The Phenomenology of Guns

The debate over handguns centers on the question as to whether a given individual is better off owning, and perhaps carrying, a handgun than not; and whether we as a nation are better off allowing our citizens to own, and perhaps carry, such guns.  To that end, arguments are advanced on both sides, supported with statistics of various sorts.  And yet, the issue remains unsettled, each side remaining as firm in its convictions after the arguments and evidence have been presented as they were before.  From this we must conclude that either the reasons given for or against these weapons are insufficient to the case, or we are not as rational as we would like to suppose.

By this point, readers less patient than yourself have already begun skipping down the page to see where I stand in this debate, in order that they may assume the appropriate posture, lest they be lulled into approving my early remarks only to discover later that they should have been despising them all along.  It is not my purpose, however, to argue the point one way or the other, but rather to bring to light an element that often goes unnoticed.  It is a delicate matter which, if not handled properly, may appear to be a veiled insult, instead of the objective analysis I intend.

The matter, understood in its broadest terms, is that of feeling.  Merely possessing a gun will induce a feeling of power in a man, and if that same man wears the gun on his person when he leaves the house, he carries that feeling with him as well.  I say “man” for two reasons.  First, as a matter of grammar, I always use the masculine gender when the sex of the individual is either unknown or indeterminate; and second, as a matter of fact, far more men have guns than women. Nevertheless, women own and carry guns too, and I can only assume that what they feel in this matter is no different from that of the men.  To return to the point, this feeling of power stems, obviously enough, from the fact that guns are dangerous.  And it is that same dangerous quality that will often produce a feeling of dread as well.  I do not wish to oversimplify the issue, but I suspect that whether one owns or carries a gun has more to do with the preponderance of one feeling over the other, of power or dread, than it does with the arguments or statistics alluded to above.

Feelings are much despised, except for recreational purposes.  In serious matters, we are expected to eschew mere emotion and allow reason to prevail. And when it is a matter of life and death, as guns often are, it is unseemly to suggest that whether one carries a gun or not is based on something as frivolous as a mere passion.  Nevertheless, let us consider two situations, in which feeling is allowed to prevail over reason, one for each side of the debate.

We shall begin by assuming that the gun enthusiasts are right, that the individual is safer if he has a gun to protect himself, and that we would be safer as a society if more law-abiding citizens carried a gun.  What then should we say of the timid man, who, though reason urges him to carry a gun, yet his fear of guns keeps him from even owning one?  Is there any doubt that, owing to his apprehension regarding handguns, he would be better off not having one?  A certain amount of confidence and determination is needed to prevail in a gunfight, and lacking that, the timid man might only make things worse for himself if he tried to be something he is not. Complying with a robber by giving him your wallet is a strategy that often costs no more than a few dollars, plus the nuisance of canceling credit cards. If the object is to survive, it is often better to yield than to fight.  So even in the face of the evidence, the timid man might be well-advised to go unarmed. Thus we see that at least in this case, it is proper that feeling should prevail over reason.

Suppose, now, that those who favor strict gun control laws are right, that the individual is far more likely to harm himself and his loved ones by owning a gun, and that we as a nation are not safer but less so, owing to the prevalence of guns in our society.  What then shall we say of the man who, notwithstanding the evidence, persists in owning a gun and carrying it on his person? Clearly, such a man believes that the feeling he derives from owning a gun is worth the increased risk of carrying it.  This man of honor, let us call him, is undeterred by statistics regarding his safety, because it is not his safety he cares about.  He counts his life cheap and his honor dear. More than anything else, the man of honor dreads being a victim.  The idea of suffering the humiliation of being robbed or assaulted fills him with horror, even if his monetary losses are small and his injuries slight.  The idea of going out in a blaze of glory, on the other hand, taking a few punks with him in the process, fills him with a sense of peace.  The woman who believes that rape is a fate worse than death is similarly motivated.

Dueling is no longer a custom in western society, but the human nature that gave rise to it has not changed.  In those days, a man might purposely provoke a duel, if by so doing he could establish his worth as a man.  Except in the military, where the expression “death before dishonor” is an attitude encouraged, honor is today thought of as something quaint, and thus is seldom admitted as a motive, though it often is one nevertheless.

So we say to ourselves, granted the assumption above, if a man is willing to put his own life at risk for the sake of honor, who are we to question his choice?  But, per that same assumption, the man of honor also puts others at risk by carrying a gun, considering the numerous cases of accidental shootings we hear about.  It is not my purpose to moralize, but only to understand.  And it seems clear that if the man of honor is careless of his own life, we should not expect him to be especially concerned with the lives of others.

