Secretly, Americans Love Guns. Watch 'The Walking Dead.'
I don’t know how the debate over gun control is going to play out. But there’s a challenge at the heart of the matter to which we pay too little attention.
Secretly, Americans love guns — if not the actual physical devices then at least the abstract idea. We say we don’t, but our collective id, as represented by what we watch on the screen, suggests otherwise. Because for every police procedural where the suspect who swears he’s innocent finds his licensed handgun missing from its lockbox, there are two popular post-apocalyptic thrillers where the possession of firearms is the only ticket to survival.
Now, don’t worry. This isn’t one of those there’s-too-much-violence-on-TV columns, and I’m not about to claim that what happens on the screen influences what happens in the real world. 1 My argument is the other way around. I think that our secret fears about the real world influence what we choose to watch — and what market-driven production companies dutifully give us.
Let’s begin with “The Walking Dead,” AMC’s monstrously popular show about life in a world mostly zombified. For much of the show’s run, guns have been precious. Ammunition was in short supply, and humans battled zombies with knives or clubs of swords or whatever came to hand. Over the past couple of seasons, firearms seem to have become more plentiful, and are used regularly as humans battle other humans.
In the show, lots of work has gone into locating guns and training ordinary folks to use them. The messaging seems straightforward: The government can’t protect people (the Centers for Disease Control was immolated in Season 1, and our heroes never do hear from the White House 2 ), so people have to protect themselves. For that they need guns.
Now let’s go in a different direction and consider “Colony,” the USA Network show about life in Los Angeles 3 after earth is invaded by the mysterious “Hosts.” The Hosts have separated the world’s cities into walled colonies ruled by a globe-straddling police state.
Much of the story involves the battle between two groups of humans: those who run the colonies on behalf of the Hosts, and an armed resistance. The resistance sets off lots of bombs (some interesting claims about terrorism here) but relies mainly on guns — lots and lots of guns — and is always looking for more. Again, the good guys are mostly ordinary folk who tote firearms to fight for their freedom. The professionals who were trained to use weapons — most members of law enforcement and the military — were intentionally killed off during the invasion.
Then there’s cult favorite “Jericho,” which lasted a season and a half on CBS between 2006 and 2008. The show imagines life in the fictional town of Jericho, Kansas, after coordinated nuclear attacks of unknown origin on major U.S. cities. Although early episodes focus on residents trying to solve the practical problems of survival, the town soon encounters armed threats — escaped prisoners, criminal gangs, more aggressive neighbors, among others — that require armed response. In one scene, the people of Jericho stymie an attack by trained mercenaries only because the mercs don’t have as many guns. Once more, it’s only the possession of firearms that makes survival possible.
The same theme is central to “Falling Skies” and “The 100” and “The Last Ship” — the list could go on and on. Hollywood keeps churning out shows that carry the same bleak message: One day government is going to fail us (or turn on us), and on that day we’ll need guns. Lots and lots of guns.
There are tropes common to all the shows. Just in the nick of time, our heroes stumble upon caches of weapons left over by vanished warriors or survivalists. We’re meant to be impressed when a mysterious figure with a shadowy past joins our heroes and teaches them to shoot, or saves them with a well-placed bullet. And we’re meant to root wildly for formerly mild-mannered characters who become deadeye, cold-blooded shooters. This admiration of the gun-savvy spills over into other vaguely futuristic television shows, even those with no apocalypse in view. In the pilot episode of the sadly departed “Person of Interest,” one of the best recent sci-fi offerings, the reclusive billionaire Harold Finch tells the hero, former intelligence officer John Reese, “I don’t like firearms.” Reese replies, “Neither do I. But if someone’s going to have them, I’d rather it be me.” 4
That would seem to be the nub of the matter. From the point of view of the protagonists, none of these shows is intended as a celebration of violence. The use of firearms is a reluctant necessity, a skill needed to survive in a world where civilization has died. Yet lurking beneath this sentiment is surely the fear that civilization might not survive, and that learning the skill might become necessary. A few years ago in this space, I wrote about a millennial I met in a cell-phone store, who explained that she and her friends were enthralled by “The Walking Dead” precisely because they doubted that their generation had a future.
So even as we weep over the carnage firearms often cause in the real world and argue over how to rein it in, we need to recognize how ardently we follow it on the screen.
Let me be clear: I’m not decrying any of these shows. Many of them I enjoy. 5 And, again, let me emphasize that I’m absolutely not suggesting that gun violence on television causes gun violence in the real world.
My point, once more, is the opposite: that such shows are popular because of a deep-set fear that perhaps things might one day spin out of control, that government, law enforcement, all the institutions that exist to protect us, might one day fail. No doubt the fear is stronger in some quarters than others. But in our debate over how best to control gun violence, let’s remember that fear can’t be legislated away.
It’s mentioned briefly and obscurely in the comic book series. Note that in “The Last Ship,” our heroes do eventually go to the White House, but (mild spoiler) find it empty.
Yes, I know, Season 3 won’t be set in Los Angeles.
And if you’re interested in exactly which weapons are being brandished in your favorite television show, here’s a useful resource.
The same is true for movies.
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Jonathan Landman at email@example.com