Recently I was watching “Mud,” a well done movie about the South. It featured quirky characters, regional color, dangerous problems and loss of innocence. Good old-fashioned Americana. On an isolated island, two teenage boys stumble upon a stranger who turns out to be a fugitive. But the stranger is not really a bad guy, just someone wounded by romantic delusions. The details of this stranger’s alleged crime are muddled by the fact that the man the stranger killed probably deserved to die anyway and the bounty hunters now chasing the stranger down are probably bad guys too. Suddenly the boys realize that the issues aren’t so black and white.
All in all, a fine movie, and I enjoyed it.
But the ending really botched things. I don’t think I’m spoiling things too much to say that there’s a gun-induced bloodbath at the climax. Sigh. Everything was going so well up to that point. I expected the end to have some kind of showdown, but I didn’t expect it to be as extreme as the movie portrayed it. I don’t watch violent movies often (not even movies with the cartoon kind), but when I do, I find myself asking, “Would this movie or TV show have still worked with only 50% of the gunshots?” Actually, a single bullet is enough to make a tragedy. I once was robbed at gunpoint, and I remember thinking that this idiot who was holding me up had only to fire one bullet to change the nature of the crime.
In this movie, guns precipitate the conflict, aggravate the conflict and end the conflict (in a ridiculously violent way). Guns in movies leak bullets as promiscuously as tears.
I shoot people; therefore I am achieving justice. Justice is the end, and guns are the primary way to achieve this end (and so justice without the presence of guns must be flimsy and worthless). Guns fire up the audience’s emotions; guns coerce one person’s conception of justice; never mind that there is always the risk of blowback or friendly fire losses. Guns elevate subjective wishy-washy feelings to the exclusion of everything else; it doesn’t matter if the person standing before me is actually a threat. What matters is that I feel it’s a threat. Where I live, it’s reasonably certain that a police officer would arrive at my car within 5-10 minutes of a 911 phone call. Yet, for the gun-anxious Texan, that is simply inadequate. Many Texans believe themselves to be seconds away from annihilation. Quite apart from the policy question, I don’t see how Houstonians can live with that constant kind of stress. How on earth do paranoid gun-owning people have the mental composure to let themselves take the occasional nap?
I don’t deny that using guns has a certain romanticism to it, the romanticism of desiccated limbs, punctured internal organs and collapsed breaths. There is virtually no stigma associated with firing a gun because society has generally accepted that individuals who feel threatened will occasionally require the right to extinguish the life of another. Never mind that firing a gun at someone is usually a serious felony – the threat of unseen marauders is so real-seeming that some people cannot imagine life without it. Many of my friends have guns — not for any practical reason, but just the vague emotional sense that “I want it to be there when I really need it.”
In movie reality, the main adrenalin pusher seems to be guns and people who possess them and threaten you. You have the cops and robbers of course, but of course the true protagonist is the cache of guns. Guns remain the true heroes; humans are simply pawns of the inevitable storms of violence.
Nonlethal weapons like tasers might be an alternative – except it actually involves touching the perpetrator. That of course is absurd. Americans overwhelmingly prefer to shoot humans as they shoot photographs – far away enough to take in the spectacular view. Not only do Americans enjoy the thrill of being able to point at objects and fire, they also revel in the loud sounds of shots and agonized cries as body parts are ripped apart. If I were to suggest a nonlethal alternative, I would devise some kind of melodramatic vomit spray — accompanied by noisy pop pop pops of firecrackers (to notify and impress the neighbors).
The problem with gun ownership (in movies or life) is that it never really partakes of consequences. We never read of hospital costs or orphaned parents or the constant guilt that snuffing the life of another inevitably entails. We never speak of the psychological intimidation or the accidental casualties (be it suicide or simply the innocent result of kids playing around with guns they shouldn’t be handling).
The Hilarity of Law Enforcement
Today I watched a clever and hilarious movie “The Heat” which sticks to the “police buddy” formula, but with female buddies out to nab an evil drug lord. Predictable plot, punchy dialogue and stupid male cops getting in the way. Unsurprisingly there are gun battles and constant waving around of guns.
The first problem I have of course is plausibility. Do cops and FBI agents wave their guns around so often on a typical workday? Last I read, FBI spends most of their time investigating white collar crime, so they probably just spend most of their time looking at a computer screen and interviewing people. In one funny scene, the first female cop showing off to the second her private weapon cache which she stores in the refrigerator.
