- - Sunday, May 6, 2018

Much like the FBI profiler he portrays in the CBS crime procedural “Criminal Minds,” Joe Mantegna doesn’t bank on surface appearances or follow the crowd, preferring to apply his own uncommon sense and experience to understand issues of the day.

So you won’t find the Tony Award-winning actor jumping on the Hollywood bandwagon demanding new firearm restrictions and demeaning the National Rifle Association. A nearly lifelong shooting enthusiast, he is aware and wary of the extremes in the gun control debate.

“I don’t agree with everything the NRA espouses, but I understand their position,” said Mr. Mantegna, 70. “You have to be extreme to counter the other extreme.”

Amid a heartbreaking wave of gun-related violence, he said guns and their law-abiding owners are not the problem and that scrapping the Second Amendment and enacting new restrictions on firearms are not the answer.

“The Second Amendment, if you really studied it … makes perfect sense today,” Mr. Mantegna said. “What’s happening is a total misuse of the Second Amendment.”



He first picked up a shotgun in his early 20s and quickly fell in love with shooting sports. He credits instructors who taught him how to handle firearms properly and safely. Consequently, the actor bemoans how some critics shred those who support gun rights and hunting traditions.

“There’s a lot of credible people in the shooting industry,” he said. “They’re not crazy, not maniacs. … They’re people who hunt in the right way. [Shooting sports are] in the Olympics.”

Gunplay has figured prominently in several of Mr. Mantegna’s movies and TV shows, but he has been able to express and explore his appreciation of the shooting arts only in the past few years.

Since 2011, he has hosted — and has frequently helped produce — “Gun Stories” on the Outdoor Channel, with each episode examining the history of a particular firearm in a larger cultural context. He also produces the cable network’s “Hollywood Weapons” series, in which gun experts test whether movie shooting effects are fact or fantasy — an enterprise Mr. Mantegna describes as “‘MythBusters’ on steroids.”

His peers may catch flak for glorifying gun violence while demanding more gun restrictions, but Mr. Mantegna blames a coarsening culture and a lack of education as being more reflective of recent shootings. He recalls when buying a gun was as simple as perusing the Sears Roebuck catalog.

“You called up, sent them the money and they mailed it to you. No one was shooting up schools,” he said. “What changed? Our culture changed.”

He suspects his views on guns in the 21st century aren’t uncommon.

“There are lots of people who think like I do, but the extremes have the podium right now,” said Mr. Mantegna, adding that he doesn’t oppose some gun restrictions. “It should be as hard to have a firearm as it is to drive a car.”

In the current, seventh season of “Gun Stories,” Mr. Mantegna was able to focus on a personal connection to a famous firearm.

The episode “Guns of the New Americans” allowed the actor to trace the lineage of a shotgun that had been passed down from generation to generation in his family of Sicilian immigrants who settled in the Little Italy section of Oklahoma early in the 20th century.

He recorded the episode on his grandfather’s farm, holding Salvatore Mantegna’s 1897 Winchester shotgun, nicknamed “Old Betsy.” Immigrants of the era, the episode explains, used firearms to protect themselves as they settled into their homes.

Mr. Mantegna, a Tony Award winner for his performance in the 1983 David Mamet drama “Glengarry Glen Ross,” is awaiting word to see if his long-running CBS procedural will be back for a 14th season. He plays David Rossi, a successful author who returns to the FBI to help crack new cases.

He said that starring in a popular TV show was something he avoided early in his career, even as top CBS honcho Les Moonves kept calling with potential parts.

Mr. Mantegna had a change of heart after talking with a close friend, actor Dennis Franz of the ABC cop drama “NYPD Blue.” Mr. Franz said Mr. Mantegna would love a recurring gig and tied it to the theatrical work they did together years earlier in Chicago.

Mr. Mantegna said the CBS crime drama’s “family” atmosphere, and the logic of telling a long-form story, sold him on his friend’s advice.

The timing also proved perfect. His children are older now, and the quality of the average TV show has leaped dramatically since he entered the business, he said.

“All your best writers are in TV,” said Mr. Mantegna, adding that the dividing line that once existed between TV and movies is gone.

He might be recognized for any number of memorable roles, from his part in the zany comedy “Airheads” to movies like “Godfather III.” However, he said fans of late can’t stop commenting on that “New Americans” episode of “Gun Stories.”

“I get constant emails from people saying it’s their favorite episode,” he said. “They can relate to it, too. A firearm is really part of the family legacy.”

Those who recoil at that reality should understand the country’s makeup.

“There’s a lot of room between the West Coast and East Coast,” he said. “We can’t ignore that.”

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