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Guns in Fiction Land

When people are afraid of something, they tend to worship it. They obsess and they fantasize and they focus all of their fears and hopes into that one terrifying object. Let's take the most basic fear shared by everything in the kingdom Animalia: death. Everyone's terrified to death of death.

So what do we do? We glorify it. All of the most popular television shows have to do with death—preventing it, evading it, or causing it. Death makes heroes. Death makes martyrs. Half of our favorite stories end with marriage, and the other half end with death.

The most celebrated books and movies are about other things we fear, which are often related to death. War. Dictators. Loneliness. Poverty. A hundred years ago, we were all frightened of the Jews, the Negroes, and the Orientals, so they turned up as the default villains of our media. Twenty years ago everyone feared new technologies, so we had a fictional orgy of rogue supercomputers and planets overrun by vicious unfeeling robots.

Now, thanks to some recent tragedies, we're all focusing our hysteria on guns.

The most dangerous thing about guns isn't the weapons themselves. I have a half dozen tools sitting in my kitchen just as capable of ending lives as the rifle in the bedroom. But nobody ever says we should restrict people with mental illnesses from buying butcher knives. Nobody campaigns for a national ban on household cleaners, or balls of twine, or frying pans, though they're much more practical and handy for murder than a troublesome gun. They're just not nearly as scary or glamorous. They're plain, boring, everyday things. When's the last time you saw a TV FBI agent pull a frying pan on a mafia boss?

No, the most dangerous thing about guns is the widespread ignorance about them, which makes them sparkle with a dark, mysterious allure. They're frightening. They're magical. They're awesome.

Disturbed kids who go on rampages don't need guns to kill. They have a lethal smorgasbord of other options. But they choose guns because that's what all of their disturbed role models used. Because the magical boom-boom sticks make them feel powerful. Because guns are flashy and scary and the entire country goes into a tizzy when they hear the word "semi-automatic." 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.

If you want crimes to stop, you have to get at the underlying problems that drive people to commit them. In the case of gun violence, the problem is cultural. The way we portray them in our media is downright irresponsible.

1) You never, ever, ever point a gun at someone unless you intend to kill him.

As a responsible gun owner, Sweetie hates to see characters on TV waving guns around when they don't intend to use them. Sexy police officers/detectives/lawyers in Fiction Land like to point guns at bad guys' heads with the safety off, finger on the trigger, just to intimidate or "persuade" or simply look badass. But in real life, cops with more than five minutes of gun safety training know that you never point at a target unless you intend to destroy it. Destroy it. It doesn't matter if you think it isn't loaded—there's always a chance that it is and you forgot. And you certainly don't put your finger anywhere near the trigger until you intend to shoot.

Real cops don't need to pull guns to intimidate. They can intimidate just by standing and speaking a certain way. They can disable criminals with less deadly weapons or their bare hands. I took a self-defense class from a detective in college. He could get a man twice his size squealing on the ground in less than ten seconds. The only reason a decent cop would draw a gun is if the target threatened his or her own life. On a related note...

2) There's no such thing as a "warning shot."

A couple of years ago, a woman in Florida went into hysterics, grabbed a rifle from the garage, and shot at her husband and two kids. Nobody was hurt, but she left plenty of bullet holes in the walls by their heads.

The reaction in the liberal wing of the Internet was beyond perplexing. Instead of condemning the dangerous and unhinged actions of the criminal, avowed enemies of the NRA started fundraising campaigns to support her.

"But she didn't mean to kill anyone! She was protecting herself. They were warning shots."

Have you ever tried to shoot a gun? You need a lot of practice to control them. Cowboys in tall-tale Westerns can shoot through a wedding ring tossed into the air, but in real life most people will aim at one spot and hit somewhere else. With one jerk in the wrong direction, that woman's charges would have ratcheted up from "assault with a deadly weapon" to "murder."

Besides the real possibility of killing someone you "didn't intend to" (see number one), gunshots still do a lot of damage even if they don't hit people. Bullets hitting concrete or asphalt shatter and skip off. Bullets shot up into the air will come back down. Bullets going through thin walls or ceilings can hit people on the other side.

And if you'd consider shooting a bad guy in the foot or a hand a "warning shot," you need a serious reality check, because...

3) Getting shot in the foot isn't some little ol' thing.

In Fiction Land, guns are always dangerous until they're conveniently not. Characters will happily shoot out door locks from point blank range, shoot at cables to make chandeliers fall with a spectacular crash, or shoot at people's feet to make them "dance." And if they happen to hit one of those feet—or an upper arm or a thigh—it's no biggie. The victim can just clutch at it and whine a little as the savvy detective gets him to 'fess up.

So people with no real-world experience with guns get the idea that bullet wounds are only a problem if they're in your torso or your head. They're disgusted by the idea of cops shooting to kill, but think it's okay to "just hit 'em in the leg or something." When a local cop literally shot a fleeing thief in the leg last month, everyone praised him for great police work. "He apprehended him without hurting him!"

Have you ever dropped a glass or a book on your foot when you weren't wearing shoes? Hurts like a mother, doesn't it? Now turn that glass or book into a compact nub of metal flying 800 miles per hour. A bullet will shatter your bone, rip through your muscle, obliterate your veins and arteries, and leave permanent nerve damage. It's about as minor and comedic as being impaled with a sharp lead nail.

I'll reiterate: never raise a gun unless you're willing to destroy the thing it's pointing at and everything around it. If you don't have a reason or intention to kill—not injure or distract, but kill—you don't have any business even loading the thing.

You too often hear about kids who accidentally shoot each other while playing with Daddy's handgun. Yet you never hear about kids who accidentally slit each others' throats while playing with Mommy's kitchen knife. Why? Because the handsome cops in movies and books don't go around putting knives to suspects' throats to intimidate, interrogate, or "warn" people. Slitting throats is horrible and graphic, but waving guns around willy-nilly is cool.

It's easy to see how this disconnect between guns as killing machines and guns as harmless props came about. You can't show a detective beating a suspect with a baton or threatening people with knives on TV. That would make him look like a bad, violent guy.

But threatening people by pointing a gun from a distance "isn't" violent. It looks impressive, elegant. If the suspect moves, "pew pew," bad guy crumples, and it's over. No mess. No pain. It works the same way in books. You can't describe a heroine carving a man to pieces. She can't strangle him or run him over or do anything else to get her pretty hands dirty—who would sympathize with her then? Nope, you have to give her a gun. Then she isn't a remorseless killer; she just squeezed a piece of metal.

And that's how the wrong message gets out to both kids and adults. Killing people is wrong, but it's less wrong if you do it by shooting them. Guns are clean. Guns are easy. You can play around with them without consequences. If they happen to kill someone, it isn't your fault—the guns did all the work. The guns are evil, not the people holding them. Take them away, and the world will be a peaceful place.

We need to start thinking about guns the same way we do about other dangerous tools like cars, lighters, and kitchen knives. We have to stop turning guns into a "forbidden fruit" by portraying them irresponsibly in our fiction. We have to stop writing thrillers starring chiseled and/or buxom PIs who take gun ownership lightly, who cock hammers for show and shoot kneecaps off like it's nothing.


Amy Jane (UntanglingTales) (December 29, 2012, 7:28 pm)

Well written.

Especially effective/unique is your example at the top, comparing the shooting to the (suspected) non-epidemic.

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