I guess I accept the premise that female cops would find showing off one’s gun arsenal to a partner to be a bonding experience. In movies, the primary determinant in who prevails in which side has the best cache of guns. But wait — as soon as you let your guard down, another man with a gun has snuck up behind you — defeating your short-lived tactical advantage.
Police in these movies are always grasping their guns — stumbling into confrontations which seem to be won or lost by which side has the biggest firepower. Nobody likes violence in movies; of course not. But dangerous criminals in movies always seem to be armed and making threats; it is inconceivable that a person with a gun could be shopping for groceries or waiting. Conversely movie expectations dictate that bad guys will all have guns and be willing to use one as cold-heartedly as possible.
When apprehending dangerous criminals, I suspect the hardest part will not be winning the gunfight but simply figuring out the perpetrator’s whereabouts and the optimal time to confront him. Police officers, I suspect, are trained very well on these things. A gun might be helpful in establishing authority initially, but it is not the key element. If the criminal is rational, he will give up when faced with an officer who has both initiative and backup. If the criminal is not-rational, then maybe the criminal would start firing (assuming that his gun is within arm’s reach). But then a real-life police officer probably selected a context for confrontation to minimize this possibility.
Movie criminals are more typically portrayed as loud and confrontational, rarely worrying about being caught and always ready to use their guns. Conveniently, in these movies, a villain’s henchman have a tendency to magically appear behind anyone who tries to arrest the villian. But real criminals probably worry a lot about being caught. They try hard to blend in with normal life. They go to the supermarket, buy gas, eat at a restaurant, go to the concert or sports game. These are public outings where there they can easily be surrounded and overcome. So there really isn’t a need for police officers to go creeping around empty warehouses with guns in hand. All the police officer needs to do is to wait for the criminal to pump his gas. ****
Portraying movie criminals unrealistically also means that you portray police unrealistically as well. Everyone is on hair-trigger alert; even the slightest sound causes movie police to grab their guns. For the viewer, the inevitable gun battle becomes a source of suspense and indeed, the climax of the movie; guns become the building blocks for great dramas filled with great men. And great man are those brave enough to use deadly force to stop the violent rampage of lawless people. In other words, because bad guys use guns to commit their crimes, good guys must use guns to commit their good deeds.
Who is the good guy?
When we watch movies laced with violence, we are left thanking goodness that real life is not so violent — never pausing to wonder whether the criminals in real life are really like that. One underlying theme in these violence-prone movies is that — heck, some days you just can’t avoid shooting up a few people. Drats that the criminals have to die — obviously! — but killings in movies are a shortcut for restoring the moral balance to the world — even if our gun-toting hero does it in the heat of the moment or without legal sanction. As long as this balance is restored in the movie, the viewer expects that the sympathetic protagonist will win some kind of reprieve. Sure, the good gun-toting protagonist may eventually have to face the wrath of the law, but a good person’s good motives will be an exonerating factor.
Over the years I’ve grown intolerant about narratives which attempt to legitimate the use of deadly force against people who you believe have wronged you. These cinematic narratives can seem to quench your emotional desire for justice, but then, in the realm of true crime, we are presented with more ambiguous events. The man in the movie theatre was threatening me….or maybe he was just throwing popcorn. The cops barge into a house and shoot dead a drug dealer who fires at them … or is the man an armed and respected veteran who kept the safety lock on? A man follows a teenager around believing him to be a criminal and fires at him at close range when the teen resists. Or is the teenager just picking up candy at the store and scared by a stalker? Sometimes it’s hard to tell in real life who is the bad guy and who is the good guy. In retrospect, the violent response against these “bad guys” never was so clear. Instead we have weeping mothers, astronomical medical bills, people in shock and lives ruined. I genuinely feel sorry for George Zimmerman for killing innocent teenager Trayvon Martin. In Zimmerman’s limited and almost paranoid vision of the world, teenagers who loiter pose a threat, so it’s best to have your gun ready. Although eventually acquitted because of Florida’s lax gun laws, Zimmerman has to pay a price of personal guilt for the rest of his life. Similarly, certain gun owners must feel the guilt of the deaths or suicides committed by family members who used the gun without permission. Police officers must live with the guilt of killing bystanders or even the perpetrator who nonetheless didn’t deserve to die but was the victim of an officer’s faulty calculation.
