In the last couple years I've found myself working as an actress in two mediums – film and television -- and sending two very different messages about violence. I play the victim of a mugging in a new independent feature called "Loves Her Gun" (currently out in select theaters), a sober exploration of violence and self-defense that takes place in a decidedly real, recognizable world. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I play a cop on the Cinemax series "Banshee," a drama in the pulpy tradition of compromised heroes, sadistic villains and bloody confrontations.
Different as the film and series are, my roles in them share a common denominator: playing with guns. I had to learn how to use these weapons, and have trained with a variety of different firearms experts, armorers, ex-Marines, cops, and stuntmen. Over the course of this training, my opinions about guns and gun control have swayed back and forth; and then back again. I've learned that guns are exceptionally challenging to use effectively, with a power that must be respected. But mostly what I've learned is that they're a lot of fun, and dangerously appealing to an active imagination.
We all know that human beings are fascinated by violence. As an actor, some of the most fun days I’ve had on-set have involved shooting blanks all day – or better yet, on a micro-budget indie shoot in Texas, shooting live ammo. I feel guilty admitting this, but make-believe beating a man half to death for nine hours can also be strangely satisfying and, dare I say, good fun. One experiences a sense of physical release and well-being similar to the after-effects of exercise, therapy, or even cocaine: anxieties shed and confidence gained.
In fact, many studies show that first person shooter video games flood the brain with dopamine – the neurotransmitter that is basically the building block of addiction. If cocaine were legal and as easily obtainable as guns, you better believe a lot of us would be perusing the different kinds on the shelves at Wal-Mart. I suppose I could just be a crazy actress, and genetically endowed with more madness than the average person, but I don't entirely buy that. After all, some of the first imaginative games we play as children mimic violence and could be seen as somewhat sick, even sociopathic: cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, G.I. Joes, and so on. I don't know the reason for this innate curiosity with violence, but playing imaginary war games for a living has allowed me to act out my subconscious violent fantasies in a somewhat acceptable way.
While actors play with guns for make-believe, the guns themselves are by no means make-believe; they're real. Even when the actor is using blanks, there are all kinds of safety protocols to follow when shooting one at someone. Pulling the trigger is the easy part. Everything leading up to that simple act is an advanced technical challenge, requiring many, many hours of training and practice – and then it’s still a challenge. Guns are heavy metal machines and, at least in my case, it’s surprising how many hours it takes before it looks like you know what you're doing. Releasing and re-loading magazines is difficult when you’re asked to do it quickly and efficiently.
Gun experts spend hundreds of hours working on their reloads, trigger control, pistol grip, draw techniques, and recoil control. The list of skills required goes on and on -- and that’s the easy part of the training. The other, crucial element of firearms training involves accurately assessing a threat and deciding in an instant to shoot or not shoot. That’s assuming the gun is on your person or available when a threat is imminent. Obviously, a person can't go through everyday life with pistol loaded, drawn and ready for action at all times. To me, this is where selling guns as a viable means of self-preservation is tricky. I'm not good at math, but if there are only 100 ways to die in this life, a gun may save your life in perhaps one percent of those scenarios. And that’s if you're lucky, or an expert.
That’s not an argument you’re likely to hear from gun manufacturing companies and special interest groups such as the NRA. Together, they have convinced people that guns are, in industry parlance, the "ultimate force equalizer" and will save the owner’s life. It’s a hugely effective marketing strategy that preys on our most familiar and unpleasant human emotion: fear. Why are we more fearful of being attacked or robbed than dying from heart disease, which is America's number one cause of death? We’d do far more to preserve our lives and those of our families if we ate more vegetables and started an exercise routine. And personally, I would choose being robbed over killing the person robbing me. Certainly, the thief could be armed with intent to kill; if not, though, isn't killing someone worse than robbing someone? But for many, firearms beliefs can be as deeply felt as religious beliefs. They're a part of an ethos and fit into a larger narrative of their life story.
So in what event are guns actually a viable means of self-preservation or "ultimate force equalizers?" I come back to this: firearms are the more appealing and imaginative means of survival. A lot more fun than exercise and eating healthy. Of course there are instances in which guns have been successfully used for self-defense. But gun proficiency takes time, and being able to prevent one’s death in a moment would depend greatly on skill and mostly on circumstance. Yet there’s adventure in the thought that we could have this kind of power over our lives and take heroic action. Even the most cynical of us somewhere inside imagines being a superhero. Like children, we still want to play cowboys and Indians and cops and robbers and be Al Pacino in "Heat." And unless you are one of the bad guys, you probably have a deep need to fight the bad guys.