There’s a collective hypocrisy about guns as weapons and as entertainment in wake of Rust death

Melanie Scrofano as Wynonna Earp. The use of real guns in TV shows is to

Melanie Scrofano as Wynonna Earp. The use of real guns in TV shows is to satisfy us, the viewer.Wynonna Earp Productions, Inc./SYFY / Courtesy of Crave

As official investigations continue to look into how Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed a cinematographer on the New Mexico set of the film Rust, there is a swirl of information, accusations and confusion.

But some issues come into focus, specifically a collective hypocrisy about guns as weapons and as devices used for entertainment purposes.

Monday night on CNN, Chris Cuomo delved into the shooting on Rust. “Question: How did a live round end up in what was supposed to be a prop gun? Now, there is no such thing as a prop gun. They only use, in a lot of these things, certainly in this production, real guns, and then they just change the ammunition, if they get it right.”

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Interesting observation from Cuomo. It’s safe to wager that most people like to believe that the guns used on TV and in movies aren’t real. That, however, is delusional. And it’s a delusion we embrace, because we like the action to be as realistic and emphatic as possible.

Cuomo later interviewed Bill Davis, presented as a former police officer, a firearms trainer and most recently an armorer, overseeing the use of guns in several episodes of the Netflix series Ozark. Davis said, “Live ammo has no place, on a motion picture, or a television studio set. It has no place, on a set, anywhere, at any time.” Then he went on to illustrate, confusingly, the difference between the look of live ammunition, a blank round of ammunition and dummy ammunition. They must have all looked the same to viewers who aren’t experts.

In answer to Cuomo’s suggestion that “you shouldn’t be using real guns in a make-believe endeavour,” Davis showed off a real gun and was clear: “If I thought for a moment that it would make the movie look better, to use non-guns, or use plastic guns, or rubber guns, and use computer CGI enhancement, for the flash, I’d be standing in line, saying, ‘Yes, sign me up. I want to – I want to run these guns. I want to learn all about them.’ But sadly enough, they don’t look real. Not only do they not appear real, like this one, a real one, the patina of it, the action of the hammer, and the cylinder turning, you can’t get that in a rubber or plastic gun.”

Let’s say he’s right. It might seem implausible in this age of technology that guns and gunplay can’t be faked. Yet it seems the fact is, the guns must be real but live ammunition should not be anywhere near those guns.

The use of real guns is to satisfy us, the viewer. Television entertainment is a vast canvas for working out our political and social self-consciousness and collective fantasies, and we fantasize about using guns. The actors firing off rounds of ammunition against enemies or threatening figures, are us, by proxy.

Time was, guns in fictional dramas were mainly used by men and this was loosely understood to represent the power of the phallus. The use of a gun by a woman was considered transgressive and, eventually, empowering. The cult series Wynonna Earp is premised entirely on the female use of the phallus-gun, as Wynonna, descendent of Wyatt Earp, is obliged to return reincarnated outlaws that Wyatt had killed, back to Hell, using her ancestor’s gun, the long-barreled and very phallic “Peacemaker.”

Now, Wynonna Earp is a supernatural series based on a comic book series, but it makes an intense fetish of guns. In fact, the Internet Firearms Movie Database (yes there is such a thing) devotes a lot of space and visuals to the firearms wielded by the women in Wynonna Earp. The fetish is real, not fantastical.

In Canada, we are nervous about guns, as the recent federal election campaign highlighted, when Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole was eviscerated for having a fuzzy stance on existing gun control. We don’t see guns as emblems of independence and resistance to authority. And yet, like Americans, we enjoy guns and gunplay in our entertainment, and we want it realistic. Hence, real guns are used in making that entertainment.

The investigation into what happened on the set of the movie Rust will eventually reveal a lot about how real firearms are handled or mishandled on TV and movie productions. Maybe some good will come of it. In the meantime, we should ask ourselves why we expect guns to be real when we’re watching fiction, and ask if we’re just hypocrites for wanting the guns to be real and the bullets to be blanks? How real do we need our gun-entertainment to be, exactly?

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