If this analysis is correct, it may help to decide the question whether the laws concerning the carrying of handguns should require concealment or allow for open-carry.  The problem with allowing people to carry guns openly is not merely that it is disturbing, though it certainly is that, but rather that it leads to an unfortunate need to prove oneself.  A man who goes around with a gun strapped to his hip may look as though he is playing dress-up, and may even invite snickers to that effect.  In such cases, redemption can only come when the gun is fired in anger.  In Roughing It, Mark Twain noted that in Virginia City, in order to have status, it was not enough merely to carry a gun.  One had to have “killed his man.”  Only then did one advance to the rank of desperado. And the man one killed could not be some unarmed store clerk, but rather had to be someone who also carried a gun.  In the following chapter, Mark Twain casually noted that he quit wearing a gun.  He obviously did not want to become someone else’s means of social advancement.  From this we may conclude that if citizens are to be allowed to carry guns, the law should require their concealment, thereby avoiding the need of the man of honor to prove that he is not just a desperado wannabe.

In any event, it is not to be expected that many minds will be changed by all the arguments and evidence concerning guns, for it is more a matter of the heart than the head.  When strong passions are at play, reason must quit the field.   Less still must we expect of reason when she is a servant of two masters, lending her support first to one side and then to the other.

The Hopeless Gunman

Hollywood makes a lot of movies in which people use guns.  It does so for the simple reason that a lot of people enjoy these movies, which makes them quite profitable.  Toward this end, all sorts of people are seen using guns in the movies, in different times and places, and in all sorts of circumstances.  There is one type of person, however, who Hollywood has decided should never be allowed to successfully use a gun against another human being, especially a handgun.  This person, whom I shall call the hopeless gunman, has the following properties:

(1) He was born after the turn of the twentieth century.

(2) His profession does not require him to carry a gun, nor has he ever had such a profession in the past.

(3) He is basically law-abiding, mentally sound, and of good moral character.

(4) He owns a handgun, which he bought under ordinary circumstances.

(5) His use of that handgun is or would be legally justified, as in the case of self-defense, or morally justified, even if not strictly within the law.

(6) He is a man.

This hopeless gunman, as I have defined him, always fails miserably when he tries to use a handgun against another person.  If someone in a movie does use a handgun successfully against another person, he will deviate from the above definition in at least one way, and often more than one.

Let us begin with the first component of the definition.  In movies set before the turn of the twentieth century, everyone is assumed to be able to use guns effectively.  This is especially so in Westerns.  But with the closing of the West about a hundred years ago, the era of universal competence with guns came to an end.  Therefore, the hopeless gunman is someone born after the turn of the twentieth century.

Within the modern, urban setting, there are, of course, people who carry guns as part of their job.  Law enforcement officers, private detectives, and military personnel in movies are assumed to be competent in the use of guns.  Though no longer in the military, veterans in movies are able to use guns effectively too, having been previously so trained, as in Taxi Driver (1976) or Rolling Thunder (1977).  Anyone in a movie who carries a gun as part of his profession or is a veteran does not meet the second condition for being a hopeless gunman.

Criminals in movies are always competent with guns, using them successfully to rob a bank or wipe out some rival gang. Now, whereas those who carry guns professionally are trained in the use of firearms, criminals typically are not.  In many cases, the mere fact that they are criminals seems to be a sufficient guarantee of proficiency with a handgun.  In Once Upon a Time in America (1984), for instance, Robert De Niro plays a hoodlum who goes to prison as a teenager for killing someone with a knife.  Years later, when he gets out, he immediately goes on a robbery and kills someone with a gun, because for some unexplained reason, he knows how to shoot.  In any event, a criminal is not a law-abiding citizen, and therefore does not satisfy the third condition for being a hopeless gunman.

Staying with the third condition, we note that people that are mentally ill can be good with guns in the movies.  In True Romance (1993), Christian Slater plays a man who has hallucinatory conversations with Elvis, in one of which Elvis tells him to go out and kill someone.  Slater conceals his gun on his person and then goes out and does just as he was told. Because he kills a pimp to protect a prostitute, the killing is presented as morally justified, which means he satisfies the fifth condition for being a hopeless gunman.  But because he has hallucinations and is therefore a little crazy, he does not meet the third condition, which is that of being mentally sound.  We already mentioned that the protagonist in Taxi Driver is a veteran, and he therefore does not qualify as a hopeless gunman.  In addition, he seems to be mentally ill, and thus he would fail to meet the third condition of being mentally sound as well.  Interestingly, he also kills a pimp to protect a prostitute.

An ordinary citizen in the movies can use a rifle or a shotgun to go hunting with no problem.  And he has no trouble killing zombies or monsters, as in Tremors (1990).  But when he tries to kill another human being with his handgun, he stands in danger of being a hopeless gunman.  In Judgment Night (1993), a bunch of friends decide to go to a boxing match.  Early in the movie, Jeremy Piven reveals that he has brought along his semi-automatic pistol, and we immediately feel a sense of foreboding, for he seems to meet all the conditions of the hopeless gunman.  And indeed, later in the movie, when he and his friends are being chased by gangsters trying to kill them, his pistol does him no good at all, and he ends up being killed.

