Like any good beta male, I tend to get butthurt about the thousands of people who die as a result of guns every year. I am a snowflake, triggered by triggers, who wants nothing more than a “safe space” where no one can shoot me. I don’t like guns, and I think there should be fewer of them and much harder to get.
From a pop culture perspective, however, I think guns are fucking cool.
This disparity—between my blue-blood progressive, NRA-loathing, gun control-supporting ideals; and the red-blooded animal whose hair stands up on his neck whenever he hears the clacking sound of magazines being loaded into hand grips, and who must cop to the fact that he loves seeing actors brandishing pistols in each other’s faces, waggling like shiny dicks as they ask who the fuck you think you’re talking to—is something any liberal movie lover probably recognizes. Guns: grim and abominable tools of death off-screen, objects of dramatic power and allure on. How do you square that, honestly? I don’t know, and I’ve been trying to do it for most of my life.
If you also harbor an appreciation for stories filled with violence and crime—for some of the most compelling stories ever told, in other words—and you have even a smidgen of a bleeding heart, this is the moral dilemma you must grapple with. And on a day like today, National Gun Violence Awareness Day, when publications like ours join other organizations in the chorus calling for an end to gun violence, and for Congress to stop treating the NRA like some fickle Daddy it’s always trying to impress, this is the hypocrisy that underscores our otherwise good intentions. We oppose gun violence—naturally, of course we do. But also, we sure do love to watch it.
As every rebuttal goes to every op-ed ever written about guns and the media, violence invaded our storytelling long before guns, way back to Shakespeare and the Bible. Still, it didn’t have nearly the same swagger or mystique without them. There’s a reason it’s called “Chekhov’s gun,” instead of “Chekhov’s sword”: A gun is danger coiled and waiting to strike, inherently suspenseful and fascinating, heightening the drama by its mere presence. By contrast, a sword is all blunt, broad strokes, obvious and ornamental. A sword takes skill to wield, which confers a slight nobility—even upon a bad dude—that is immensely satisfying to deflate; think of Harrison Ford in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, his gun coolly cutting through the crap. Plus, any jackass with a working hand can fire a gun, which makes it all the more vicariously thrilling. That jackass could be me!
Furthermore, while the sword is a weapon meant for the stage, where you can delight in the ballet of it all—the carefully timed thrusts and parries, the intimate space it creates for lobbing taunts and bitter recriminations—the movies were made for guns. Look no further than 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, the silent short in which director Edwin S. Porter took all the groundbreaking compositional techniques he’d established on Life Of An American Fireman and said hey, what if instead of watching some boring guy do his normal job, we watch some guys with guns enjoying not having a job and blowing shit up? Legend has it that the film’s final scene of George Barnes’ outlaw firing directly into the camera caused audiences to duck and scream, terrified. Then they laughed and yelled for the projectionist to play it again. And thus, the modern movie industry was born.
That love affair would blossom through the years to the point where D.W. Griffith famously declared—according to Jean-Luc Godard, anyway—that all you really need to make a movie is “a girl and a gun,” a pitch that would still command six figures at any major studio. Guns and (sometimes) girls became the lifeblood of the cinema, manhandled by actors playing cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, soldiers and other soldiers in classics and cheapies alike, before inevitably making their way to television. Guns stopped being terrifying; audiences started running, screaming, toward them. Eventually, you didn’t even really need the girl—or the guy, for that matter. Guns themselves could be the stars; today they even have their very own version of IMDB, the Internet Movie Firearms Database.
Directors like Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah—the latter especially disturbed by the bloodless treatment of violence in TV Westerns, and alarmed at the way Vietnam had rendered bloodshed a benumbing living room backdrop—aimed to upset gunplay conventions for good. They loaded their Bonnie And Clyde and The Wild Bunch, respectively, with brutal, gut-wrenching, blood-spattering sequences intended to show audiences the gruesome reality of what bullets really do to the body, aiming to cleanse them of the desire to ever see it again. Instead, as audiences have done since Porter’s day, they laughed and screamed for more. Movies only became more bullet-riddled, by producers trying to find new ways to give it to them.
Psychologically, of course, this all makes sense. Penn, Peckinpah, even Porter (according to some interpretations) were attempting to make the viewer feel complicit in their films’ violence—something they assumed would provoke shame. But that’s not how movies work, or even stories. We only empathize with fictional characters in a compartmentalized way, imagining ourselves in their place right up to the point where it’s no longer convenient to do so. We can get all the thrills of gunning someone down with none of the guilt, and it frankly doesn’t matter whether we’re the hero or villain in that scenario.
