Ron Helus, a sergeant in the Ventura County (Calif.) Sheriff’s Office, was fatally shot during a mass shooting on Wednesday. Police officers Daniel Mead, Michael Smidga, Anthony Burke and Timothy Matson were wounded by gunfire at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27. Charleston Hartfield, an off-duty police officer and an Army veteran, was murdered in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, 2017, while trying to protect music-festival attendees from Stephen Paddock’s rampage. Officer Nicholas Koahou was wounded by gunfire during the Dec. 2, 2015, terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif.
This is the tally of “good guys,” some of them carrying guns, who were killed and wounded in the deadliest mass shootings to take place in the past three years. Politicians love to invoke the “good guy with a gun” who is supposed to be the super-heroic solution to mass shootings. Just last month, President Trump declared that “if there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop” the synagogue shooting. The trope is a politically convenient alternative to gun control, obscuring the very real risks that armed criminals pose to the people who are already supposed to be our good guys with guns: law enforcement officers.
Elected officials should be ashamed of hiding their inaction behind this vapid slogan. The industry that’s profited off this image for decades should feel ashamed, too. The entertainment industry has played an enormous role in promoting the idea of the invulnerable action-hero cop, to the detriment of civilians and police officers.
In 2015 and 2016, when I set out to explore how Hollywood had portrayed policing over the last 100 years, one of the first things I noticed was stark changes in the way the entertainment industry handled stories in which the police used their guns.
Initially, shows such as “Dragnet” and “Naked City” portrayed such incidents as rare and deeply regrettable. Fictional cops such as Joe Friday (Jack Webb) and Jimmy Halloran (James Franciscus) were profoundly grieved when they shot and killed criminals. While these shows inevitably vindicated the officers’ decision-making, they still suggested that the circumstances in which such shootings happened represented an unusual and serious breakdown of the normal order. Cops weren’t supposed to face deadly violence on a regular basis, and neither were they expected to routinely charge into life-or-death situations, guns blazing.
These assumptions did not last, worn down by the crime wave that began in the 1960s, and later, when the crime rate declined, the demands of Hollywood’s relentless appetite for blockbusters.
In movies such as “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard,” cops such as Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and John McClane (Bruce Willis) were pitted against increasingly violent antagonists. Facing off against hyper-violent drug dealers or brilliant and murderous thieves, these fictional cops could dispense with the hand-wringing about whether it was wrong to kill their antagonists. And the iron law of franchise-making meant that, while these cops might get bloodied and smoke-stained, or even pick glass out of their bare feet, they would never be in mortal peril. If our heroes were to be killed or disabled in the line of duty, what would become of Hollywood’s precious sequels?
In the real world, there are no action coordinators designing mass shootings to ensure that only dispensable extras are killed and that bullets always whiz past our heroes. Shootouts between suspects and the police may be entertaining on screen; they are shattering in real life.
Becoming a cop gets you a badge, a gun and training in how to use it, but it does not guarantee that you will be the superior marksman in an armed confrontation, or have superior firepower at your disposal. (The same risks apply to civilian who imagine that they might step up and become heroic good guys with guns if given the chance.) Police departments know this. The International Association of Chiefs of Police earlier this year backed efforts to ban bump stocks and other accessories that can be used to turn semiautomatic weapons into automatic ones on the grounds that “addressing the threat posed by these devices will assist in our efforts to make communities safer and protect the lives of both citizens and law enforcement officers.”
This fantasy of the police officer — or any armed civilian — as an unkillable one-man army is a fairy story that asks individual cops to shoulder increasingly deadly risks on our behalf and without the protection of collective efforts to keep us all safer. Promoting the “good guy with a gun” as a solution to our mass shooting nightmare will not give us fewer or less deadly mass shootings, but it may well produce more martyred cops, sacrificed on the altar of our political stalemate. Politicians should stop telling this lie. Hollywood should reconsider making a profit off it.