He gallops into town, the stranger with the dark past, and quickly whips out his Winchester to right the town’s wrongs. Or he’s a rude, gun-toting cop with an estranged wife and son who 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 brooding ex-assassin who is dragged reluctantly back into action when hardened thugs show up again. He’s the hero, the savior, the knight in slightly frayed armor.
The backbone of Hollywood’s narrative is the good guy with the gun.
When NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre first used that 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 criticized the statement, noting that in the deadliest mass shootings – such as the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where 21 people died – the so-called good guys with guns were there, but they absolutely failed to prevent the tragedy. Larger data clearly show that in American active sniper attacks, the armed good guy often makes no difference.
However, the phrase catches on. It’s an attractive scenario to imagine. It’s romantic. Evidence suggests that gun owners often imagine the good guy with the gun and see themselves. We all feel powerless to avoid attacks; for some, acquiring a gun is an attractive way to feel in control.
“Neither aggressive criminals (the ‘wolves’ in gun culture parlance) nor meek victims (the ‘sheep’), gun bearers see themselves as valiantly occupying a moral space of heroic violence,” sociologist Jennifer Carlson explained to Vox. in 2018. , she writes, “this citizen-protector ethic redefines the social usefulness of men to their families”.
In other words, for many gun bearers – who are predominantly 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 the impression of decline have fostered a robust culture of concealed gun possession. For many of the men she spoke to, carrying a gun was a way to fight the deterioration they saw in the world around them.
“Against the backdrop of socioeconomic decline, guns become a powerful means of asserting yourself as a person of integrity, a dutiful parent, and even a committed member of the community,” she writes, noting that guns have enabled these men “rework their personal codes”. about what it means to be a good man and to transform the lethal force of a taboo act of violence into an act of good citizenship.”
That image has to come from somewhere. And one source seems obvious.
After the mass shooting in Uvalde and many others, Hollywood veterans circulated an open letter urging Hollywood to be part of the solution, not the problem. The letter suggests being “aware of on-screen gun violence and safety best practices with model guns,” showing on-screen gun users locking guns properly and making them inaccessible to children, limiting the ways they are used on-screen, and exploring alternatives.
The initiative was led by activists Robert Bowers Disney and Christy Callahan, who is co-chair of the 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 far greater impact than you might think, and that social activists have had success with storytellers rethinking how they portray other social issues in the world. past.
“Storyteller support for seat belts, addressing teen pregnancy and smoking [prevention] are just a few examples where modeling safer behavior has led to a culture change for the better,” Disney said. “We have already received comments from TV writers who changed a scene in response to our campaign. What’s really exciting is that these writers are taking advantage of this moment to really be more creative in their stories.”
Guns, as objects, are in every movie, and the debate over Hollywood and gun violence sometimes borders on the absurd. But it is important to note that the stories Hollywood has been saying for most of its life that it put the good guy with the gun front and center. It’s a great plot device. Our silver screen action heroes have often been good guys with guns, often the ones who must operate from outside the system.
They are not the cops; they are the downed guys, the ones who are living on the fringes. in westerners of diligence for true courage, they were often the outsiders, men with no strings attached, a little mysterious, a little dangerous, but with their moral compasses truer than those of society. They were John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart.
In blockbusters from the Reagan era onwards, it was often individuals who stepped in for those who couldn’t defend themselves, usually because whoever was supposed to be saving the day was too weak or ineffective to pull it off. This guy is played by Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Steven Seagal, or Liam Neeson. Or not a guy: Melina in total recallsaving Quaid or Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, intervene to save Indiana Jones.
Even today’s biggest moneymaker, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s expansive, superhero-based narrative 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 fascination is the same. Guns give ordinary people superpowers; wield one, and you too can be Captain America, Black Widow or Iron Man. Or Deadpool.
The gun-toting good guy 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 we hear a gunshot, the villain falls? From Captain America: The First Avenger for under siege for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the trope is the same. Our hero was rescued by a comrade, a friend, an acquaintance, even the enemy of his enemy – and his weapon. It’s a time-worn trope precisely because, narratively, 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 ones who save the day. So when we imagine a real-life scenario, we naturally gravitate to putting ourselves in the shoes of the hero of countless stories we’ve watched since childhood, not the victims.
These stories are not the only reason we buy into the romantic notion, nor do they carry the burden of guilt for our struggles to contain gun violence in the United States. After all, Hollywood has been exporting its films abroad for decades, with very different results. The ease of acquiring guns in the US and the culture that has sprung up around it is the product of a unique set of factors that span 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, albeit mild. But even changing the way weapons are represented on screen would be a challenge. As the Hollywood Reporter has exhaustively reported, on-screen depictions of guns have steadily increased over the years, and this has resulted in a profitable relationship between gun manufacturers and Hollywood.
Describing guns realistically runs up against another economic issue: the MPA rating system tends to draw the line between PG-13 and R ratings for movies not based on gun violence, but on how much blood is shown on screen, and the movies PG-13s make a lot more money at the box office than their R-rated counterparts. So the studios have an interest in not showing blood and destroyed bodies, the natural result of gunfire. That means we often watch sanitized and clean gun fantasies rather than the kind of reality that can make the good guy with the gun hesitate when faced with a real-world scenario.
What we don’t see so often 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 police, in this case – stand by, doing the opposite of what they’re supposed to do, and no one can save the day until there’s an immense bloodshed.
There is a simple reason for this. Movies are fun. Tragedy is, emphatically, no. Neither does reality. Nobody wants to turn on the TV and watch this story. Nobody wants to believe it happened.
so what should we do? At this point, Pandora’s box has been opened; you can’t go back a hundred years of film history. It would be anti-art and counterproductive to erase the weapons of Hollywood history. Likewise, banishing them from on-screen representation wouldn’t make much sense. Weapons exist in the real world. They cause tragedies, many of them. Telling stories with truth requires weapons.
But as with all things in movies, it’s not the subject matter that matters; that’s how the movie deals with 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 that the world is spinning out of control, it suggests taking on an identity of an armed protector who, in the end, doesn’t deliver what it promises. This story, as attractive and romanticized as it is, can prevent us from finding real solutions.