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In many ways, the use of guns in movies is merely a function of the way guns are used in reality.  Sometimes art reflects life.  In some cases, however, the reality is debatable.  In those cases, a choice must be made as to which “reality” the movie will represent.  Whether that choice is reflective of the views of some auteur; or whether it is reflective of the views of the audience, which is given what it wants in order for the movie to make lots of money; or perhaps a combination of the two:  the consistency of such choices I have found to be interesting in its own right.  (In what follows, I consider only movies set in America in the last hundred years or so, excluding such as Westerns or movies set in foreign countries.)

Anyone in a movie who legally carries a gun as part of his profession, such as a policeman, a soldier, or a private detective, is typically seen to use guns effectively.  As for those who carry guns illegally, especially criminals, their use of guns is effective too, which is to say, they successfully use guns to rob a bank or wipe out some rival gang.  Now, whereas the first group, those who carry guns professionally, are trained in the use of firearms, the second group, the criminals, typically are not.  In many cases, the mere fact that they are criminals is sufficient to guarantee proficiency with a handgun.  In Once Upon a Time in America (1984), for instance, Robert De Niro plays a hoodlum who goes to prison as a teenager for killing someone with a knife.  Years later, when he gets out, he immediately goes on a robbery and kills someone with a gun, because for some unexplained reason, he knows how to shoot.

The assumed expertise on the part of criminals may be a cinematic convenience, to avoid having scenes of their taking lessons at a shooting range, but it may be an ideological choice. Part of the debate over whether the ordinary citizen should own or carry a gun has to do with whether he is likely to win in a gunfight with a criminal.  Portraying the criminal as invariably being good with a gun would seem to support the idea that one should just give in to the demands of a criminal rather than try to shoot it out with him.  If, on the other hand, the criminal were portrayed as being a bad shot, as someone who is likely to buy a gun at a pawn shop and think he is ready for action, then that might encourage the ordinary citizen to fight back.  However, a simpler explanation is available:  a competent criminal is more valuable dramatically than an incompetent one, except in a comedy, so his ability to shoot well in a movie may be due to the needs of drama rather than an ideological choice.

Another category that allows for the effective use of guns is that of the mentally ill.  In the movie Taxi Driver (1976), Robert De Niro plays a character that is mentally disturbed.  He purchases a couple of pistols and then uses them effectively to wipe out some city scum.  The killing spree seems to be therapeutic, for at the end of the movie he has found peace, for a while at least.  In True Romance (1993), Christian Slater plays a man who has hallucinatory conversations with Elvis, in one of which Elvis tells him to go out and kill someone.  Slater conceals his gun on his person and then goes out and does just as he was told.  And that is just for openers.  At the end of the movie, he and Patricia Arquette live happily ever after.  Now, one might argue that these killings were murders, and thus the protagonists in these two movies are just criminals of a different sort.  In both cases, however, a pimp is killed to protect a prostitute, and so the killings are presented as morally justified.  Whether we think of the psychopath as a distinct category or as a subcategory of the criminal, the movies allow such characters to use guns effectively.

Things become more interesting when we turn to the normal, law-abiding citizen who does not have to carry a gun as part of his job, typically referred to as a civilian.  As a rule, with the exception of those who own rifles or shotguns for hunting purposes, civilians in movies who own guns, especially handguns, do not fare too well.  In Judgment Night (1993), a bunch of friends decide to go to a boxing match.  When Jeremy Piven reveals that he has a semi-automatic, we know he is doomed, and indeed, he is killed halfway through the movie.  In Deathdream (1972), as soon as a man pulls a handgun out of a drawer, we figure things will not turn out well.  Sure enough, at the end of the movie, when he finds he cannot shoot his vampire/zombie son to prevent him from killing any more people, the father shoots himself in the head.  Of course, a civilian can use a handgun effectively if he uses it to commit a crime, because that puts him into the criminal category.  But if he is trying to use the handgun for a good purpose, as in the two movies above, he will typically fail.

