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Why Do Movies Get So Much Wrong About Guns?

By: Peter Suciu

Movies are not reality. Movies are not history. Movies are meant to entertain, and with that comes the need to have the “suspension of disbelief.” In other words, we have to accept that exposure to radioactivity can result in super powers; that the good guy will almost always save the day; that the innocent will be found not guilty in the court of law; and that guys who look like Will Ferrell can be with women totally out their league!

All of the above are what make movies entertaining – but for firearms enthusiasts, nothing shatters that suspension of disbelief like the way guns are handled in so many movies!

Automatic Weapons
What is an action film without a machine gun or two? Probably not really much of an action film, but the problem here is that automatic weapons make sense when it comes to war movies and some crime thrillers. Hollywood, however, has essentially created the false impression that automatic weapons – including machine guns – are commonplace.

This myth is notable in the recent Bruce Willis film Death Wish, a remake of the 1974 film based on the novel of the same name. While the movie should earn kudos for showing that Dr. Paul Kersey (Willis) doesn’t know much about guns and used YouTube to learn the basics, he makes plenty of mistakes along the way, yet somehow is able to outgun career criminals. The bigger issue (spoiler alert) is that by the end, Willis isn’t really playing Kersey as much as he’s back in John McClane mode (his character in the Die Hard series), and armed with an automatic M4 style weapon.

Now this is an issue as the film is set in Chicago, and it implies that Kersey went to a gun shop – a licensed gun shop that advertises on TV and online no less – to buy the firearm. The use of the weapon in the film’s climax was rather unnecessary for the story and completely makes no sense given the buildup.

Yet, automatic weapons that can just be picked up anywhere are all too common in films. This is true of gangster films going back to before World War II. It is true that until 1934, anyone with $200 – a lot of money for the time – could buy a Thompson submachine gun. Few actual gangsters purchased these guns, however, and apart from the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, gang members didn’t routinely use automatic weapons. Movies have painted another story, and over the years, it has become impossible to show criminals without automatic weapons.

Modifying Firearms
Regarding my first point about buying automatic guns – the argument could be made that perhaps guns like Kersey’s M4 were semi-automatic and then modified to make them function as automatic weapons.

This is the argument that film buffs have used to explain how Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 character in The Terminator was able to buy an Uzi from a pawn shop, and yet it was fully automatic a few scenes later (just one practical problem with that particular firearm in the film). The Uzi, as marketed to civilians, even in the 1980s, was the semi-automatic Uzi Carbine, which, due to federal laws on short-barreled rifles (those with a barrel that was less than 16 inches), had an extended barrel that was much longer than the military version. The Uzi the T-800 purchased had no extended barrel and was a fully automatic version.

We could accept that an advanced war machine like the T-800 could modify the firearm, and for good measure, the film does show the hero Kyle Reese cutting down a shotgun so it will be more easily concealable. However, without particular parts and machining, it is nearly impossible to modify a semi-automatic Uzi into a full-auto version. We didn’t see the T-800 doing any such work.

Guns That Don’t Exist
The Glock 7 is an infamous porcelain gun made in Germany. It doesn’t show up on airport X-ray machines, and it costs more than what an airport chief of security makes in a month. Such is more or less the assessment the aforementioned John McClane gives of the 9mm pistol that was carried by the bad guys in Die Hard 2.

Nothing is accurate about what McClane said, though. First, there is no Glock 7. Real Glock 17 models were used. Moreover, Glocks are made in Austria; they aren’t made of porcelain (a material not ideal for firearms), and nearly 84 percent of the handgun’s weight is in its steel, and the “plastic” parts are actually “Polymer 2,” which would most certainly show up on airport scanners. Not to mention the fact that even if the guns were porcelain, the ammunition would definitely set off an X-ray machine! As for the cost – a basic Glock at the time was only around $400-$600, and we hope the head of security at a Washington, D.C. airport would have been paid more than that each month!

Armorer Mike Papac, whose company, Cinema Weaponry, supplied the firearms for the film, tried to talk the director out of the including McClane’s comments in the movie. But the fact is that the bad guys needed to get the guns past security, and for the movie, McClane’s fiction sounded really good. The sad part is that for years, many in the media accepted what the character said as the absolute truth about Glocks!

Silent and Deadly
Movies typically portray silencers as being able to make any firearm have a report that is little more than a “pop.” This representation is common in spy movies, which have popularized the term “silencer.” The truth is that silencers don’t really exist, and in real life we have what are normally known as “suppressors,” which is meant to muffle the sound of a gunshot and reduce the decibels.

Suppressors don’t make the sound of gunfire silent – or nearly silent, as movies suggest – but generally bring down the volume of a gunshot to between 130 and 145 dB, still above the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s 140 db “safety cutoff” for impulsive noise!

Interestingly, the 2010 film The American with George Clooney has his character building a suppressor for an assassin. While he is asked to create a silencer, he responds that he can only build a suppressor – even though, among firearms experts, the former term “silencer” is slang for the latter. That nitpick aside, the film does show that suppressors are complex pieces of hardware that don’t actually “silence” the weapon as much as reduce its report. A rarity for films indeed!

Lack of Understanding the Laws of Physics
For each action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Movie directors must understand Newton’s Third Law of Physics, because movies show that a gunshot can send someone flying backward. Realistic physics would suggest that if a bullet can throw a person, it would also throw the shooter.

This misperception is common in action films such as Shoot Em Up, Sin City, and Robocop, but also shows up in more “realistic” films like Open Range, where shotguns practically launch a few bad guys off the ground. It seems even movies that go for accuracy still fall prey to Hollywood hype!

I do my best to suspend my disbelief and enjoy these movies, but I hope other viewers don’t take these films and their false representations about firearms to heart.

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at petersuciu@gmail.com.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.