Some people may feel genuinely threatened by the world around them. Sometimes a specific individual may know of a potential threat by a specific person, and for the short term at least, it might make sense to keep a gun. But it does not follow that owning a gun makes that individual safer. Even law-abiding and otherwise rational gun owners have unrealistic expectations about whether gun ownership reduces crime and threats. They trust their crappy intuition, and that is the tragedy. Once you buy a gun, you have invested in a gun’s talismanic ability to ward off threats. Also, the act of buying or owning a gun is long-term. Few people buy a gun, keep it for a few years and then get rid of it. Like getting married and being Christian, owning a gun is a long term commitment. To actually reap the safety advantage, you always need to keep the gun within reach. You not only need to be on the lookout for crime-fighting situations, you always need to keep an eye out for your gun — must not lose it! Keeping that gun around exerts a steady burden on the psychic life of a person. Perhaps for actual crime victims, it is reassuring to have some weapon around while recovering from a recent trauma. But why not just take a pill instead?
Guns vs. Swimming Pools
A common refrain from enthuasiastic gun owners is that swimming pools kill more kids each year than guns do; But because it is ludicrous for someone to suggest abolishing swimming pools, it is also ludicrous to abolish guns.
I’m afraid it misses the point. Nobody is suggesting abolishing anything. Instead, I ask: are you protecting your kids better by owning a gun or by not owning a gun? While I’m at it, I might also wonder aloud whether a parent protects a child better by having a backyard swimming pool than by not having one?(See Note at bottom **)
First, a little data from the LA Times:
Victims ages 15 to 19 made up 84% of the children brought to the hospital with gunshot wounds, and two-thirds of those injuries were attributed to assault. Among these older children, roughly 24% of the cases were considered unintentional. Suicide attempts accounted for 239 of 4,143 of those firearm-related hospitalizations.
Among younger children, accidental firearm injuries were most common. Of the 378 children under 10 brought to the hospital in connection with a firearm injury, roughly three-quarters were considered victims of an accidental or unintended shooting. Thirty-one children younger than 5 and 47 ages 5 to 9 were injured in gun-related assaults in 2009.
Among Latino youths, firearm-related injuries were three times higher than among white children, the data show. And African American girls were more than six times as likely as their white counterparts to be injured by gunfire.
Unfortunately this raw data doesn’t tell us much. Who is assaulting children and teens? Where are children being assaulted? My guess it that they are being assaulted on the way home from school or at social outings — certainly not at home, where a gun may safely be kept. Just as avoiding swimming pools is a way to avoid being drowned, teens have some ability to limit risk by staying away from dangerous places. But children are not going to stop swimming, and we can’t expect teens to avoid all social situations where they could be assaulted. But would gun ownership protect teens? If these assaults happen outside their residence, having a gun at home won’t matter. Should teenagers be allowed to keep guns? Many parents would say that teens can’t be relied upon to use guns effectively or responsibly. Teenagers are ruled by emotions and hormones; they blow things out of proportion and assert themselves too much. Also, they have more time than adults to loiter and socialize. Giving more guns to minors seems a recipe for certain disaster; is it desirable for a parent or a society to take steps to limit teenager’s access to guns? Does possession of a gun in the house make it easier for irresponsible teens to use them?
Some teenagers are assaulted. That is a sad part of growing up. Teens start out feeling invulnerable and then they realize how powerless they really are. This realization is powerful (and traumatic!) and yet essential for mental and emotional growth. What is the best way for teenagers to make this realization? Is it by giving them a gun to carry around or teaching them to avoid risky situations and people?
The Great Thing about Being a Chicken
The great thing about being a chicken is that people laugh at you and maybe pick on you — but rarely kill you — especially if you run away fast enough. Give a teenager a gun and then you provide him with a combination of security and power — better reason to stick around and fight. Fighting — that’s what the real tough guys do — and that’s how you resist bullies, but it’s also very risky. Taking the law into your own hands carries the risk that after later people will fail to understand or appreciate why you felt compelled to respond with deadly force.
