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How Hollywood validates the myth of the good guy with a gun

On screen, an armed hero saves the day. But reality is different.

An image of Keanu Reeves as John Wick, aiming a handgun.
John Wick is just one in a long line of Hollywood’s “good guy with a gun.”
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

He gallops into town, the stranger with the shadowy past, and quick-draws his Winchester to right the town’s wrongs. Or he’s a gruff, pistol-packing cop with an estranged wife and a kid he only sees a few times a year, but he saves a whole building full of people from the terrorists who’ve kidnapped them. Or he’s a taciturn former assassin who’s dragged reluctantly back into action when hardened bad guys show up again. He’s the hero, the savior, the knight in slightly dinged-up armor.

The backbone of Hollywood storytelling is the good guy with the gun.

When NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre first used that phrase, it was 2012, one week after the massacre of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said, and it spread like wildfire. Many have decried the statement, noting that at the deadliest mass shootings — such as the shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where 21 people died — the so-called good guys with the guns were there, but absolutely failed to prevent tragedy. Broader data clearly shows that in American active shooter attacks, the armed good guy often does not make a difference.

Yet the phrase sticks. It’s an attractive scenario to imagine. It’s romantic. Evidence suggests that gun owners, on the whole, imagine the good guy with the gun and see themselves. We all feel helpless to prevent attacks; for some, acquiring a gun is an appealing way to feel in control.

John Wayne, as Rooster Cogburn, holds a rifle.
John Wayne in True Grit.

“Neither aggressive criminals (the ‘wolves’ in gun culture parlance) nor meek victims (the ‘sheep’), gun carriers see themselves as valiantly straddling a moral space of heroic violence,” sociologist Jennifer Carlson explained for Vox in 2018. What’s more, she writes, “this citizen-protector ethic redefines men’s social utility to their families.”

In other words, for many gun carriers — who are predominantly men — carrying a weapon is a way to identify with that courageous ideal. Carlson came to this conclusion through studying the state of Michigan, where economic depression, crime, and the impression of decline have fostered a robust concealed-carry gun culture. For many of the men she spoke to, carrying a gun was a way to fight back against the deterioration they saw in the world around them.

“Against the backdrop of socioeconomic decline, guns become a powerful means of asserting oneself as an upstanding person, as a dutiful father, and even as a committed community member,” she writes, noting that guns allowed those men to “rework their personal codes about what it means to be a good man and transform lethal force from a taboo act of violence to an act of good citizenship.”

That image has to come from somewhere. And one source seems obvious.

Clint Eastwood points a gun.
Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry.
Warner Bros.

In the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde and far too many more, Hollywood veterans have circulated an open letter calling on Hollywood to be part of the solution, not the problem. The letter suggests being “mindful of on-screen gun violence and model gun safety best practices,” showing on-screen gun users locking guns correctly and making them inaccessible to children, limiting the ways they’re used on screen, and exploring alternatives.

The initiative was led by activists Robert Bowers Disney and Christy Callahan, who is co-chair for the advocacy group Brady United Against Gun Violence. Disney, the group’s national organizing director, told me that modeling good on-screen behavior around guns can have a much bigger impact than one might think and that social activists have had success with storytellers rethinking how they depict other social issues in the past.

Storytellers’ “support of seatbelts, addressing teen pregnancy, and smoking [prevention] are just a few examples where modeling safer behavior led to a culture shift for the better,” Disney said. “We’ve already received comments from TV writers who have changed a scene in response to our campaign. What’s truly exciting is these writers are taking advantage of this moment to actually be more creative in their storytelling.”

Guns, as objects, are all over the movies, and the debate about Hollywood and gun violence has sometimes verged on the asinine. But it’s important to note that the stories Hollywood has been telling for almost its whole lifespan have placed the good guy with the gun front and center. It’s a great plot device. Our silver screen action heroes have often been good guys with guns, frequently those who must operate from outside the system.

They’re not the cops; they’re the beaten-down guys, the ones who are living on the margins. In Westerns from Stagecoach to True Grit, they were often the outsiders, men without moorings, a little mysterious, a little dangerous, but with their moral compasses set more true than society’s. They were John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart.

