When I was a kid, MacGyver was my hero. He used his brain to fight the bad guys. Invention and wit were the tools of his trade. And he would never touch a gun. It was part of what made him heroic. To MacGyver, guns were the tools of the weak-minded. They were the tools of the bad guys, of those who would use the threat of deadly force to impose their will on others. He saw the corrupting influence of the gun, saw the evil inherent in its power. He would not stoop to the level of the bad guys, even as he struggled against them.
That theme followed many of my childhood heroes. The gun-abhorring good guy has long been part of our popular culture. Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Daredevil, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: in their most traditional forms, none of these characters used a gun. Some of them rejected guns explicitly, as a matter of principal. It was a theme so common that it almost rose to the level of cliche. How then, did we arrive where we are today? How has the idea of the “good guy with a gun” become so pervasive? What has happened to the MacGyver ideal–that good guys don’t use guns? Has it disappeared from our culture completely?
As a father of two boys, I’ve developed a renewed love for the superhero stories of my childhood. Some may lament the rash of superhero movies being produced by Hollywood today, but not me. I love them, completely and totally. Each new release presents an opportunity to share something fun and exciting with my two little boys. I love sitting with them in the theatre, watching the images form on the screen, escaping into the fantasy and heroism of The Avengers and its many offshoots. But I’ve come to regret the way these films have diverged from the MacGyver ideal. More and more, the heroes carry guns. And the movies depict guns in a misleading light, making them seem like fairly harmless, only vaguely lethal tools that the good guys use to hurt, but generally not kill, the bad guys.
In Captain America: Civil War, there’s a scene near the beginning where the Falcon pulls out a set of machine guns and fires into the chest of a Hydra henchman, who falls backward with a thud. My son David turned to me and asked, “did Falcon kill him?” And I hesitated before I said, “no, he just knocked him down.” I said this because I didn’t want David to imagine his hero as a killer. The makers of the film must have felt the same way, because the shooting does look like more like a “knocking down” than the actual consequence of firing a bullet into mortal flesh. When Falcon shoots the bad guy, his chest cavity doesn’t burst open; fluid doesn’t pour from his severed artery as his heart tries in vain to send blood to his extremities; the man doesn’t choke for air as his lungs collapse; bone shrapnel does not sprinkle the ground. That’s what a real gun does, but all of this would have made Falcon seem far less heroic. The film wants to have it both ways, then–to have a character that does not kill, yet does shoot his enemies with guns. In doing so, it lies to our children about what guns are and what they do. This is, in fact, part of a larger lie that we tell ourselves, as a culture, about guns. It is a lie that has allowed the gun to sneak its way, ever so pervasively, into our everyday lives.
The PG-13 action-movie view of guns has allowed Americans to become comfortable with the “Guns Everywhere” ideal promoted by groups like the NRA. By Guns Everywhere, I mean the fantasy world where soccer moms and t-ball dads and kindergarten teachers and preachers and restaurant servers and doctors and lawyers and all manner of normal, happy, well-balanced citizens carry a pistol on their hip, warm and harmless, ready to jump to the heroic defense of others, able to stop a bad guy in his tracks with a steady shot. For many people who imagine themselves in this way, their only experience with an actual gun fight comes from having seen one depicted on a movie or on television. Many have never fought in combat, have never experienced the stress of a live-fire situation, have never served in law enforcement, have received little to no formal training in firearm combat. Yet, their confidence is unshakeable. They will describe to you, in exciting detail, the exact tactical decisions they would make if confronted by an armed attacker. And you know they must have envisioned it in their head, and it played out very much like something they’d seen in the movies.
Military commanders and law enforcement professionals sometimes talk about the extreme stress of live combat and the great difficulty that even trained professionals have reacting appropriately. As one has
noted, the body’s response to a live shooter situation includes “tunnel vision, audio exclusion and time dilation,” causing most people to “freeze up or not know what to do, and to have difficulty performing actions correctly.” An Army Sergeant
opines that “most untrained people are either going to freeze up, or just whip out their gun and start firing in that circumstance . . . I think they would absolutely panic.” Even in the hands of a trained law enforcement officer, the gun is an imprecise, messy, tool, with a high risk of collateral damage. A study of firearm use by the New York Police Department found, for example, that “officers involved in gunfights typically hit their intended targets only 18% of the time. When they fired 16 times at an armed man outside the Empire State Building last summer, they hit nine bystanders and left 10 bullet holes in the suspect—a better-than-average hit ratio. In most cases, officers involved in shootings experience a kaleidoscope of sensory distortions including tunnel vision and a loss of hearing. Afterward, they are sometimes surprised to learn that they have fired their weapons at all.”