There is, however, one way for a civilian to use a handgun effectively for a legitimate purpose, and that is if he was not the one who bought the gun.  In Death Wish (1974), Charles Bronson starts killing bad guys after his wife has been murdered and his daughter raped.  He does so with a gun that is surreptitiously given to him by a friend.  Now, it might be said that Bronson breaks the law, so that would make effective use of the gun acceptable for movie purposes anyway. But since he only uses it in self-defense, the killings are treated as morally justified. In Blood Simple (1984), Frances McDormand is able to kill a private detective in self-defense with the gun her husband gave her.  Referring again to Judgment Night, after Jeremy Piven dies, his friends pick up the gun and are able to use it effectively.  In Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), the driver of an ice-cream truck owns a gun, and he is killed, along with a young girl. Then the father of the girl picks up the gun and shoots the man who killed her.  In Freeway (1996), Reese Witherspoon is given a gun by her boyfriend to hock for money, but she ends up using it to shoot Kiefer Sutherland.  In Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Sal Mineo shoots a hoodlum in self-defense with his mother’s handgun. And on and on it goes.  It is really amazing how many examples there are of a civilian using a handgun effectively when he did not buy it, and how few are the movies in which a gun is used effectively by the person who bought the gun originally.  In fact, there are very few movies in which the civilian who bought the gun even gets a chance to try to use the gun legitimately, let alone do so successfully.  Considering the number of civilians who own handguns in real life, this is rather remarkable.

It is clear that those who make movies and the audiences that watch them do not object to competence on the part of civilians’ using guns per se.  Rather, the objection seems to be to the type of person who would buy the gun in the first place.  In the case of Taxi Driver, there is the classic scene in which De Niro’s character acts tough in front of the mirror after he buys his guns.  It is this element of machismo associated with civilians who buy guns that is condemned by the movies.  De Niro’s character is able to get away with it because he is in an exempt category, that of the mentally ill.  But when this machismo trait is found in normal civilians, it is not to be endured.  By separating the purchase of a gun from its use, the taint of machismo is eliminated.

Needless to say, this is something we mostly associate with men.  In the movie Jagged Edge (1985), Glenn Close is about to be murdered by a serial killer when she whips out a revolver and shoots him dead.  This is the only movie I can think of where a woman successfully uses a gun in self-defense that she purchased herself (we may infer the purchase from the fact that no one in the movie gave her the gun).  Her purchase of the gun is not a problem, however, because the presumed element of machismo on the part of a man who buys a gun is something we are unlikely to attribute to a woman.  We give a woman the benefit of the doubt, figuring she is simply worried about her personal safety.  Nevertheless, movies mostly prefer not to rely solely on gender to distance the protagonist from machismo, and that is why in two of the movies listed above where a woman uses a gun effectively, in each case someone has given her the gun.

Another way in which the element of machismo can be avoided is by having the man buy the gun in desperate circumstances.  In Panic in the Year Zero! (1962), a man buys a handgun only after realizing that nuclear war has broken out, and that he and his family will have to try to survive without the benefits of civilization.  Technically, it could be said that he steals the gun and other supplies, making him a criminal, but he promises to pay the owner of the store later, and we believe him.  The point is that the machismo factor enters in only if the handgun is bought under normal circumstances, rather than in an emergency.

When one considers all the carnage that has filled the screens since the dawn of the cinema, carnage in which almost everyone gets to take part, it is interesting that there is this one category in which participation is prohibited.  The normal, law-abiding, male civilian who uses a handgun effectively for a legitimate purpose, a handgun that he purchased himself under normal circumstances, is nowhere to be found, owing to the sin of machismo that accompanies such a purchase.  Given the number of civilians in this country who have purchased handguns, one might have thought there would be a plethora of movies in which such characters use their guns effectively, thereby catering to this demographic.  That there is a dearth of such films instead is mute testimony to the strength of this ideological taboo.


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Comment Preferences

  •  You claim: (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ralphdog, David54, Glen The Plumber
    there is this one category in which participation is prohibited.  The normal, law-abiding, male civilian who uses a handgun effectively for a legitimate purpose, a handgun that he purchased himself under normal circumstances, is nowhere to be found
    Many of the guns used by men to murder people were purchased "under normal circumstances" by a "normal, law-abiding, male civilian".

    They only became non-law-abiding once they murdered someone with their gun.  

    "Trust me... I've been right before." ~ Tea party patriot

    by Calvino Partigiani on Thu Jul 17, 2014 at 03:33:49 PM PDT

  •  seems like a rather contrived point to make (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Yes, heroes are typically portrayed in such a way, as to make them underdogs.  If a clean cut hero who practices at the range frequently with his own gun, goes and kills an inept criminal, it wouldn't be much of a movie. Now if a poor guy beaten to an inch of his life, manages to slip out, and then manages to steal a gun from the bad guy, and proceeds to go back into the bad guy's den and shoot and kill the bad guy and rescues the fair maiden- now taht's a movie.

    •  This is what I had in mind (0+ / 0-)

      With small changes in the respective screenplays, Charles Bronson could have bought his own gun in Death Wish, Jeremy Piven could have survived and shot a couple of bad guys in Judgment Night, Frances McDormand could have said that she bought her gun in Blood Simple, and so on.  In each case, there would still have been an interesting movie.

