He gallops into town, the stranger with a dark past, and quickly draws his Winchester to right the town’s wrongs. Or he’s a gruff, gun-toting cop with a wife he’s estranged from and a kid he only sees a few times a year, but he saves an entire building full of people from the terrorists who kidnapped them. Or he’s a taciturn former assassin who reluctantly jumps back into the action when hardened villains reappear. He is the hero, the savior, the knight in slightly dented armour.
The backbone of Hollywood storytelling is the good guy with the gun.
When NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre first used the phrase, it was in 2012, a week after the massacre of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said, and it spread like wildfire. Many decried the statement, noting that in some of the deadliest mass shootings — like the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where 21 people died — the so-called good guys with the guns were there, but absolutely didn’t. succeeded in preventing the tragedy. Broader data clearly shows that in US active shooter attacks, the good gunman often makes no difference.
Yet the sentence holds. It’s an attractive scenario to imagine. It’s romantic. Evidence suggests that gun owners, on the whole, picture the good guy with the gun and see themselves. We all feel powerless to prevent attacks; for some, acquiring a gun is an appealing way to feel in control.
“Neither aggressive criminals (the ‘wolves’ in the parlance of gun culture) nor gentle victims (the ‘sheep’), gun bearers see themselves as valiantly straddling a moral space of heroic violence”, explained sociologist Jennifer Carlson for Vox in 2018. , she wrote, “this citizen-protective ethic redefines the social usefulness of men towards their families”.
In other words, for many gun-bearers – who are mostly men – carrying a gun is a way of identifying with this courageous ideal. Carlson came to this conclusion by studying the state of Michigan, where economic depression, crime, and perceived decline fostered a strong concealed gun culture. For many of the men she spoke to, carrying a gun was a way to combat the deterioration they saw in the world around them.
“In a context of socio-economic decline, firearms become a powerful means of asserting oneself as a person of integrity, as a devoted father and even as an engaged member of the community,” she writes, noting that firearms allowed these men to “rework their personal codes”. about what it means to be a good man and to transform lethal force from an act of taboo violence into an act of good citizenship.
This image must come from somewhere. And one source seems obvious.
In the wake of the Uvalde mass shooting and far too many others, Hollywood veterans circulated an open letter calling on Hollywood to be part of the solution, not the problem. The letter suggests being “attentive to on-screen gun violence and gun safety best practices,” showing on-screen gun users to properly lock up guns and keep them safe. making them inaccessible to children, limiting how they are used on screen, and exploring alternatives.
The initiative was led by activists Robert Bowers Disney and Christy Callahan, co-chair of advocacy group Brady United Against Gun Violence. Disney, the group’s national organizing director, told me that modeling good on-screen behavior around guns can have a much bigger impact than people realize and activists have had success with storytellers rethinking the way they depict other social issues in the past.
“Storytellers’ Support for Seat Belts, Teen Pregnancy, and Smoking [prevention] are just a few examples where modeling safer behavior has led to culture change for the better,” Disney said. “We have already received comments from television writers who changed a scene in response to our campaign. What’s really exciting is that these writers are using this time to be more creative in their storytelling.
Guns, as objects, are all over the movies, and the debate over Hollywood and gun violence has bordered on the silly at times. But it is important to note that the stories Hollywood has been a story for almost his entire life of putting the good guy with the gun front and center. It’s a great plot device. Our big-screen action heroes have often been good guys with guns, often the ones who have to operate from outside the system.
It’s not the cops; these are the felled guys, those who live on the margins. In the westerns of Diligence at The real courage, they were often outsiders, men without moorings, a little mysterious, a little dangerous, but with moral compasses more just than those of society. They were John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart.
In the great blockbusters of the Reagan era and beyond, it was often individuals who replaced those who could not defend themselves, usually because whoever was supposed to save the day was too weak or ineffective to do so. . This guy is played by Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Steven Seagal, or Liam Neeson. Or it’s not a guy at all: Melina in Total recallsaving Quaid or Marion in The Raiders of the Lost Ark, intervene to save Indiana Jones.
Even today’s biggest moneymaker, expansive superhero-based storytelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has its roots in this tradition. In these movies, some of the good guys have guns; others have superpowers instead. But the metaphor is latent and the attraction is the same. Weapons give ordinary people superpowers; wield one, and you too can be Captain America or Black Widow or Iron Man. Or Deadpool.
The good guy with a gun doesn’t even have to be the protagonist (or, in a small number of cases, a guy). Think about it: how many times have you seen a movie where a villain has the hero in his sights, ready to take him down and then, when a gunshot is heard, the villain falls instead? Of Captain America: The First Avenger at Under Siege at The man who shot Liberty Valance, the trope is the same. Our hero was rescued by a comrade, a friend, an acquaintance, even his enemy’s enemy — and his weapon. It’s a time-worn trope precisely because, from a narrative perspective, it adds an element of suspense, surprise, and catharsis to the story.
These stories are told in a way that encourages us to identify with the good guys, the savers. So when we imagine a real-life scenario, we naturally strive to put ourselves in the shoes of the hero of countless stories we’ve watched since childhood, not the victims.
These stories aren’t the only reason we swallow the romantic notion, nor do they bear the brunt of the blame for our struggles to address gun violence in America. After all, Hollywood has been exporting its films overseas for decades, with very different results. The ease of acquiring guns in the United States and the culture that has developed around them is the product of a unique set of factors spanning culture, law, and politics.
But that doesn’t mean the movies have no effect. Tell people a story about themselves often enough, and they will believe it.
All the measures proposed in the open letter to Hollywood seem reasonable, if slight. But even changing the way weapons are represented on screen would be a challenge. As The Hollywood Reporter has extensively reported, on-screen depictions of guns have steadily increased over the years, resulting in a lucrative relationship between gun manufacturers and Hollywood.
Depicting guns realistically comes up against another economic problem: the MPA rating system tends to draw the line between PG-13 and R ratings of movies not based on gun violence, but on the amount of gore displayed on screen, and PG-13 films make far more money at the box office than their R-rated counterparts. The studios therefore have every interest in not showing blood and destroyed bodies, a natural result of the gunshots. That means we’re often watching sanitized and scrubbed gun fantasies, rather than the kind of reality that might make the good guy with the gun falter in the face of a real-world scenario.
What we don’t see with nearly as much frequency is what we know happens in real life: the good guy comes in with the gun, and nothing happens. Or, as in Uvalde, the “good guys” – the cops, in this case – stand there doing the opposite of what they should be doing, and no one can save the day until there’s there was no immense bloodshed.
There is a simple reason for this. Movies are entertaining. The tragedy is, categorically, no. Neither does reality. Nobody wants to turn on the TV and watch this story. No one wants to believe it happened.
So what are we supposed to do? At this point, Pandora’s box has been opened; you can’t go back to a hundred years of film history. It would be both anti-art and counterproductive to erase guns from Hollywood history. Similarly, banning them from screen representation wouldn’t make much sense. Guns exist in the real world. They cause tragedies, lots of them. Telling stories honestly requires guns.
But as with all things in movies, it’s not the subject matter; that’s how the movie does it. Imagining guns as the solution to all problems – as the successful solution – is, as we now know, a fantasy. It can be a dangerous fantasy. For people who feel like the world is spiraling out of control, it suggests taking on an identity as an armed protector that ultimately fails to deliver. This story, as attractive and romantic as it is, can prevent us from finding real solutions.