A ludicrous example of the hopeless gunman is in the movie The Threat (1949).  Charles McGraw plays a vicious killer named Kluger, who escapes from death row and kidnaps a bunch of people.  One of them, an ordinary guy named Joe, manages to secrete his handgun on his person while he waits for a chance to use it.  When Kluger falls asleep, Joe pulls out his gun.  But when Kluger wakes up and sees that Joe has the drop on him, he just starts walking toward Joe, talking to him in a soothing tone of voice, saying it was a mistake to pull out the gun. “Come on, give it here,” Kluger says, as he gently reaches out his hand and takes the gun away from Joe without any resistance. “Now, isn’t that better?” Kluger asks. Joe smiles and says, “Yeah.” And then Kluger shoots him dead.  All Joe had to do was pull the trigger and kill Kluger.  But he was a hopeless gunman, and so he ended up being disarmed and killed in this humiliating fashion.

There is, however, one way for a civilian to use a handgun effectively against other human beings for a legitimate purpose, and that is if he was not the one who bought the gun, which means he does not meet the fourth condition.  In the movie just mentioned, The Threat, shortly after Joe dies, a woman gets her hands on Kluger’s handgun and pumps two slugs into him.  She deviates from the definition of the hopeless gunman in three ways:  she did not buy the gun herself; she is a woman; and she is a gangster’s moll, meaning she is not of good moral character.  As a result, she avoids being a hopeless gunman by not meeting conditions three, four, and six in the definition, making her more than qualified to use a gun effectively.

In Death Wish (1974), Charles Bronson starts killing bad guys after his wife has been murdered and his daughter raped.  He does so with a gun that is surreptitiously given to him by a friend.  Referring again to Judgment Night, after Jeremy Piven dies, his friends pick up the gun and are able to use it effectively. In Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), the driver of an ice-cream truck owns a gun, but he is killed, along with a young girl. Then the father of the girl picks up the gun and shoots the man who killed her.   In Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Sal Mineo shoots a hoodlum in self-defense with his mother’s handgun. And on and on it goes.  It is really amazing how many examples there are of a civilian using a handgun effectively when he did not buy it himself, and how few are the movies in which a gun is used effectively by a civilian who bought the gun originally, and those few are invariably women.

But even when the citizen is a woman, which would allow her to use the gun effectively anyway, the fact that she did not buy the gun herself further removes her from the category of the hopeless gunman.  In Blood Simple (1984), Frances McDormand is able to kill a private detective in self-defense with the gun her husband gave her.  In Freeway (1996), Reese Witherspoon is given a gun by her boyfriend to hock for money, but she ends up using it to shoot Kiefer Sutherland.  In Ms. 45 (1981), a woman takes a handgun off a man who raped her and starts using it to wipe out the city scum.

The difference between a man who buys a handgun and one who receives the gun as a gift or who opportunistically picks one up is the element of machismo.  And it is this difference that accounts for the exception made in the case of a woman.  When a woman meets all the other qualifications for being a hopeless gunman, including buying a handgun herself, we do not hold her guilty of machismo, for this is a masculine trait.  We figure the woman has a good reason for buying the gun, and not merely that she is trying to prove to herself how tough she is the way a man might be suspected of doing.

In the movie Jagged Edge (1985), Glenn Close is about to be murdered by a serial killer when she whips out a revolver and shoots him dead.  We do not see her purchase the revolver, but there is no reason to think she did not buy it herself.  In Death Proof (2007), a woman is effective in using a handgun she bought herself against a maniac.  In The Brave One (2007), a woman having been attacked by thugs gets herself a gun and uses it to get revenge on them.  Nevertheless, movies prefer not to rely solely on gender to distance the protagonist from machismo, and that is why in most of the movies discussed above where a woman uses a gun effectively, there are reasons beyond merely her sex that exempt her from being a hopeless gunman.  As another example, in Gloria (1980), the title character is a woman who presumably bought her own handgun, but since she was a gangster’s moll, the fact that she is not of good moral character would have allowed her to kill gangsters with it anyway.

Finally, in the fourth component of the definition of the hopeless gunman, there is the requirement that he not only must buy the gun himself, but also that he must buy it under ordinary circumstances.  In Panic in the Year Zero! (1962), for example, a man buys a handgun only after realizing that nuclear war has broken out, and that he and his family will have to try to survive without the benefits of civilization.  Technically, it could be said that he steals the gun and other supplies when the store owner refuses to take a check, thereby making him a criminal.  But he promises to pay the owner of the store later, and we believe him.  The point is that the machismo factor is present only if the man buys the handgun under normal circumstances, when there is no immediate threat he must deal with, rather than in an emergency.  Another example would be Cape Fear (1962) and its remake (1991).  The protagonist gets himself a gun only after his family is being terrorized by a killer.  In both of these examples, because the handgun was obtained under circumstances that were not ordinary, the protagonist is not a hopeless gunman and is able to use the gun successfully.

The trope of the hopeless gunman in the movies is an ideological choice, not a reflection of reality.  Just going by what I see on the nightly news, ordinary citizens win their fair share of gun battles against criminals, sometimes in attempted robberies, but especially in home invasions.  And it is reasonable to suppose that many of them meet all six components of the definition listed above.  But men like this are nowhere to be found in the movies.  It is clear that Hollywood opposes the idea that people are better off if they own handguns to protect themselves, portraying men who do buy handguns for that purpose as hopelessly inept and motivated by a sense of machismo.