It’s an allegiance that can shift on a whim, depending on who’s providing us with more cathartic pleasure. In the dark, we can indulge a fantasy of all-encompassing nihilism. So hell yeah, give us more guns! Bigger guns! Guns in each hand! Guns that have extra hands attached to them to hold more guns! Guns mounted on motorcycles! Guns popping out of boobs! Surreal, Salvador Dali guns, floating on the melting mirror of time glimpsed in a flamingo’s gun! Guns that, at first glance, look like our boring office-mate David, but then you flip him over and a barrel pops out of his ass and boom, now Dave’s a gun! Fuck yeah, guns!
Of course, as a sort of meek, intellectual type (read: snobby wuss), I’ve never been titillated by sheer arsenal alone—your Commandos and Cobras, your Schwarzeneggers and Stallones wielding rocket launchers and submachine guns in a loud frenzy of coked-up ’80s excess. Effete fop that I am, I like guns that have stories, so you care whose gun it is and why it’s gunning. In particular, I’ve always been drawn to the sorts of gangster films where the gun remains, primarily, a silent threat. My longest-held favorite movie is Goodfellas, whose characters are stabbed, stomped upon, shoved headfirst into ovens, and—in the case of the dorky Bruce—beaten with guns. Yet only Joe Pesci’s Tommy is crazy enough to actually fire one, even when his fellow wiseguys tell him to put it away. (In a bit of poetic justice, it’s only Tommy ends up taking a bullet to the back of the head.)
In movies like this—and in similar stuff I love, like The Sopranos—the gun is just a codpiece, conferring heft and swagger on these not-especially-tough-looking tough guys. To those with neither heft nor swagger, as I was when I first saw it as a 13-year-old boy, there was a natural psychological connection there. When I first heard Lorraine Bracco’s Karen say, upon being handed a bloodied revolver to hide, “I gotta admit the truth—it turned me on,” it sent a signal to my pubescent brain: Guns are cool. Guns are sexy. Girls want to have sex with cool guys who have guns. I was far less interested in what guns did to others than what they did for you.
Yet for all my pseudo-intellectualizing about the gun’s symbolic powers, Martin Scorsese himself has pointed out that Goodfellas and The Great Train Robbery are “exactly the same story.” He even ends Goodfellas with Joe Pesci firing directly into the camera, just as Barnes did nearly a century earlier—an angle he’s clearly a fan of, seeing as he also had Bracco do it in the second act. More famously, he had Robert De Niro point his guns at the audiences of Taxi Driver, a film whose most famous sequence articulates the inner monologue of everyone who’s ever gotten a charge out of imaginary gun violence.
As in The Great Train Robbery, any intended complicity is lost in the thrill of imagining ourselves pointing the gun. That iconic image of De Niro, grinning as he squints down barrels aimed squarely at our head—that’s us, menacing everyone who’s ever made us feel powerless. In high school, I had a poster of De Niro doing just that in my bedroom, alongside posters of dudes from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction pointing their own guns, a perpetual Mexican standoff taking place across the desperation-streaked desert of my adolescence.
The man who gave us many of those gun-pointing cool dudes, Quentin Tarantino, has repeatedly railed against the idea that they’ve had any bearing on actual gun violence. “If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It’s one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it,” he told Newsday way back in 1994, followed by many, many variations on the same. Still, there is an argument to be made that the sort of cool, intellectualized gun violence Scorsese and Tarantino popularized has colored our perceptions of it—particularly for effete pacifists like myself. They’ve elevated the pleasures of seeing someone coolly emptying their Smith & Wesson above mere, primordial id-tickling, making it something that feels more acceptably cinematic—ameliorating its horrors by rendering them reassuringly artistic.
Even Tarantino’s benefactor (and chief beneficiary) Harvey Weinstein had a brief bout of remorse over this after one of many waves of gun-related deaths, telling Piers Morgan in 2014 that gun violence had become “an obsession as well as almost an addiction,” for filmmakers and moviegoers alike. In response, Weinstein proudly announced plans to produce an anti-NRA, Meryl Streep-starring film called The Senator’s Wife, which he declared would make the gun lobby “wish they weren’t alive after I’m done with them.” Even more dramatically, he vowed to stop producing violent films for good, saying, “I can’t make one movie and say this is what I want for my kids and then just go out and be a hypocrite.”