In the big blockbusters of the Reagan era and onward, they were often individuals who stepped in for those who couldn’t defend themselves, usually because whoever was supposed to be saving the day was too weak or ineffectual to pull it off. That guy is played by Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Steven Seagal, or Liam Neeson. Or it’s not a guy at all: Melina in Total Recall, saving Quaid, or Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, stepping in to save Indiana Jones.

Even today’s biggest moneymaker, the expansive, superhero-based storytelling of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has its roots in this tradition. In these films, some of the good guys have guns; others have superpowers instead. But the metaphor is latent and the allure is the same. Guns give ordinary people superpowers; wield one, and you too can be Captain America or Black Widow or Iron Man. Or Deadpool.

A scene from Captain America: the First Avenger.
Bucky Barnes, sniper.

The gun-wielding good guy doesn’t even have to be the protagonist (or, in a small number of cases, a guy). Think about it: How many times have you seen a film in which a villain has the hero in his sights, ready to take him out and then, when we hear a gunshot, the villain falls instead? From Captain America: The First Avenger to Under Siege to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the trope is the same. Our hero has been rescued by a comrade, a friend, an acquaintance, even the enemy of his enemy — and his gun. It’s a time-worn trope precisely because narratively, it adds an element of suspense, surprise, and catharsis to the story.

These tales are told in a way that encourages us to identify with the good guys, the ones who save the day. So when we imagine a real-life scenario, we naturally gravitate toward putting ourselves in the place of the hero of countless stories we’ve watched since childhood, not the victims.

These stories aren’t the only reason we swallow the romantic notion, nor do they bear the brunt of the blame for our struggles to curb gun violence in America. After all, Hollywood has exported its films abroad for decades, with very different results. The ease of acquiring guns in the US and the culture that has sprung up around them is the product of a set of unique factors spanning culture, law, and politics.

But that doesn’t mean the movies have no effect. Tell people a story about themselves often enough, and they’ll believe it.

All of the measures proposed in the open letter to Hollywood seem reasonable, if mild. But even changing how guns are depicted on-screen would be a challenge. As the Hollywood Reporter has exhaustively reported, depictions of guns onscreen have steadily climbed over the years, and that has resulted in a lucrative relationship between gun manufacturers and Hollywood.

Depicting guns realistically runs into another economic issue: The MPA ratings system tends to draw the line between PG-13 and R ratings to movies not based on gun violence, but on how much gore is shown on screen, and PG-13 movies make far more money at the box office than their R-rated counterparts. So studios have a vested interest in not showing blood and destroyed bodies, the natural result of gunfire. That means we’re often watching sanitized, cleaned-up fantasies of guns, rather than the kind of reality that might cause the good guy with the gun to hesitate when faced with a real-world scenario.

What we don’t see with nearly as much frequency is what we know happens in real life: The good guy arrives with the gun, and nothing happens. Or, as in Uvalde, the “good guys” — the cops, in this case — stand around, doing the opposite of what they ought to do, and nobody manages to save the day until after there’s been immense bloodshed.

There’s a simple reason for that. Movies are entertaining. Tragedy is, emphatically, not. Reality isn’t either. Nobody wants to turn on the TV and watch that story. Nobody wants to believe it happened.

So what are we supposed to do? At this point, Pandora’s box has been opened; you can’t take back a hundred years of film history. It would be both anti-art and counterproductive to erase guns from Hollywood’s history. Similarly, banning them from on-screen depiction wouldn’t make much sense. Guns exist in the real world. They cause tragedies, lots of them. Telling stories truthfully requires guns.

But as with all things in the movies, it’s not what the subject is that matters; it’s how the film goes about it. Imagining guns as the solution to all problems — as the successful solution — is, as we now know, a fantasy. It can be a dangerous fantasy. For people who feel like the world is spinning out of control, it suggests taking on an identity of gun-toting protector that doesn’t, in the end, deliver what it promises. That story, however appealing and romanticized, can block us from finding real solutions.

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