      •  Bronsons Pistol Was A Gift From A Business Partner (0+ / 0-)

        They kind of made a point of how out of character it was for Bronsoin to have a gun.  It was a .32 long revolver, a low powered weapon commonly used by police detectives before WW2.  We have a .32 S&W that belonged to my great great uncle (a police chief) of that era.

        Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. -Pascal

        by bernardpliers on Thu Jul 17, 2014 at 09:17:16 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  The INeffective" use of guns in the movies ... (6+ / 0-) typically the province of the villains. Armed with submachine-guns with 30-round clips that magically fire 100 bullets without reloading, it's not unusual for a dozen villains to miss their target while the hero or anti-hero wipes them all out with a semi-auto pistol loaded with a single magazine. Movie beat cops (but not cop heroes) also usually have bad aim.

    Watch closely and you'll see villains and heroes flinch every time they fire a shot, which destroys aim in real life most of the time. In the movies, it seems to have no effect either way.

    One real-life thing that happens fairly often but is not shown in movies is the hero dropping a gun, or cleaning a gun that was supposed to be unloaded but wasn't and putting a bullet through his hand or his head or his cat or his neighbor. One thing that isn't shown in the movies are 5-year-olds putting  bullets through his 3-year-old sisters' hearts.

    There are all kinds of things movies get wrong about guns and how they are used.

    Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

    by Meteor Blades on Thu Jul 17, 2014 at 04:53:26 PM PDT

    •  You forgot the TV/Movie classic (0+ / 0-)

      That the semi auto is always shown and then the slide is racked without ejecting a round.  In other words, the gun that they just used to do XY or Z was unloaded.  I guess it doesn't matter as the slide action and accompanied sound effects are supposed to be scary and intimidating.

      "It's not surveillance, it's data collection to keep you safe"

      by blackhand on Fri Jul 18, 2014 at 06:23:16 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  The use of handguns by police is often disasterous (0+ / 0-)

    There have been numerous incidents where as many as 40 shots are fired, with no 'hits' on 'bad guys'. I 'ear witnessed' a bank robbery shootout some years ago, where an armed bank robber trying to escape shot it out with several police officers, an incredible fullisade of shots was heard, the end came with two huge 'booms', from a Highway Patrol officer's 10 gauge shotgun. A historical event involved a German WWII paratrooper infiltrating a British Army level heaqdquarters. Staff officers fired their pistols at him as he dodged around, something like 20 of the Brits were wounded (by 'friendly fire') The German was dispached by an MP with a Sten gun. Several years ago, the NYPD considered mandating 'speed loaders' for revolver armed  officers when one was killed while reloading his revolver-he had already fired twelve shots, and missed every time. Some active crooks practice shooting, some nearly every day, although they are a minority, they are the ones who intend to shoot.

    May you live in interesting times--Chinese curse

    by oldcrow on Thu Jul 17, 2014 at 06:01:00 PM PDT

    •  10 gauge?!?! Egads! o.O (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ban nock, andalusi

      There's an article I read quite a while ago that went over the ammo possibilities for self defense purposes. Rifle, handgun, shotgun - slugs, shot, etc.

      The 10 gauge had one line:
      "Yow. Load your 10 gauge with whatever the hell you want."

      MLK Jr 7 days before being killed: "Maybe we just have to admit that the day of violence is here, and maybe we have to just give up and let violence take its course. The nation won't listen to our voice - maybe it'll heed the voice of violence."

      by JayFromPA on Thu Jul 17, 2014 at 09:58:07 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Gun using crooks (0+ / 0-)

      "Some active crooks practice shooting"  It's probably more accurate to say that some gun hobbyists have crime as their "day job."  An expensive hobby like guns has to be supported some way.

      In my opinion, it's easy for a criminal to be an effective gun user.  Mostly they just intimidate with guns, or shoot people already stopped at point blank range, or just use the gun to clear an escape path.  That kind of effectiveness only requires minimal skills.

      On the other hand effective use of a gun for self-defense is very difficult.  The other guys may be desperate and not subject to intimidation like any rational person.  Or the other guy may have benefit of the element of surprise. And effective self-defense requires a lot of surety that it won't provoke an otherwise unnecessary violent response.  It's very easy to just raise the stakes without a corresponding increase in the probability of success.

      John Lott once asked me if I would have a "no guns here" sign in my yard.  I said "No, some gun nut might take it as a challenge."  After further thought, I think it would be good to have the sign just inside the door, so if a invader comes in I won't face preemptive shooting.  