Yet, the reality of the chaos, confusion, terror, and sensory shutdown caused by a live-fire situation eludes many. Our disconnect from that terrible reality is on display when someone like Geraldo Rivera chastises those who died in the Orlando Pulse shooting for not “fighting back, for God’s sake!” Or when Ben Carson armchair quarterbacks the victims of the Umpqua Community College shootings, opining that, if only he’d been there, he “would not just stand there and let him shoot me,” but would “ask everyone to attack the gunman.” Then there is South Carolina State Representative Bill Chumley who quipped, regarding the victims of the Charleston church shooting “these people s[a]t in there and waited their turn to be shot.” What is it that makes men like this so confident to render Monday-morning advice to those who found themselves in the throes of active shooter horror? It is their ignorance of what being shot at is actually like, their ignorance of how the body and the brain react, their ignorance of the terrible, hopeless horror of a real bullet flying toward you from a real gun. It is the fantasy in their minds, informed by fictive scenes they’ve seen unfold on a screen, of the heroic everyman ducking and dodging flying bullets and karate chopping the bad guy in the neck.
While our national embrace of the gun can be explained in part by this fantasy of ourselves as heroic gunslingers and the gun as something less than a blunt instrument of death and destruction, there are other, more frightening human tendencies at play as well.
On the other side of the Guns Everywhere coin is the intoxicating, irresistible lure of power brought on by the possession of a firearm. This is a lesson taught by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gollum, a once-loving soul whose body and mind was racked by the power of the Ring. It is a lesson contained in Lord Acton’s famous statement, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A gun is perhaps the easiest, cheapest route to absolute power. To hold a gun in your hand is to hold the power to decide whether those around you live or die. To own an AR-15 is to know that the only thing keeping you from mowing down a room full of people is that you don’t want to, or you’re not willing to face the consequences. That power is irresistible to many who taste it, and they will fight bitterly to keep it.
The diaries left behind by mass shooters reveal this tendency. Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hi took photos of himself posing with his weapons like a comic book villain. UC Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger wrote, “After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed.” Columbine shooter Eric Harris wrote, “I am fucking armed. I feel more confident, stronger, more Godlike.”
The data bears out the reality that guns are used for more often for offensive, rather than defensive, purposes. The Harvard School of Public Health compiled data from a number of sources and found that the incidence of guns actually being used in self-defense is highly exaggerated, and “firearms are used far more often to frighten and intimidate than they are used in self-defense.” Moreover, “guns in the home are used more often to frighten intimates than to thwart crime,” and “other weapons are far more commonly used against intruders than are guns.” And, in the majority of cases in which a gun user describes to a court that a shooting was done in self-defense, the shooting was in fact the result of an “escalating argument” or was otherwise illegal. The gun promoter will almost certainly counter this data with some compelling news story, in which a homeowner shoots an intruder and saves his family. But the point is, for every story like that, there are many more stories of a gun owner using his weapon in an undesirable way; to “frighten or intimidate,” as the Harvard study says.
I remember watching this video of a group of “open carry activists” walking into an Chili’s restaurant, somewhere in Texas, all with AR-15’s and other menacing-looking firearms strapped to their bodies. The upfront manager is visibly nervous, the other customers are vocally unhappy, and people are leaving the restaurant. The guy holding the camera is chuckling and saying things like, “I don’t know why anyone would be uncomfortable; we’re here to keep them safe!” But what you realize is, these guys have no interest in keeping anyone safe. They are getting off on this, because they love the feeling of being feared. They love being the guys holding the guns, with everyone else cowering and nervous around them. It makes them feel important. It makes them feel powerful. It makes them feel respected, which is something they don’t normally feel. If I could meet them, I’d read them this oft-quoted line from the Andy Griffith Show: “When a man carries a gun all the time, the respect he thinks he’s gettin’ might really be fear. So I don’t carry a gun because I don’t want the people of Mayberry to fear a gun. I’d rather they would respect me.”
