We Need to Talk About Guns in Movies

This video essay breaks down the unspoken rules about how gun use is shown on film and why they need to change. 
By  · Published on July 23rd, 2018

Movies have always been a breeding ground for tropes, conventions, and weird cliches. Objects, places, and people often work slightly differently in the movie world than the way they do in real life. We are all familiar with the broke millennial who somehow lives in a luxury three bedroom apartment or the bomb with a visible timer and a conveniently red colored wire. Normally, we think of movie tropes as amusing and harmless. They help stories work more efficiently or they add visual interest to shots, and because they are useful we tolerate them. In fact, we become so used to the weird alternate conventions in movies that eventually we stop noticing them. They turn invisible.

Unfortunately, not all movie tropes are so benign. This is the lesson of Andrew Swafford’s video essay “Guns Don’t Kill People, Knives Kill People.” By looking at storytelling conventions in horror and action movies, Swafford breaks down all of the weird rules surrounding how guns are represented in film and TV. He shows us how differently guns are used on camera compared to how guns are used in real life and why that gap between movie-world and reality is dangerous at a time when the US faces an epidemic of mass shootings.

Swafford reveals in his video essay that he is a teacher, making the disconnect he highlights between gun imagery in movies and the newsreel imagery of school shootings feel particularly unsettling. What could have been a purely abstract analysis takes on a personal dimension.

Great essays don’t always need to teach you something completely new or illuminate something hard to understand in order to be great. Sometimes a good argument works best by redirecting your attention back to something so familiar and so simple that you realize it is being overlooked. Swafford’s video essay offers us this type of insight by taking familiar images or cliches and turning them into questions.

Why do bad guys in movies often carry knives and not guns? Why do guns in movies often get jammed or misfire? And why, in a time in history where so many mass shootings take place, do so few movie killers take the form of mass shooters?

These seemingly goofy and ephemeral questions are the entry point to Swafford’s essay, but soon his analysis branches out into a broader argument that links random movie tropes about guns to a long cinematic legacy in which fictional gun violence is glorified and real-life gun violence is ignored.

Swafford’s exploration of onscreen gun use is not totally comprehensive. Gun violence in Westerns is only given cursory mention and the way in which tropes might affect gun use in detective stories or police procedurals is left unexplored. However, it is well worth the watch to see how Swafford unpacks the use of tropes in the two kinds of movies he chooses to focus on, horror and action.

For fans of these genres (and fans of great video essays) “Guns Don’t Kill People, Knives Kill People” is essential viewing. Watch it below.

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