Whenever there's a mass shooting, at least some supporters of gun rights can be counted on to say that we shouldn't be talking about guns, because the real problem is movies and video games (as though the United States is the only country in the world where violent movies and video games are available). But there actually is a way in which movies contribute to our violent culture and increase the death toll from guns. It's about the fantasies we — particularly men — construct about our own capabilities and potency.
Consider what President Trump said on Monday, talking — as he has a lot in the past few days — about the sheriff's deputy who, despite being armed, stood outside the high school in Parkland listening to the sound of students and teachers being shot. Calling it "frankly disgusting," Trump said, "You don't know until you test it, but I really believe I'd run in there even if I didn't have a weapon."
Yes, the 71-year-old obese man who avoided serving in Vietnam because of phantom bone spurs in his feet ("I had a doctor that gave me a letter — a very strong letter on the heels," he has said), would have gone all Trumpinator on the shooter. Right.
It wasn't the first time Trump had fantasized publicly about pumping a lowlife full of hot lead. At a rally in Tennessee in October 2015, Trump told the crowd he had a license to carry a weapon in New York. "Somebody attacks me, oh they're gonna be shocked." He then asked the crowd if they remembered the 1974 movie Death Wish, in which a vigilante played by Charles Bronson goes around a crime-ridden New York blasting away at criminals. "Today you can't make that movie because it's not politically correct," Trump said, imagining himself in a scenario in which some criminal sees him and thinks "He's easy pickings, and then, pshuuung!" That last was accompanied with the candidate drawing a pretend gun from a holster and firing it.
The president is far from the only person — let's be honest, man — who believes that in the face of extreme danger, he'd act not only with courage but with extraordinary skill. We've been taught that in movie after movie, TV show after TV show, where the hero not only performs superhuman feats of derring-do with bullets flying around him, but displays a hugely unrealistic form of courage. Unlike soldiers and police in the real world, fictional heroes don't experience fear, acknowledge it, and overcome it to carry out the actions they've been trained for. They simply feel no fear at all.
All of us have seen this played out on screen hundreds of times, but it's not how it works in the real world. We don't know exactly what happened to that deputy in Parkland, but it isn't hard to guess. It seems likely that despite his training, at that moment — hearing semi-automatic gunfire from inside the school — he froze. Thousands of years of evolution and every natural human instinct kept him from running toward danger, even as his rational mind surely told him it was what he was there to do.
Gun advocates want to promote the fantasy that an ordinary person like you who has never been in that situation would suddenly turn into a super-soldier. It's why spreading concealed carry as far and wide as possible is such a priority for them, so the gun owner can feel like a protector, a force for justice and vengeance. After a few hours at the range, you'll be ready when the terrorists try to take over your local supermarket. You won't fumble for your gun and shoot yourself in the foot, you won't be paralyzed with fear, you won't accidentally shoot a bystander — no need to worry about any of that, because you're the action hero now. The NRA and the gun manufacturers have been so successful at spreading this fantasy that we're actually debating whether it would be a good idea for the teachers in our children's schools to be packing heat.
But the truth is that fear and panic can warp the decision-making of even highly trained professionals. If you've watched the videos of police shootings that have become so common, one thing you'll notice over and over again is that the officers seem utterly terrified. All too often it turns out that they had nothing to be afraid of, but they've been conditioned to believe that any interaction with a citizen could result in their deaths. So when they pull over a car or approach someone on the street their adrenaline is pumping and they're in a state of near panic, screaming at "suspects" who can't figure out why this cop is going so crazy on them until the horrific moment when a slight movement of the hand causes the officer to pull the trigger.
And when asked, the cops will say that they have no choice but to be on this constant state of alert. The reason isn't just the job a cop has to do, it's the job an American cop has to do, which is different from a cop in England or France or Japan. And that's because of all our guns.
Yet the answer that Trump, the NRA, and most Republicans offer is more guns. We need more guys who spend their days working at a desk to nurture their action hero fantasies, to believe they'll be that "good guy with a gun" who'll save the day.
What could possibly go wrong?