Firearms have become commercially successful, in part, for the same reason superhero films and alcohol and opioids comprise billion dollar industries: they make people feel good. But the rush they provide is one that none of these other products can: they give their bearers the feeling of real, palpable power. They give them the power, whether they exercise it or not, to point at someone and render them dead. It is a thing that many people crave, and when they get it, they want more of it.
The vast majority of people who own guns will never use them to harm or kill, of course. But as you increase the sheer number of individuals with guns, so too do you increase the likelihood that one of them will find the urge to exercise their power irresistible. It might be because they’ve decided that humanity has wronged them at every turn and deserves revenge. It might be because a religious zealot has seduced them, convinced them that killing in the name of God will make their lives meaningful. It might be because their physical brain is entirely broken, their sense of empathy ruined by some synapse failing to fire. There are numerous factors that lead killers to kill. And there are men like this sprinkled throughout the earth. Put a high-caliber firearm and some rounds of ammunition within their reach, and the odds are that someone within their vicinity, maybe you, maybe your child, maybe your spouse, maybe your best friend, will have their body torn to shreds by high-caliber steel, and then the man who did it will probably kill himself, and there won’t be a damn thing you can do about it.
Not coincidentally, the thirst for power that manifests in individuals as gun-love, is the same force that drives the proliferation of guns from a commercial and government perspective. In 2015, the annual revenue generated from guns and ammunition was around $16 billion. In turn, the amount of money contributed by gun industry groups to members of Congress is substantial. For example, between 2000 and 2010, “pro-gun interests so thoroughly dominated electoral spending as to render gun control forces all but irrelevant, having directly donated fully 28 times the amount of their opponents in House and Senate races, $7 million on the pro-gun side compared to $245,000 on the gun control side.” (Source). The sale of guns, then, provides businessmen and politicians with great power, and they will fight for the right to keep that source of power with the same vigor that gun-owners will fight to keep the source of their power. Its the perfect confluence of forces, really.
It’s worth noting that history is replete with examples of people fighting passionately for the right to sell a terrible thing because it makes them money or earns them power. Wars have been fought, countless lives sacrificed, zealous speeches rendered, no doubt, for the right to trade in opium and slaves. The love of money is the root of all evil, as they say. And let there be no doubt that love of money is also the root of the National Rifle Association. Those who are making money, and gaining power, as a direct result of an unregulated gun economy, will rationalize what they are doing with every tired old argument about the Constitution and self-defense and good guys with guns and the like. But at their core, there is one thing that drives them: money, and the power that comes along with it.
So, how do we get back to the notion that guns aren’t heroic? Strange as it is, the never-ending string of mass shootings isn’t doing it. The vast majority of Americans only experience those events by way of a screen. It’s something they see on their television or their computers, mixed in with action flicks and romantic comedies and reality TV. So, they do very little to help us understand the visceral horror of gunfire or the total futility of our imagined heroics in the face of a crazed, self-destructive bad guy with a rapid-fire semi-automatic. For every mass shooting, there are 100 television shows about a “good guy with a gun” to fill our imagination. The endless policy “debates” have gotten us nowhere, and they always devolve into ad hominem and gridlock, with neither side giving ground or allowing themselves to be persuaded (I shudder to imagine the comments section that might follow this essay).
Policy will change when our culture changes. In America, our culture is defined by our art, and our media, more than any other factor. We need more MacGyvers. We need examples for our children of heroes who say no to guns, who represent the idea that heroes do not wield the power of death, that heroes use their wit and imagination and invention to do good. To be specific, I would implore Disney and Marvel to find more interesting, creative ways for their characters to fight the bad guys–Iron’s Man “repulser beams,” Thor’s hammer, Ant-Man’s power to shrink, Captain America’s shield and his never-quit–these are exciting and entertaining methods of fighting. The presence of firearms only dilutes them and, worse, teaches kids that guns are fun and that their violence is “pretend” in the same way the Hulk is pretend. And shame on you, Zack Snyder, Batman should never use a gun, as he did in Batman vs. Superman. It is up to our writers and artists, our actors and filmmakers, our musicians, and the businessmen and women who help to distribute their work, to craft a cultural narrative that will move us away from the gun-worshipping society we have become, and toward the sensible, rational, and secure society that we can be.