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Guns in Fiction Land, Part 2 - Ten Years Later May 27, 2022

Nearly ten years ago, after the unfathomable mass murder of children in Sandy Hook, I wrote the post Guns in Fiction Land. Now in May 2022, after what has become just another commonplace mass murder of children in Uvalde, absolutely nothing has changed.

Disturbed kids who go on rampages don't need guns to kill. They choose guns because that's what all of their disturbed role models used. Because the magical boom-boom sticks make them feel powerful. Nobody quakes in fear and regret when they see a teenager holding a steak knife. But a gun...that's where the infamy is. That's what gets your name in all the headlines.

After every gun-related tragedy in the news, politicians promise do something about it. The something is always some minor expansion of gun control laws—closing loopholes in background checks, new restrictions for mental health conditions, mandatory training for new licenses, etc. Then the proposed laws inevitably fall apart in the senate after something even more tragic happens in the news. We've reached the point where every comment I see online is a variation of, "Our country is so messed up. Nothing will be done about it, though. Oh well."

But even if the politicians did pass laws restricting purchases of new guns, the tragedies won't stop. Checks are good. Training is good. But the reason America has such a huge and seemingly unfixable problem with gun violence is cultural, not procedural. Restricting sales of new guns won't make the nearly four hundred million guns in America miraculously vanish. The Secret Service reports that three-quarters of the guns used in attacks at schools are acquired from the homes of parents and close relatives, not bought by the perpetrators (p. 22). And no law will stop a psychotic murderer from chasing retribution and infamy.

The descriptions of these killers rarely changes. They're predominantly male, usually the impulsive age of 18-20, usually white, always with wounded egos because they failed to get a girlfriend or job or a parent's approval. They are or perceive themselves to be the targets of bullying. They choose to attack more defenseless targets: minorities like the Black shoppers in the Buffalo supermarket, immigrant sex workers like the women in the Atlanta massage parlors, and unarmed students and teachers in countless schools. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland High, and hundreds of others we don't hear about because too few children died to be newsworthy.

The second thing people always say after these tragedies is, "We need more support for mental health." Obviously these killers are disturbed. But they're also mostly male. Young American women also have mental health issues. There are psychotic people of all genders and ages in all countries around the world. But young men in the U.S.A. are the ones who steal the guns from Mom's bedroom closet, don bullet-proof vests, and walk through campuses shooting innocents at random like they're starring in a remake of The Godfather.

Why? In large part because of The Godfather. And Die Hard, The Terminator, and Pulp Fiction. And every other Western, war movie, and U.S. military advertisement ever made that glorifies manly men with manly guns.

We treat guns as symbols of American strength and masculinity.

Killing an animal or person with a gun is a favorite "Now I'm a Man" moment for both heroes and antiheroes in books and movies. In The Yearling, the adolescent protagonist shows he's ready for adulthood by shooting his pet deer. In L.A. Confidential, the goody-two-shoes detective shunned by his peers earns their respect by shooting a fleeing gang of Mexican criminals. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch proves to his children that he was a real man all along by shooting a rabid dog.

How many young American men every year graduate from high school in June, and in July post pictures showing how sexy they look in their new Army or National Guard fatigues, cradling "The love of my life: My M4!" How many American farm supply stores have a home decor section with "funny" window signs and welcome mats that say, "This house is protected by GOD and GUNS" and, "Yes, I Do Have a Beautiful Daughter. I ALSO HAVE A GUN."

The second amendment is meant to guarantee us a method of self-protection against state violence in times of absolute necessity. It's not meant to be an endorsement of guns as props of macho dominance.

Our culture teaches children that having a gun makes you cool. Having a gun makes you mature and fearsome. Even when we intend to teach children how dangerous guns are, we do it by inviting police officers to Brownie and Boy Scout meetings to say, "Now kids, I can hold this gun because I'm a big strong man and I know what I'm doing. You can't because you're too little. If your Dad has a gun at home, don't ever touch it until he says you're old enough and teaches you how to use it."

My husband (formerly known as Sweetie) says there would never be a school shooting again if congress passed a law that all guns must be colored hot pink and decorated with Hello Kitty stickers. That would decimate the Facebook posturing and Rambo revenge fantasies right quick.

That's not likely to happen, so to lessen the appeal of guns to psychopaths, we must commit to undoing all of the harmful messages in our media that link violence with heroism.

Stop equating being "a good shot" with being a leader.

Atticus Finch was dreamed up in the 1950s, but showing that a protagonist is a good shot continues to be used today as a fictional shorthand for competence, bravery, and all-around greatness.

In The Hunger Games, we know Katniss Everdeen is destined to save the world because she can shoot a squirrel right in the eye, every time. In an early scene, when apathetic judges ignore her performance with the bow and arrow to feast and be merry, she shoots the apple out of the mouth of the roasted pig on their banquet table. Haha, that gets their attention! So cool! And Katniss earns the top ranking score like she deserves!

