Update 12/14: today's school shooting in Connecticut has left 27 people dead, including 20 children. The article below was published following the shooting in Colorado in July.
“I made a very solemn vow about firearms,” Bruce Wayne said in 2009, as he approached the evil god who would go on to kill him. That was the eighth-to-last sentence he ever spoke.
When little Bruce was in an alley with his parents, a desperate man pulled a trigger twice and there was a pool of blood. The boy kneeled in that pool and dropped his hands near two corpses. Just as much as Little Bruce swore that day to make sure no one else had to kneel next to corpses, he swore to never touch the metal thing that made the pool of blood. It’s as simple as that, really.
Flash-forward however many years in comic-book time, and Batman has lots of things you might call “guns.” But classically, they’re not firearms, per se. They’re grappling guns, sonic dischargers, tasers. Things that don’t have bullets. Things that will help more than they’ll harm. You might call it a difference without distinction, but I’d argue that you’re wrong.
I know this post may well be insensitive to everyone who’s been left with jaws agape and eyes quivering in the wake of the tragedy you’ve all heard about by now. I pray that it isn’t. But the fact is that the deaths occurred around a screening of a film about the one pantheonic superhero who made gun-control a personal vendetta. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but on days like this, we all retreat to the archetypes and simplicities that we understand, and we could all do a lot worse than to look to Batman for inspiration on how to learn and reshape in the days that come after Aurora.
Bruce with a grappling gun, saving a life in The Dark Knight
The importance is that grappling guns and sonic dischargers weren’t invented to kill and wound. A firearm is a technology, and technology is never neutral. Technology always has an original sin. It has a purpose, an inherent aura. A gun is designed for one thing: to kill or severely wound. Any other use is a deviation from that inherent purpose — an exception that proves the rule. Hunting is killing and wounding. Holstering is an act of threatening that you might, at any point, kill or wound. Shooting may be a sport or an art even, but a target, even at the Olympics, is a distant relative of an animal or an enemy. Even putting a decommissioned gun on a plaque is a statement that you respect and acknowledge the object’s now-defunct ability to kill or wound. You can argue that it’s morally clean to use a gun in self-defense, but of what does that self-defense consist? Killing, wounding, or threatening to do either of those. It’s a simple as that.
Batman knows this. Very briefly, in the very early days of the character, the Batman carried a gun and killed people. But those days ended very soon. By the mid-2000s, it was such an article of faith that he’d never use a firearm that Bruce was terrorized by a dark version of himself whose sole defining characteristic was that he was “a killer Batman with a gun,” as Bruce put it. Such an idea was fundamentally anathema, as well it should be.
Bruce and the Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke
And why? Because guns are unreliable and they make people unreliable. Pardon the minor digression, but think of Pulp Fiction, an inadvertently very pro-gun-control film. Vincent Vega has been holding and firing guns for decades and, presumably, knows how to use them “safely,” as the NRA would put it. And what does he do? Accidentally slip and move the trigger while talking to a young man in a car, thereby blowing his face off and ending the boy’s time on this planet. Batman knows such things happen with guns. He also knows that the possession of a gun makes the use of it for deadly purposes so much more tempting.
In this context, what’s horribly ironic about last night’s deaths is that The Dark Knight Rises is awful on gun control. It’s revolting, actually.
(This is the part with the spoilers.)
Early on, Batman is fighting alongside Selina Kyle on a rooftop, and she wields a gun. He tells her that’s not how she’s allowed to do things, if they’re going to work together. “No guns?” she says. “Where’s the fun in that?” The audience is supposed to laugh. Silly old Bruce, sticking to his ideals when a hot young thing knows how sexy a gun can be.
But we can forgive that — perhaps she’ll learn, right? Come around to Bats’ point of view and understand the inherent danger of a firearm? Nope. In the film’s awful, absurd climax, Bruce is on the verge of being murdered, and what saves him? What saves the Batman from certain death at the hands of a baddie? Selina riding in on a motorcycle and firing an enormous gun at the aforementioned baddie. “That whole ‘no-guns’ thing?” she quips. “I had trouble agreeing with it.” Ah, got it: avoiding guns was such a silly idea, stupid Batman! The audience is supposed to cheer, once again, and at my theater, they certainly did. What good is a gun-control policy if you’re encouraged to applaud when it’s abrogated? The movie is abhorrent for a lot of reasons, but that’s one of the worst.
Batman and gun nut Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises
The next-level geeks among us are probably waiting for me to let the other shoe drop when it comes to the anecdote with which I began. I wasn’t being fully transparent. When Bruce utters that line about his solemn vow, he follows it with “But for you, I’m making a once-in-a-lifetime exception. A gun and a bullet, Darkseid.” See, Darkseid is literally the God of Evil. He is an avatar of crime and death — the things Bruce vowed to destroy. The only time in which the Batman can justify using a gun is to stop the abstract concept that made guns possible. It’s a gun firing at itself, essentially — jamming itself, in a way. It’s an assisted suicide for guns. Maybe that’s cheating, but at least it’s the only time the modern incarnation of Bats uses one — the writer explicitly reminds us that the exception is proof of the overwhelming existence of the rule.
Bruce on the eve of his death in Final Crisis
I’m getting too heady, here. The point is that Aurora should remind us of Batman. The Batman myth is about self-refinement to the point at which you become the Optimum Human, the person who does everything a normal human can do to make the world safer and less corpse-filled. All too often, a gun becomes part of people’s attempts to become optimal — it allows any person to become exponentially more lethal. But humans were not inventions created to be lethal. By holding a gun, you bring yourself farther from being optimal. Joe Chill, the man who shot Bruce’s parents, wasn’t inherently evil, but his gun was. I (and all of us) know virtually nothing about this man in Aurora, the one who ended so many lives. But he cannot be inherently evil; we are all born as non-killers. But his gun was born as a killer.
If you are a Batman geek and adore the character as much as I do, you must be anti-gun. By definition. Anything else is sick hypocrisy.
Bruce and a scared criminal in Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth
On Bruce Wayne’s death: Of course, Bruce Wayne wasn’t exactly dead in the conventional sense of the word. As it turned out, he’d been hit with Darkseid’s Omega Sanction and sent into a strange sort of time-travel, in which he battled a supernatural manifestation of fear and destruction throughout thousands of years of Gotham history, finally reaching the present and joining up with Dick Grayson, who had become the new Batman, to form Batman, Incorporated. And then all of that was written out of continuity, sort of, when the Flashpoint crossover occurred and reality was revised such that all DC superheroes had only existed for about five years in their new timeline. Comics, people!