To understand the value of guns, you need to understand the criminal mind. The criminal typically wants the transgression to be as quick and smooth a transaction as possible. Criminals mostly want to dominate the situation to get what they want and get the hell out of there. Some criminals have defective (and even sadistic) personalities, but for the most part shooting someone messes up the criminal transaction. The criminal doesn’t want his actions to make the evening news, and shooting someone virtually assures it. Criminals may forget these concerns in the heat of the moment, but the individual crime victim needs to weigh the potential risks of assuming the worst in the criminal vs. the risks of leaving the criminal no choice but to use deadly force. It sounds superficially appealing to say you want to “prepare for the worst,” but nobody can plan for everything. Sometimes, in fact, overpreparing fuels a counterproductive paranoia.
Watching the movie Boyz ‘n the Hood, I am reminded of how guns can be used in social situations for illicit purposes. These situations are about dominance — not merely committing a crime. The two gangs in Boyz n the Hood weren’t killing one another because they were robbing people. They were just trying to intimidate. How do you intimidate? With guns. The proposed response to gun threats — to bring your own gun — doesn’t address whether this strategy actually works. Will the presence of another gun lead to a friendly stalemate? Or will it aggravate tensions and cause one side to make a pre-emptive move? With Boyz in the Hood gang violence, whipping out a gun to respond to a threat doesn’t eliminate the threat; it merely continues the cycle of violence and intimidation. The central theme of the movie (“At what point do you walk away?”) depends primarily on the level of economic and social desperation. The protagonist can walk away because he has something to live for — a good home life, economic opportunity, a general optimism — while the unemployed brother Dough Boy lacks the social anchors to restrain his desire for retribution.
But Boyz n the Hood presents false choices here. If police are always ruthless and incompetent and if teenagers are unwilling to go to them, of course gun-equipped young people will take the law into their own hands. But even in the Compton ghettoes, it seems unlikely that angry teenagers would spurn police if they could identify the people who committed the blow-by shooting. Perhaps these witnesses have a legitimate fear of retribution or legitimately believe that the police are ineffectual. But all police departments have anonymous tip hotlines. It just doesn’t make sense to me that in gang-related violence, the victimized gang wouldn’t let the police do their thing if there is plenty of evidence to convict somebody.
Perhaps I am naive. Or perhaps movies are just dramatized revenge fantasies (for which police are just an unfortunate prop). All this is fine, but how does it influence the individual’s decision to own or use a gun? Movies evince a self-justifying mythology for buying and using a gun. Of course our mundane lives aren’t replete with armed threats (or pretty female sidekicks). Crime is less ostentatious; it may pounce on you when you least expect it — and then it’s gone before you knew what hit you. Most of the time it is completely invisible – siphoning money from your bank accounts, stealing your car when you’re asleep, grabbing your purse when you’re not looking. For those things guns are completely useless. People who buy guns entertain grand notions of being able to fight back, but after it becomes clear it is mostly useless for doing that, it begins to dawn on the gun owner that the only things guns are good for are threatening family members and blowing one’s own brains out.
To Be Raped or Not to be Raped
I remain surprised at how many liberal-minded females in Texas nonetheless own guns. Often they are single and concerned about their personal safety. By that, I mean they worry about being raped. A rape scenario seems to be a clear case where a brandishing of a gun would seem to be a legitimate use of force. Sexual violence is terrifying to contemplate — with one of the worst parts being this feeling of helplessness while it takes place.
But let’s consider this topic for a moment — despite the unpleasantness.
Let’s make a list of rape scenarios involving strangers: being jumped on in a park, in a parking lot, in one’s own apartment, while walking home, being carjacked, in one’s dorm. Try to imagine how a gun might be used to avert these scenarios. [See end note] In many of these cases, the stranger has jumped you and caught you by surprise. Would you really have enough time and composure to gather a weapon to scare off the perpetrator off? Maybe if you were taking a long walk home and were gripping your gun tightly all the while, it might be effective (but so would mace). Suppose somebody were barging in on you, assuming you had 10-15 seconds to react, owning a gun might make a difference. But how many rape scenarios give you that much time?
But what if there were two perpetrators? That decreases even further the likelihood that your gun could ward off an attack. What if one perpetrator already had a gun? If you owned a gun too, that might even up the score, but how do we know that this will bring a stalemate and not an escalation of violence? I can think of scenarios where having a gun would actually avert a rape, but I can think of many more stranger scenarios where the gun is inaccessible or improperly used or just not an effective response. It’s true that when you hold a gun in your hand, for a few moments at least guns can make you feel invulnerable to any attacker. But it is not a permanent or lasting solution.
