Collage of movie posters of Idris Elba's "The Take," Bruce Willis' "Death Wish," and Matt Damon's "Jason Bourne"

Skirting The Issue

Guns Have Become Hollywood’s Biggest Stars

You’d be hard pressed to find a movie or TV show that doesn’t feature a cool guy with a gun. But does our pop-cultural obsession spill over to real life?

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The coolest guy in your favorite movie is holding a gun.

He is Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction blowing people’s brains out and washing the moment down with a cool drink of Sprite and a meditative observation that makes you think. He is Woody Harrelson spraying bullets like confetti on New Year’s Eve in Natural Born Killers, somehow coming off as the film’s hero. He is Denzel Washington racking up a huge body count to save one life in The Equalizer, and destroying anyone who gets in his way in Training Day. He is Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool, offering up a hilarious bon mot before blasting a half dozen people to smithereens. He is every man behind a superhero suit who kills in the name of vigilante justice. In Hollywood, nothing says “hero” like putting a bullet in someone’s head.

This cool guy with a gun, let’s call him The Shooter, has become an archetype so pervasive in entertainment, it’s hard to think of a time he didn’t exist. Endless action franchises have been built on a premise that’s little more than “good guy with gun versus bad guy with gun, lots of explosions and shootout scenes, (anti-)hero saves the day” (Think: Die HardBourne, Mission: Impossible, James Bond). The Shooter is fictional, of course, and his death toll only a figment of a screenwriter’s imagination. But in a time when young people look to Twitter for news and Instagram for career aspiration—and while America’s real gunfire body count has skyrocketed to 35,000 deaths per year—The Shooter has become a cultural idol, overexposed and celebrated at once. And perhaps most dangerous of all, he’s a new type of role model for young people who are impressionable, maybe a little awkward and rebellions—and some maybe a lot more than that. What does it mean when so many boys in America (and it is almost always boys) want to grow up to be like their favorite action stars—good (or bad) guys with guns?

To say that Hollywood has an obsession with guns is the understatement of the century. Guns fuel the business—from the prop houses and special-effects departments, to stunt coordinators and actors and directors whose careers can be made from just one action film. And their prominence is on the rise. A new investigation by The Hollywood Reporter found that between 2010 and 2015, the number of gun models pictured in big box-office movies was 51 percent higher than it had been a decade earlier. There are now more guns than human characters in most films. The Internet Movie Firearms Database, which attracts millions of page views, has catalogued every firearm used in entertainment media, treating each gun as a character with its own entry, listing how many times the same model gun was featured in films and TV, what characters used it, and its number of kills. There are thousands, but let’s just look at one: The AK-47, Gen-X’s version of the AR-15. It has been in more than 100 productions—from the Batman films to four seasons of JAG, which was a top-rated TV show for nearly ten years. How do these facts and figures translate to real-world gun-worship? Consider the ads prominently featured on IMFD, offering viewers many options to purchase the guns featured on their pages. Or if they’re more of a DIY type, they can check out the link to Firearms Radio Network and listen to the “Guns of Hollywood” podcast, heavy on Shooter worship, or the “AR-15” podcast, whose latest episode (aired five days after the Parkland, Florida, massacre) offers an instructional on how to build the semiautomatic rifle piece by piece.

The Shooter isn’t just contained to fictional worlds depicted on celluloid; he is barging into our lives at an historic rate. Americans own approximately 265 million guns. The Gun Violence Archive estimates that there is a public mass shooting in the United States every nine out of 10 days. The Shooter is everywhere. And if he’s not getting his ideas–cultivating the very audacity to commit a violent act with a gun—from our media and entertainment, he’s at the very least being celebrated by it.