      Mandatory Gun Insurance would provide for victims, encourage safety and not be an excessive burden on gun owners. How to do it at Gun Insurance Blog. I also make posts at Huffington as Tom Harvey.

      by guninsuranceblog on Fri Jul 18, 2014 at 02:53:15 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  American Beauty (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ban nock, andalusi

    Had the real estate agent take Annette Benning to the gun range, where they both shot only targets.

    Admittedly, there was a shooting, but at least one gun owner did not participate.

  •  You kind of missed the point about Death Wish (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Bronson wasn't a hero, he actually PTSD sufferer who became addicted to murdering punks. The gun simply made it easy. The whole movie was an indictment on an "An eye for an eye". The problem is that Dirty Harry came along, and the US culture changed in the midst of it.

    It was a decade later when Golan and Globus turned the character into an action hero.

    This revolution is not scheduled!

    by harrylimelives on Thu Jul 17, 2014 at 06:11:08 PM PDT

    •  Jeff Goldblum in Death Wish (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ban nock, harrylimelives

      Hey Jughead wants his hat back!

      Jughead is almost always seen wearing his trademark beanie with both a round and square pin. This type of crown-shaped cap was popular among boys in the 1930s and 1940s. It was made from a man's felt fedora hat with the brim trimmed in a zig-zag and turned up.

      Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. -Pascal

      by bernardpliers on Thu Jul 17, 2014 at 09:06:44 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Also in Death Wish (the movie) it was shown that (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      his character already knew how to use a gun. Not only had he been in the military as a medic and conscientious objector (even with that he probably had some training in shooting ) but he told the man who gave him the gun that his father had been a sheriff and had taught him how to shoot. Also it showed him practicing to shoot while saying this so it wasn't a case of an complete novice picking up a gun and being able to shoot perfectly.

      There was a book long before the movie (the characters name was originally Benjamin , I think) , it might show the PTSD more clearly.

      •  I read the book (0+ / 0-)

        The book was not much fun.  The case for PTSD might apply to the book, but when I saw the movie as a young adult, what I remember was its being generally regarded as a fun-filled fascist fantasy.  Bronson's mental state was shown to be greatly improved by his vigilante activity, and his smirk at the end when he points his finger with thumb up at some punks indicates that the fun will continue.

        •  Now that's the point (0+ / 0-)

          Bronson wasn't the hero, he became every bit the psychopath his targts were, by the last frame we discover that, not only did he enjoy the killing, but he was better at it than they were. It wasn't a fun filled facsist fantasy, the others were, the first was actually about the corrosive effect revenge has people.

          This revolution is not scheduled!

          by harrylimelives on Fri Jul 18, 2014 at 11:19:14 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Jodie Foster Buys A Pistol In "The Brave One" (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    disinterested spectator

    ....before going all vigilante. I'm pretty sure about that.

    I'm planning a future diary on the universality of revenge stories.

    Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness. -Pascal

    by bernardpliers on Thu Jul 17, 2014 at 09:12:18 PM PDT

  •  You need to watch more movies (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    disinterested spectator
    This is the only movie I can think of where a woman successfully uses a gun in self-defense that she purchased herself (we may infer the purchase from the fact that no one in the movie gave her the gun).
    I give you Heather Gummer. Now, we don't know which of the weapons in the rec room were bought by her and which were bought by Burt, but we can presume that some of them were hers. And she unloads everything from handguns to shotguns to rifles successfully defending herself from a home invasion. Admittedly, it was an unconventional home invader, but you didn't specify it only counted if the attacker were human.
  •  What someone in Hollywood should do is make (0+ / 0-)

    a movie with the same production values, cgi effects, etc., as a major "action" film, with the same type of trailers, marketing, etc. that make guns the stars of the movies, but make it a dark comedy based around stories of real life gun use (such as DKos' own "GunFail " diaries, by David Waldman).
    Make a compelling story, and make it hilarious, with the constant expectation and hope that a hero is going to win out in the end, as people shoot one another accidentally, fire at a bad guy 20 times without hitting them, shoot themselves in the ass, arm, foot, etc.,

    Then at the end, there's a baby in a crib...there's an argument...a gun comes out...a shot gets fired, then CGI! it  ricochets off the icebox, the lamp, the tv, goes through the wall and hits the toilet, then comes back thru the wall...the baby...the bullet...the baby...the bullet...etc....then it ricochets off the baby blanket. Then the blanket is lifted and we see that the bullet ricocheted off a Glock 9 mm the father had stashed under the baby blanket.

    Or something like that.

    You can't make this stuff up.

    by David54 on Fri Jul 18, 2014 at 06:57:08 AM PDT

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