A bow and arrow seems more romantic and family friendly than a gun, but the lesson to young readers is the same as in all those Westerns that establish which cowboy we're supposed to root for by showing who has the best aim. If you become good at killing, people will notice you. They'll respect you, and fear you, and talk about you.

Stop showing guns in movies and shows. Period.

In October, Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust. Everyone wants to know how the prop gun was loaded, why the crew believed it wasn't, whether Baldwin pulled the trigger or it discharged on its own, etc. But I want to know why, in 2021, the crew was setting up a "cool" scene of a beloved movie star pointing a gun straight at the camera and shooting it.

After the tragedy, headlines announced that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson vowed not to use guns in his movies or TV shows moving forward. Finally, progress! I thought, before clicking on the details. Clarification: The Rock will not use real guns on the sets of his movies or TV shows moving forward. His production company still intends to show beloved movie stars pointing guns and shooting them, but they'll be safe rubber props.

Most movies and shows don't show gun violence because it's a dark part of real life we can't scrub away. They use guns for glamour, thrills, and comedy. They show "morally gray" supermodel spies threatening cringing brown drug dealers with guns to get information. Bearded old mountain men with shotguns and Southern drawls shooting at innocent trespassers for laughs. Scrappy heroes engaging in laser gun fights with imperial Stormtroopers for pulse-pounding excitement.

(Then the heroes say some words about how war is bad. Then they go right back to shooting and whooping in celebration when the soldiers explode and die.)

Stop "gameifying" war.

Playing video games doesn't drive young men to insanity and convince them to go out and shoot people in real life. Politicians love to blame video games for mass shootings because it's cheap and easy and won't affect their polling numbers, unlike proposing real solutions like financing social programs and taking on the Russia-backed NRA.

What violence in video games does do is reinforce retrograde ideas of masculinity, encourage weapon worship, and teach players to equate killing with winning. In other words, it's fantastic propaganda for the military and feeds the whole wannabe-soldier mindset of police departments, conspiracy-mongering militias, and the baby-faced teens on YouTube giving rave reviews of tactical vests and rifle scopes sold on Amazon.

Few developers are imaginative enough to come up with gameplay mechanics other than kill, kill, kill. Kill aliens, kill robot dinosaurs, kill hooded wizards and mace-wielding knights and foreigners guarding priceless treasures. The more enemies you kill, the more rewards you get. Higher grades on end-of-level score cards. Money to buy more powerful weapons that kill enemies faster. "Achievement" badges with funny names that friends and strangers can admire on your profile.

Marksman achievement: Kill 50 enemies with headshots

Only a handful of popular games reward nonviolent conflict resolution, like Undertale, or punish players for indiscriminate murder, like Metal Gear Solid. We need more of them. Ideally, all of them would do one or both of those things moving forward. We have hundreds of games that reward killing already. Why make more?

Finance support for boys and create more positive masculine role models.

When I was growing up in the '90s and '00s, the community invested in special programs to encourage girls to become astronauts and senators. There were no equivalent programs to encourage boys to become nurses and preschool teachers.

All children emulate the adults they see. In the study "Effects of Exposure to Gun Violence in Movies on Children's Interest in Real Guns," children were shown a PG-rated movie that either contained scenes of characters shooting guns or no scenes with guns. The children who watched the movie with guns were much more likely to pick up and pretend to shoot an unloaded gun they found in a playroom cabinet afterwards.

It's common sense that American boys who see cops and soldiers shooting guns on TV or in video games will also develop an interest in guns. The interest persists into young adulthood as they see images of manly heroes saving the day by killing the bad guys over, and over, and over.

They don't see images of men saving the day by talking down the aggressor. That's portrayed as an exclusively female, and therefore inferior, skill for heroines like Moana. Male heroes who try a nonviolent approach suffer for it, like when Christopher Reeve's Superman tries to reason with Lex Luther and gets his powers sucked away by Kryptonite as missiles pummel California and Lois Lane dies horrifically.

"For god's sake, just break his neck!" exasperated audiences will groan at the screen, as Superman calmly listens to Luthor explain his dastardly plan. Because clearly listening is a stupid thing to do, and the only real solution to a conflict is for someone to die.

I'd love to see fewer movies with so many men holding guns, the weapon models are lovingly cataloged in the Internet Movie Firearms Database, like Dwayne Johnson's Skyscraper (2018). We need to replace them with movies showing manly heroes as nurturing childcare givers, librarians, tailors, dance teachers and stay-at-home dads.

And in real life, we need to proactively raise boys to succeed by being empathetic and cooperative, not entitled and aggressive. We've put so much money and effort into teaching girls to shed the ignominies of traditional femininity, and we've done a great job. But we need to put just as much effort into helping boys shed the toxic parts of traditional masculinity.


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