I grew up in the country, and my parents kept guns in the house. The same was true for every kid I knew in elementary school.
And yes, it’s perfectly reasonable to keep a firearm if you live out in the Texas boondocks because you don’t know when hostile critters might come around. Once my mother shot a rabid dog with a rifle. Another time she shot a rattlesnake with a handgun.
In two of the biggest “Christmas” movies of 2015, the common denominator is guns, lots of ’em. Their power to maim, kill and defend one’s life is portrayed in explicit detail. In the case of “The Revenant,” set in the 1820s, the firearms of choice are flintlocks. In “The Hateful Eight,” which takes place in post-Civil War Wyoming, six-guns are preferred.
There’s nothing new about movies glorifying guns: They’ve been doing it since the silent era. Guns are essential to melodrama and pulp narratives. Even in the 19th century, long before the advent of motion pictures, frontier “legends” Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok portrayed themselves in touring stage plays. The two used rifles and pistols loaded with blanks to mow down scores of supernumeraries playing “Indians.”
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Even serious playwrights understood the power of the gun. There’s a dramatic principle called “Chekhov’s Gun,” named for the great Russian playwright, who once said: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on a wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Yes, make-believe gun violence has been with us a long time. But between blood-drenched films, TV series and video games, it doesn’t seem quite as innocent as it once did, especially when so much real-life carnage can be viewed on cable news and YouTube.
The entertainment industry has for more than 100 years propagated the NRA fantasy that “good guys with guns” are the solution to any kind of threat. And the threat, depending on the era and standards of ethnic sensitivity at the time, has been personified in movies by inexhaustible variations: terrorists, mass murderers, gangsters, outlaws, spies, Nazis, Commies, soldiers of the Japanese Imperial Army, British redcoats, serial killers, American Indians, African natives, invading space aliens and the current favorite, zombies.
Zombies, in fact, are ideal. There’s no moral downside to blasting the walking dead because, well, they’re already dead.
But whatever the threat may be, the solution is always the same: Just pull the trigger. Reload if you have to, but just keeping pulling that trigger.
There’s even a song about it, composed by Stephen Sondheim for his musical “Assassins.” It’s called, appropriately enough, “The Gun Song,” and one verse goes like this: “All you have to do/Is move your little finger/Move your little finger/And you can change the world.”
Sondheim understood the problem. Killing is easy. Too easy.
In a later verse he spotlights the allure of guns to people who must have them to feel whole: “What a wonder is a gun/What a versatile invention/First of all, when you’ve a gun/Everybody pays attention.”
That’s right. People who feel anonymous, forgotten, put-upon, persecuted or marginalized can grab a gun and feel like someone who matters.
Growing up out in the country, we didn’t hear much about shootouts or drive-bys. The rifle and revolver my parents kept in the house stayed out of sight except on the rare occasion that one of them was needed. Gun battles and showdowns were stuff we saw in the movies. And the movies were make-believe.
But people are more paranoid now. And guns are apparently easy to get, despite the supposedly tyrannical laws on the books regulating the sale of firearms and requiring background checks. According to the pro-gun (and widely criticized) Crime Prevention Research Center, almost 13 million concealed-carry permits have been issued across the country. In Kansas, anyone can carry a concealed weapon whether the owner has a permit or not. Concealed carry in Missouri is legal with a permit. Open carry is legal in both states.
The pro-gun argument for concealed carry is that the bad guys can’t be sure who’s packing and who isn’t and will be deterred from evil-doing. The thinking behind wearing a gun in plain view is that the bad guys will know exactly who could shoot them if they try to rob a liquor store or a bank. I don’t buy either argument — too many things to go wrong, too many untested assumptions. But one thing seems clear: More people than ever are packing heat.
If I were a betting man, I’d wager that only a tiny fraction of people with concealed-carry permits have a legitimate reason to be armed. The others, I presume, dream of distinguishing themselves in a gunfight — to be “heroic,” to be “rugged” and “American.” In effect they want to time-travel back to the Old West.
When I hear the hyperbole and the paranoid claims that President Barack Obama is cleverly scheming to take all of our guns away, I can only conclude that most private citizens carrying firearms live in a dream world. And why not? The entertainment industry confirms their fantasies on a daily basis.
Scanning the Web for anecdotes about shooting accidents or really bad choices involving people with concealed weapons has become a popular pastime, especially for those who think the country has collectively gone mad. There is the 2013 incident at a Lenexa restaurant when a man with a concealed weapon accidentally shot his wife. There is the woman in Detroit who earlier this month was placed on 18 months’ probation for shooting at suspected shoplifters in a Home Depot parking lot. There are plenty more where those came from.
Hey, I enjoy a good Western. But I’d prefer to see it on the screen, not in a big-box store parking lot.
With states handing out permits like raffle tickets — or, in the case of Kansas, not even requiring permits — we are expected to believe that everyone with a gun is emotionally healthy, mentally balanced, a responsible citizen and a skilled marksman.
Interesting theory, one for which there is precious little evidence, but it brings to mind the title of a classic 1950s film noir: “Gun Crazy.” I really can’t think of a better description for where we are as a society.