commentary: Simpsons creator Matt Groening admits that he hates guns.)
Scully says that the NRA sent an angry letter to the Simpsons staff, proving that the organization didn’t get it. “It’s like they didn’t watch the show,” Scully says. When Homer is reckless with his gun, he’s ostracized. In reality, “The Cartridge Family” encourages responsible gun ownership, not the eradication of firearms.
“We were actually making their argument for them,” Scully says of the episode, which British network Sky 1 initially refused to air. “We were trying to show that the NRA people were responsible and they followed the safety rules. And they kicked Homer out for being dangerous. The point completely went over their heads, which kind of reinforced my opinion of the NRA.”
By the end of the episode, Homer’s responsible NRA buddies help foil a robbery as he stands idly by. At that point, he realizes that he should get rid of his gun—as mighty as it makes him feel. “I felt this incredible surge of power, like God must feel when He’s holding a gun,” he admits, before handing the weapon to Marge, who instead of trashing it keeps it for herself.
In the end, Scully says, the message is pretty simple: “Guns in the hands of people like Homer Simpson are bad.”