Up to now we have been talking about rapists who are strangers. But what about the familiar rapist — the angry spouse or ex, the frat boy? This constitutes about 2/3 of all rapes The situations where these might take place would be ones where one might normally not have a gun. For many of these situations having a gun is unlikely to help, and in fact, batterers have shown a tendency to own more guns than non-batterers. Finally, there are many risk avoidance strategies you can take that can be just as effective if not more. This doesn’t prevent every single scenario, and I’m not suggesting that guns are bad for every person in every scenario. But getting a gun just doesn’t seem to make anybody’s Top 10 list of risk mitigation strategies.
Better than Guns: Ordinary Prudent Measures
A secret: up until recently I have never locked my doors in my apartment when I am at home. I sometimes would forget my car doors too. It seemed silly or pointless. Since writing this essay, I have changed my mind. Many burglaries occur in late morning, and that typically is when I am home. I wouldn’t want anybody barging accidentally into my house and feeling compelled to dominate the confrontation. Many burglars knock on the door before they break into your house. A locked door won’t prevent all wrongdoing, but it poses an initial obstacle — and often that is enough.
When I was robbed at gunpoint a few years ago, I realized that I was living in a dangerous apartment complex and wouldn’t be able to move away soon. So I had to cope with the risk. I avoided taking out the trash late at night. I minimized driving at night, and I was much more aware of my surroundings on the nights I arrived home late. It’s true that I still had to walk my dog — and that was a risk, but often when you are walking on familiar territory you can anticipate risk and even see it ahead of you.
I’m not saying that I avoid strangers, but I avoid situations with strangers where I am isolated and don’t have the ability to extricate myself easily. All of these things sound so easy and obvious; why not just do it? These measures can’t work miracles, but they are relatively cheap and pain-free and don’t impose unnecessary risks. An individual could also resort to countermeasures ranging from cheap to very expensive: security systems, nonlethal weapons and noisemakers. If you are genuinely interested in reducing risk (instead of simply asserting power), you would probably find that defensive nonlethal countermeasures are cheaper, more effective and offer more peace of mind.
Where does paranoia come from?
Should you own a gun? In some few cases, the answer to that question of wisdom is probably yes.
But most of the time, gun owners are frightening themselves irrationally. They have conjured in their own imaginations a much more terrifying environment than genuinely exists — and they are living a fantasy about the security their guns will bestow. And to the extent that they are right — to the extent that the American environment is indeed more dangerous than the Australian or Canadian or German or French environment — the dangers gun owners face are traceable to the prevalence of the very guns from which they so tragically mistakenly expect to gain safety.
Noting that overall crime has declined and violent crime has declined significantly, From mentions that people’s perception of the crime rate is much different:
What force on earth could convince Americans that down is up? The most powerful force of all: television.
TV news — and especially local TV news — is dominated by news of violent crime, the more spectacular and murderous the better. TV news creates a false picture of a country under attack by rampaging criminals, and especially nonwhite criminals. The people who watch the most TV news, Americans older than 50, also happen to be the group most likely to own a gun.
Only one-fifth of young Americans own a gun; one-third of over-50 Americans do. Republicans are twice as likely to own a gun as Democrats. Maybe not so coincidentally, Republicans are more likely to watch the scariest news channel of them all: Fox. Whites are twice as likely to own a gun as nonwhites…
Proponents of gun control are baffled that horrific massacres such as the one in Aurora, Colorado, do not lead to stricter gun control. They have their causation backward.
The more terrifyingly criminal the world looks, the more ineffective law enforcement seems, the more Americans demand the right to deadly weapons with which to defend themselves. It is local TV programming directors, not the National Rifle Association, who are tirelessly persuading Americans that they need to strap a gun to their legs before heading to the mall.
And what will change those attitudes is not more atrocity stories, but instead the reassuring truth: The United States is safe and getting safer, safer than ever before in its history.
The police can protect you, and will, and do. And a gun in the house is not a guarantee of personal security — it is instead a standing invitation to family tragedy. The cold dead hands from which they pry the gun are very unlikely to be the hands of a heroic minuteman defending home and hearth against intruders. They are much more likely to be the hands of a troubled adolescent or a clumsy child.
