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.