Gun Culture and Movie Myths

A few years ago, I wrote an article about the relationship between American gun culture and the strange mythology of American cinema. I never published it. It was written in the heated aftermath of a gun massacre which, I am ashamed to say, I can’t recall. I honestly don’t remember which tragedy forced me to sit down and think about America’s love/hate relationship with guns. What I do remember is the sense of frustration I felt as I watched the pro and anti-gun lobbies trot out the same, tired, old arguments.  As an Englishman, growing up in a culture where gun ownership isn’t part of everyday life, I have always found the debate about guns alien and odd. It’s like watching a debate about keeping Lions as pets. I know it’s possible, but it seems unlikely to ever be part of my life. At the same time, as a screenwriter, I am aware just what a big part of cinema and story-telling the guns are. Ultimately, that is what this article is about. It is about the mythology of the gun in American cinema and my belief that movie mythology surrounding the gun is a huge part of why America is stuck with a problem it can’t solve.

When I wrote this article the usual post gun-massacre debate about gun ownership and control were being played out online and in the media. On one side the “America must stop these tragedies by restricting access to ownership of guns” people, and on the other side, the “these tragedies wouldn’t happen if more people carried guns as a matter of course” folks. However, regardless of how long the slanging match that passes for debate about this issue goes on, one thing is for sure, Americans are nowhere near ready to give up their love affair with guns. We know it, they know it and even those proposing gun control know it. No matter how large the number of gun-related deaths, no matter how many tragedies unfold, the American psyche is firmly attached to the belief that guns offer personal protection. This article is about gun culture and how the movies we write contribute to that culture. It’s not about whether guns are right or wrong, it’s about facing one simple fact. If you want to know who is largely responsible for America’s love affair with guns, it’s us. The screenwriters and movie makers. We did it and we will continue to do it, right up to the point where we are prepared to take some responsibility for our actions.

Let me be blunt about this. The movie and TV industry have created a mythology around guns, gun ownership and personal protection that has become deeply entrenched in the American psyche. The core message of pretty much every action movie made is, when faced with a personal crisis or threat a lone man with a gun can save the girl, the city, and the world. In fact, a lone man with a gun is pretty much the film industry’s solution to all problems. The urban crime problem, a lone man with a gun can fix that. Alien invaders, a lone man with a gun will defeat them. Zombie apocalypse, a lone man with a gun and an axe can save everyone. Drug barons and their armies, a lone man with a gun is the answer. Terrorists, no match for a lone man and his gun. Police corruption, easily fixed by a lone man with a gun. Kidnappers, a lone man and his gun are the obvious answer. Rogue spy networks they, of course, present no problem for the lone man and his gun. In Hollywood, no force, no matter how large, powerful or evil can stand against the one good man with a gun. Think about it for a second. When was the last time you saw a film where a solution to a problem was to call the Police? When was the last time you saw a film where a violent situation was handled by negotiation? Even in the film “The Negotiator,” where the primary skill of the protagonist was the ability to negotiate, his salvation was brought about by using his gun to force a solution. 

So, am I suggesting that watching gun violence on screen leads to gun violence in real life? Nope, that absolutely isn’t the argument I’m making. The argument I’m making is more nuanced than that. I’m not saying because people see gun violence they will imitate gun violence. What I’m saying is the mythology of Hollywood movies is individual ownership of guns is the heroic and moral thing to do. The message of the Hollywood movies is neither the Police or the Army can really protect your family, but a lone man with a gun can. And, my question about that idea is this, just how useful a mythology is that?

We all know that movies are entertainment and that entertainment is meant to include large areas of fantasy. And, as audience members, we, to a lesser or greater degree understand that movies aren’t real life. This is the reason that I have never personally bought into the “seeing screen violence leads to real violence” argument. However, as human beings, our evolution as moral beings has been largely acquired via story-telling. In fact, there is a theory that the evolutionary purpose of story-telling is so tribal members can collectively understand the morality of the tribe. Or, in other words, we all agree roughly what’s right and what’s wrong, simply because we all share the same morality tales. And, in modern culture films and TV are the primary story-telling mediums. In cultures which tell different stories, they tend to have different ideas of what is moral or immoral. If we accept this as the truth, it’s not the actual gun violence that should worry us in movies, nor the possibility that people will imitate the behaviour. What should really worry us is that an entire culture can adopt a moral stance which can only really exists in the world of make-believe. The thing that is particularly dangerous about the “one man with a gun” meme is that it is all fantasy and zero fact. A lone man with a gun who decides to take on an armed militia will die. A lone man with a gun who tries to take on a foreign army will die in the attempt. The lone man with a gun who decides to take on a horde of technologically superior aliens will probably not do well (how would we know). The same will happen when someone single-handedly takes on kidnappers, corrupt policemen, terrorists or heavily armed drug barons. The lone man with a gun is not an effective real-world strategy. They will not save their family, the town, the country or the planet. The meme of the heroic lone gunman is both childish and idiotic. And yet, largely because the overcoming of great odds by a lone protagonist is the core principle of most movies, the “lone man with a gun” will continue to be a meme that is repeated time and time again.

So, what does this all mean? Well, it means that as story-tellers and screenwriters we have to accept the moral responsibility for the world’s we create. It’s not enough to say “it’s only entertainment” and to wash our hands of the morality underpinning the stories we tell. Screenwriting isn’t just a fun way to make a living, it is a practice that involves a high degree of moral responsibility. Of course, you could argue that as the market requires “lone man with gun stories,” if you don’t write them someone else will. That’s true. Nobody is saying that altering a culture’s mythology is easy achieved. I’m not even sure it is possible. However, if we are going to write screenplays we ought to at the very least understand our responsibilities.

I’m aware that people reading this may believe I am anti-gun ownership and that this piece is anti-gun propaganda. The truth of the matter is that I am not anti-gun; I am gun ambivalent. I have no strong feelings about gun ownership one way or the other. The only person I know who I definitely wouldn’t trust to own a gun is me. I’m bad enough as a car owner.  I also know that statistically children are more likely to die in their neighbour’s pool than in a gun accident and that cars kill more people a month than guns ever do. What bothers me isn’t that guns exist or that gun ownership is possible. What bothers me is whether I could live with myself if I had contributed to a culture which believes guns, violence and the lawless pursuit of revenge are morally acceptable solutions to conflict.  As screenwriters, we are too used to the idea that our work is “just entertainment” and that it has no real bearing on the real world except in terms of how commercial a piece is. I don’t believe that. I believe that the things we write about and the stories we tell create the moral framework for the culture we live in. What we do does have a moral dimension. As such, we have a duty to at least think about the myths we perpetuate and the impact they will have on the lives of our audiences.