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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: If people kill people, where is the sense in selling them guns?

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The Firing-Line gun shop in Aurora, Colorado, sells AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, the model allegedly used by James Holmes in the cinema massacre. The massacre at a screening of the new Batman film could be interpreted as the inevitable convergence of two troubling strands in American life: Hollywood nihilism and gun culture.

The devil may or may not have the best tunes, but it's indisputable that the diabolical villain often gets the best lines in action blockbusters.

For the drama to work and create suspense and a sense of jeopardy, the superhero must have a worthy adversary: an evil mastermind whose malign creativity is matched by his appetite for destruction. While not the case in The Dark Knight Rises, these arch-villains tend to be more vibrant and even engaging than the earnest hero.

In the role of the Joker, both the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008) and Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989) stole the show. How many people remember that Michael Keaton donned the Bat-suit in the earlier version?

A striking example is the 1997 film Face/Off in which FBI agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) and terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage) swap identities. At any given time the actor who draws the eye and dominates the screen is the one playing the bad guy.

Troy, incidentally, speaks for many of Hollywood's wisecracking dealers in death when he asks Archer, "Why don't you come with us, try terrorism for hire? We'll blow some shit up - it's more fun".

In every film audience there'll be one or two people silently cheering for the villain. Most of us have done it at one time or another, even if it was just secretly hoping that Sylvester the cat would make a meal of the baby-talking bird Tweetie Pie.

But when the citizenry - the victims - are portrayed as weak herd animals and the evildoers are made compelling and perhaps humanised via a tragic back story, it's hardly surprising that socially inadequate fantasists identify with the latter.

Allied to that is the nonchalance with which both heroes and villains kill. While Batman shuns firearms, most saviours simply don't have time to pummel every scumbag they come across into submission.

In eight series of the TV programme 24, special agent Jack Bauer killed 268 people. We know this because there are websites where his kills are meticulously recorded.

Given that each series takes place in the space of a single day, it seems counter-terrorism hot-shots can expect to have to kill upwards of 30 people on their busy days.

The third component of Hollywood nihilism is the cynical portrayal of the political class and institutions of state.

Suspicion of central government has been a constant in American life since the formation of the republic.

Although the notion that government is the problem rather than the solution exists in most countries, particularly in business circles, in America it sometimes mutates into a conviction that government is the enemy within. Hollywood is only too happy to pander to this paranoia.

In 24, for example, the security apparatus charged with protecting America from terrorism is riddled with traitors.

Everyone in Washington, up to and sometimes including the President, is either betraying the country in return for a luxurious retirement or a deranged ideologue convinced that things must be allowed to get far, far worse before they can get better.

As always after these mass shootings, the debate over access to firearms reignites. Demands for tighter gun control laws, mainly from the left, run into implacable opposition, mainly from the right.

Doubtless someone, somewhere is recycling the line that guns don't kill people, people do. To take this idiotic mantra at face value: if there are and always will be killers among us, why enable them to kill more efficiently?

This week a Republican senator insisted that any attempt to ban magazines which hold 100 rounds would be a violation of the constitutional right to bear arms.

Thus a measure enacted in the era of the musket and the citizen-soldier now enables ordinary Joes to equip themselves with firepower similar to that used in a modern war zone. For what purpose?

There are influential voices arguing that the massacre would have been curtailed if not for the ban on guns in film theatres. "Had someone been prepared and armed," said a former Arizona state senator, "they could've stopped this bad man."

This assumes that when people used to shooting holes in cardboard cut-outs come under live fire, they will react like a SWAT team veteran.

Nevertheless, weapons sales in Colorado have gone through the roof since the shooting.

Gun store owners report that customers are saying they need guns because they go to the cinema.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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