He races into town, a stranger with a dark past, and quickly pulls out his Winchester to fix the city’s mistakes. Or he’s an abusive gun-packing cop with an estranged wife and a child whom he only sees a few times a year, but he saves an entire building full of people from the terrorists who have kidnapped them. Or he’s a taciturn ex-hitman who is reluctantly dragged back into action when the stubborn bad guy shows up again. He is a hero, a savior, a knight in slightly damaged armor.
The backbone of Hollywood storytelling is good guy with gun.
When NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre first used the phrase, it was 2012, one week after the massacre of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “The only way to stop bad guys with guns is good guys with guns,” he said, and it spread like wildfire. Many criticized the statement, noting that in the deadliest mass shootings – such as the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which 21 people died – the so-called good guys with guns were there, but completely failed to prevent tragedy. The broader data clearly shows that in American active shooter attacks, the well-armed people often make no difference.
But the sentence sticks. This is an interesting scenario to imagine. It’s romantic. Evidence suggests that gun owners, on the whole, imagine good people with guns and see themselves. We all feel powerless to prevent attacks; for some, acquiring a gun is an attractive way to feel in control.
“Both aggressive criminals (‘wolf’ in the language of gun culture) and gentle victims (‘sheep’), gun bearers see themselves valiantly straddling the moral space of heroic violence,” sociologist Jennifer Carlson explained to Vox in 2018. What’s more , he wrote, “this civic protective ethic is redefining men’s social utility to their families.”
In other words, for many gun carriers — predominantly men — carrying a gun is a way of identifying with those bold ideals. Carlson came to this conclusion by studying the state of Michigan, where the economic depression, crime, and the effects of decline have fostered a strong hidden gun culture. For many of the men she spoke to, carrying a gun was a way to counter the decline they saw in the world around them.
“Against a backdrop of socioeconomic decline, guns have become a powerful tool for asserting themselves as respectable persons, as obedient fathers, and even as committed members of the community,” he wrote, noting that guns allowed those individuals to “rework personal codes.” they. about what it means to be a good person and transform the lethal force of taboo acts of violence into acts of good citizenship.”
The image had to come from somewhere. And one source seems clear.
After the mass shootings at Uvalde and more, Hollywood veterans have been circulating open letters calling on Hollywood to be part of the solution, not the problem. The letter advises “be aware of on-screen gun violence and model gun safety best practices,” suggests users of on-screen guns properly lock weapons and make them inaccessible to children, limit how they can be used on screens, and explore alternatives.
The initiative is led by Disney activist Robert Bowers and Christy Callahan, organizers of the advocacy group Brady United Against Gun Violence. Disney, the group’s national organizing director, told me that modeling good behavior on screen around guns can have a much bigger impact than one might think and that social activists have had success with storytellers who are rethinking how they portray other social issues at home. past.
“Support from storytellers for seat belts, coping with teen pregnancy, and smoking [prevention] are just a few examples of where modeling safer behaviors led to a cultural shift for the better,” Disney said. “We have received comments from TV writers who have changed the scene in response to our campaign. What’s really interesting is that these writers are taking advantage of this moment to really be more creative in their storytelling.”
Guns, as objects, are all over the film, and debates about Hollywood and gun violence are at times almost nonsensical. But it is important to note that story that Hollywood has been telling about for most of its life has put good guys with guns front and center. This is a great plot device. Our silver screen action heroes are often the good guys with guns, often those who have to operate from outside the system.
They are not cops; they are the ones who lose, the ones who live on the fringes. In Western from Stagecoach to True Grit, they are often outsiders, men without a moor, a little mysterious, a little dangerous, but with a moral compass they are truer than society. They are John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart.
In the big blockbusters of the Reagan era and beyond, they were often individuals who took the place of those who couldn’t defend themselves, usually because whoever was supposed to save the day was too weak or ineffective to do so. That person is played by Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Steven Seagal, or Liam Neeson. Or not a boy at all: Melina in Remember Totalsave Quaid, or Marion in robber of the Lost Ark, stepped in to save Indiana Jones.
Even today’s biggest moneymaker, the expansive, superhero-based storytelling of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has its roots in this tradition. In these films, some good people have guns; other people have super powers instead. But the metaphor is latent and the allure is the same. Weapons give ordinary people superpowers; use one, and you too can be Captain America or Black Widow or Iron Man. Or Deadpool.
A good gun-wielding guy doesn’t even have to be a protagonist (or, in some cases, a man). Think about it: How many times have you seen a movie where a villain has a hero in sight, ready to take him out and then, when we hear gunfire, the villain falls instead? From Captain America: The First Avenger to Under Siegel to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, figuratively the same. Our hero has been saved by a comrade, a friend, an acquaintance, even an enemy from his foe — and his weapon. This is an outdated trope because narratively, it adds elements of suspense, surprise, and catharsis to the story.
These stories are told in a way that encourages us to identify with good people, people who save the day. So when we imagine real-life scenarios, we are naturally drawn to putting ourselves in the place of the hero of the many stories we have watched since childhood, not the victim.
These stories are not the only reason we swallow romantic ideas, nor do they bear the blame for our struggle to curb gun violence in America. After all, Hollywood has been exporting its films overseas for decades, with very different results. The ease with which guns are obtained in the US and the culture that has sprung up around them are the product of a unique set of factors spanning culture, law, and politics.
But that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t matter. Tell people stories about themselves quite often, and they will believe it.
All of the actions proposed in the open letter to Hollywood seem reasonable, if lighthearted. But even changing the way weapons are depicted on screen will be a challenge. As the Hollywood Reporter in-depth reports, the portrayal of guns on screen has steadily improved over the years, and that has resulted in a lucrative relationship between gun manufacturers and Hollywood.
Realistically depicting weapons faces another economic problem: the MPA rating system tends to draw a line between PG-13 and R ratings for films that are not based on gun violence, but on how much gore is shown on screen, and PG-13 films make much more a lot of money at the box office than their R-rated counterparts. So the studio had a vested interest in not showing blood and crushed corpses, the natural result of gunfire. That means we often watch fantasies of guns being cleaned and cleaned, rather than the kind of reality that might cause good guys with guns to hesitate when faced with real-world scenarios.
What we don’t see with nearly the same frequency is what we know happens in real life: good people come with guns, and nothing happens. Or, as in Uvalde, the “good guys”—the police, for that matter—stand around, doing the exact opposite of what they’re supposed to do, and no one manages to save the day until after the massive bloodbath.
There is a simple reason for that. Entertaining movies. Tragedy, strictly speaking, no. Neither does reality. No one wants to turn on the TV and watch the story. No one wants to believe that happened.
So what should we do? At this point, Pandora’s box has been opened; You can’t take a hundred years of film history back. It would be anti-art and counterproductive to erase guns from Hollywood history. Similarly, prohibiting them from depicting on screen makes no sense. Weapons exist in the real world. They cause tragedies, many of them. Telling the truth requires weapons.
But like everything in movies, it’s not the subject that matters; that’s the movie. Imagining weapons as the solution to all problems — as succeed solution — is, as we now know, a fantasy. This can be a dangerous fantasy. For people who feel the world is spinning out of control, this suggests taking on the identity of an armed protector who ultimately doesn’t deliver what it promises. The story, however interesting and romantic, can prevent us from finding real solutions.