Of course, ”hypocrite” is exactly what right-wing and pro-gun blogs dubbed Weinstein when that anti-NRA film languished and, instead, trailers appeared for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight—a movie that revels in gore, violence, and guns, carried openly and proudly by just about everyone on its poster. Since then, Weinstein has been silent on The Senator’s Wife, leaving last year’s Jessica Chastain-starring Miss Sloane to lead the charge in what The Daily Beast called a push to “challenge President Trump on guns”—even as that film’s director, John Madden, had the far more modest goal of simply facilitating “thought and discussion” about the gun lobby’s continued influence on American politics. Madden’s careful wording there is telling. After all, Weinstein certainly isn’t alone in being called a hypocrite: Anytime anyone in Hollywood laments our regrettable gun worship, or joins the call for tighter regulations, or so much as says that gun deaths are bad, something like Breitbart is there to point out that they made it cool in the first place.
Let’s just give them this one: Breitbart is right. Never mind that there is still isn’t actual statistical data directly linking gun violence in the streets to gun violence in movies—or video games, or gangsta rap, or whatever media scapegoat Wayne LaPierre inevitably trots out for slaughtering in the hours after the latest mass shooting. We don’t have to plead blinkered ignorance here. We can admit that movies have, at the very least, made gun violence seem more conventional. We’re adults here. We can also acknowledge that pop culture has made guns seem really, really fucking cool.
Furthermore, I can personally confess that—even as a social justice-flogging, nanny state-voting, libtard—those cool movie guns have given me years of fun, from my earliest memories of running around with my Han Solo blaster to my teenage fantasies of slipping on some Ray-Bans and “Gimme The Loot” and just unloading on some punk. In my lizard brain, I think this would make me feel like a pretty big man! Hell, I even know it from experience: I hail from a Texan family of cops and proud, deer-hunting rednecks who taught me how to shoot my first gun at the age of 4. I’ve lived a life surrounded by guns, real and fictional. And much like those Hollywood-types who made me think they were cool, I have long grappled with squaring my appreciation with my abhorrence of the devastation they cause. (Or as Breitbart might put it, “LEFT-WING BLOGGER PEDDLES LIBERAL GUILT OVER GUNS.”)
I’m troubled by the continued rise of gun violence in films—particularly PG-13 ones, where it’s also the most sanitized. I also think that, on the whole, our society might benefit from fewer films that make gunplay seem cooler than it actually is, and more films that show the grim, almost wickedly banal realities of what bullets do to flesh and families. But at the same time, I must guiltily admit that I probably wouldn’t be as excited to see them. This is my moral quandary to contend with, and I will grant that it makes me a hypocrite to think that guns are cool, yet simultaneously a scourge whose championing by a bunch of bloodsuckers and their purchased political toadies is one of the most insidious threats facing modern society.
And yet, you know what else? I think car chases are pretty cool, yet I’d rather not repeal the speed limits just so some assholes can do wicked drifts around me on the freeway. Slasher movies are pretty cool, but I’d rather not give machetes to mental patients. And I think movies with guns are cool, yet I also don’t think people should be walking around strapped with AR-15s, just to prove that they’re the responsible gun owners, or because they live in a paranoid Tom Clancy fantasy of an impending government coup, or simply because it gives them an identity separate from people like me. I also wish it had been much, much harder for my high school classmate to walk into a sporting goods store and buy the rifle he used to blow his head off in the park by my house, leaving him to be found by his little sister. I can watch Goodfellas more than 100 times (a conservative number, probably), but that doesn’t change the fact that I would have preferred the government have made it a little more difficult for him to get a gun that day than it was to buy a fucking wine cooler.
Yes, this is the hypocritical cognitive dissonance I must forever muddle through just to enjoy my gangster movies, but fortunately, my own hypocrisy is ultimately inconsequential to the matter. F. Scott Fitzgerald once argued that it’s the sign of “a first-rate intelligence” to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously, and while I’m just an average-minded state university grad and he was probably drunk, I think that does speak to the problem of approaching this like a zero-sum argument—that if you think guns are cool, or you help peddle the illusion that they are, you aren’t allowed to wish that fewer people were using them on each other. That’s simply not the case.
I think guns are cool. I also think there should be more pragmatic, political measures to regulate them, to make it more difficult to obtain them, and to dramatically reduce their presence—to largely return gun and the violence they cause to the realm of the fantastical, where I can hypocritically enjoy them as the rarified, deadly, mysterious objects that they are. Guns are cool, but that would make them even cooler.