Amen to everything Frum says here, but I have to wonder if the condensed and visually-oriented format of local news is the only thing contributing to this overemphasis of grotesque crime. Also, TV and movie depictions of crimes and violence may be more fantasy than reality, but we have to ask ourselves why guns-and-violence seems to be such a successful and profitable Hollywood formula. Instead of ritualistic and cathartic bloodletting onscreen, what ever happened to movies depicting an ordinary American’s hopes and dreams?
I can’t point to any unique historical trend here — except that perhaps the general magnitude of Hollywood violence tends to track the trend towards greater budgets. Shoot-em-up videos have been popular from the very beginning; at the same time murder rates and rapes have trended downward as porn and violent movies proliferate. Sticking with onscreen violence for a moment, perhaps formula movies and shows just have more sex and violence than “ordinary” movies and shows. Maybe when we bemoan too much sex and violence on TV we are simply bemoaning the increase of cookie-cutter cultural products.
Social forces may be indirectly contributing to the problem. In America, people are less likely to know their neighbors, more likely to be single and less likely to have an extended network of friends and family nearby. Maybe it’s just that cities contain more people and hence more strangers, contributing to this unease. Cars may aggravate this situation, enabling cities to be more spread out, making an individual’s “neighborhood” encompass a wider swath of people than in previous times. Perhaps the visible and vocal presence of (potentially threatening) gun-owners contribute to this uneasy need to “keep up with the Joneses.” Or perhaps the advancing power and reach of mass media make it easier for ordinary people to hear about grisly crimes several time zones away. Decades ago, people bought guns to protect themselves from crazy people in the neighborhood, but now perhaps they do it to protect themselves from the crazy axe-murderer in Florida (who — let’s face it — could simply hop in a car, drive 70 mph and be on our doorsteps within 24 hours).
Perhaps the real enemy is not guns but the federal highway system.
**One critic pointed out the difference here. Kids usually spend much longer amounts of time at the swimming pool than they do handling guns. You can be sure that if kids spent as much time handling guns as they did swimming, the casualty numbers would be different.
*** Rereading my essay, I realize that I have forgotten a very common scenario: being inside your home in the middle of the night and using a gun to prevent someone from entering the front door. I admit that I had not appreciated the risk of opening the door late at night or even engaging with someone knocking on the door through a chain lock. In that scenario, you are aware of the risk and have reasonable control over admittance. You are also wide awake and aware of the stranger. It actually can be comforting to know that a gun (or at least the brandishing of one) can dissuade a known aggressor. This, I concede. But so can a locked door — which even if it doesn’t deter in all cases, can still prevent many surprise intrusions. But ultimately an aggressor can bring a gun and cancel your advantage somewhat (forcing you into the unenviable position of having to be the first to fire). Ultimately, there will always be periods where you put your guard down or make yourself vulnerable; perhaps a gun or a door lock will reduce these periods, and contribute to a sense of personal security. On the other hand, unless you leave the gun by the door, you will never feel truly safe. When are you most vulnerable? Probably when you are away from home or transitioning from work to home or home to shopping parking lot. Are you comfortable carrying the gun in these situations? How would you respond if you are carrying grocery bags from your car? What about putting the trash out? What about being in a strange parking lot at night? Perhaps access to guns might help in these situations, but my guess is that it is mostly useless. When I was robbed at gunpoint a few years ago, I was carrying groceries from my car in the parking lot. I was caught totally offguard by two punks. I was in a crime-prone neighborhood, My solution in that case was to avoid walking to and from car after 9:00 PM and to avoid taking out the trash after hours. When I needed to do so, I took a more careful inventory of my surroundings before moving.
**** After having pondered this sentence a good bit, I’ve decided that pumping one’s gas is not the most opportune time to confront a criminal (after all gasoline is potentially deadly, and cars are both useful for escape and running over people). After the criminal has left his car and started walking to the store, parking lots seem to be great places to arrest people; not many innocent bystanders, and lots of places for them to duck and hide. Indeed, the best scenario seems to be after the criminal has paid for his groceries and is pushing his cart towards his car. CCTV can identify and track suspects inside the supermarket; a police officer can wait at the checkout posing as a security guard, and outdoor police can provide support and backup.