Movie posters, often the first marketing images a film releases, are available anywhere on the internet, so that those too young to get into an R-rated movie but still able to purchase firearms at gun shows can gawk at the glitzy romance of celebrities like Brad Pitt, Idris Elba, and Jeremy Renner brandishing glocks, pistols, and machine guns. In 2017, there were 41 movie posters that featured lead actors with guns: aiming them, firing them, caressing them, flying through the air with them, pointing them at their own heads. These posters are intended to stoke excitement in potential moviegoers and encapsulate—in one glossy, photoshopped image—the premise of the film. The imagery of each shrieks, Look how cool it is to kill.

Just as guns appearing in practically every film offers free publicity for the NRA, which has its own Guns of Hollywood museum in its Virginia headquarters, entertainment review sites consistently celebrate the violence. Do an internet search for “guns in film” and you’ll be met with hundreds of movie-review sites and blogs–most written by young men–sporting best-of lists on every thinkable gun trend in film, including “Best Assassin Movies,” “Best Mass Murderers,” and “Best Psychopaths,” accompanied by flowery language such as this from Ranker: “There’s something really fun and devious about watching a human be able to murder another in cold blood.”

Fun and devious are interchangeable for the cool guy with a gun; he’s always a little bit of both. Rogue and witty, scruffy and handsome, strong and cunning, The Shooter is often the hero, sometimes the villain, and always the most interesting character in the film. It’s not only the strapping and handsome men who are allowed to embody The Shooter, either. It’s nerds and geeks, the outcast and heartbroken, and those suffering from mental illness. Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight is clearly mentally unstable and homicidal, but damn if he’s not the only one you want to watch do anything–including blow up hospitals–in the film. The Suicide Squad is a team of convicted criminals given weapons by the government to stop even worse criminals, and they happen to look and act an awful lot like the coolest clique in school. No matter how deplorable the villian, each of these characters is given a swan song of destruction. No Shooter exits a film narrative without causing massive loss of life.

Inherent in the appeal of The Shooter are the guns themselves. They are phallic sexual objects, fetishized in every film. Consider James Bond. Every one of this franchise’s 25 films opens with a closeup of a gun, spinning in an often-red, somewhat erotic backdrop. Female silhouettes—lips, legs, buttocks, breasts—undulate around the gun while that famous theme song plays, as if giving the gun a lapdance. Then Bond appears, grabs the weapon, and thrusts it at the audience, an act not meant to intimidate, but to titillate.

When The Shooter is a woman, of course, the sexualization of both woman and weapon are amplified. Whether it’s Taraji P. Henson in Proud Mary, Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, or Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, or Salt, or Wanted, or Mr. & Mrs. Smith, when women are given the guns, the narrative flips from vigilante justice to faux empowerment. Audiences are urged to marvel at how strong, powerful, and “badass” it is for women to assemble, carry, and shoot artillery—all while wearing thigh-high stiletto boots and mesh bikini tops.

Should we celebrate this? Tolerate it even? Or adjust our expectations of what qualifies as entertainment, and what borders on contributing to a toxic culture of masculinity, hyperviolence, and everyday (formerly) safe spaces such as schools, malls, and movie theaters, turning into just another setting for a shoot-em-up rampage, just like it’s done on the big screen?

I am not here to make the argument that entertainment directly causes gun violence. It’s as absurd as when uptight parents insisted that 1980s heavy metal music caused demonic possession. But the prevalence of films rooted in gun violence, and the clear idolization and fetishization of the guns themselves—and the men holding them—demands that we question how entertainment presents violent killers as aspirational characters. America’s gun culture didn’t emerge out of thin air, but rather it rose from the ashes of normalized violence.

As we head into Oscars weekend, when many celebrities will be wearing black in solidarity with the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements, and others will wear ribbons honoring the victims lost to gun violence this year, there will no doubt be opportunities on the red carpet and at the podium to address the most pressing issues our nation faces today. But before those comments and speeches take aim at American culture, and the impotency of government to act to protect our most vulnerable, these famous mouthpieces should also reflect on how their own industry—and perhaps their own choices—contributes to the problem.

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