16 October 2015

Brunch Review: Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Strikes Again."

In 1986 Frank Miller changed comic books forever. He (along with constant creative companions, Lynn Varely- she of the pretty colors and Klaus Janson- he of the perfectly weighted inked lines) wrote and penciled what certainly one of the most important comic books in the history of the medium. That story, contained in four mind blowing, super sized issues, was called Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It is safe to say, especially of the Batman universe, but also of comic books more generally, that everything was different after that. Everyone, including the popular press, saw that comic books offered a larger suite of story-telling possibilities than was generally assumed. It was all gloriously different.

It was Frank Miller who realized (along with a few others) that kids were probably the smallest portion of the comic book market, and that an author could tell really any story they wanted. With Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Miller didn't just throw down the gauntlet, he hurled it, like some angry god from on high. "Follow me," he seemed to say. And we readers and creators alike, continue to follow that Frank Miller, he of 1986, to this day. As Stephen King said at the time, "Probably the finest piece of comic art ever created."

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns: A necessary synopsis

Miller gave us a slightly dystopian future. Bruce Wayne is, let's say 60. He has hung up his kevlar weave, and abandoned the fake gin and tonic for the real thing. In fact, all the heroes seem to have faded into the stuff of legend. In Miller's future Gotham it is a world of soft people, parent groups and a deep antipathy toward greatness. Some of the thematic elements present in Miller's world view and will later blossom and turn the once great author, and artist into a depressingly crankish character, but here, the contempt for public apathy, and faux patriotism (it was the height of the cold war was it not) seems pitch perfect. Miller has a great, and justifiable contempt for post modernism, but he would later become something of a poster boy for its general contempt for beauty in art. I get ahead of myself. 

Miller's Bruce Wayne cannot dull his obsession, his need to personally right the wrongs of his city. Even at 60, his inner locutor, (the real person?) won't let the mask that is Bruce Wayne conceal him. Batman rages, and demands justice, and in the end cannot be kept in. The dark knight returns. In Miller's hands we see plausible sides of long beloved characters that are startling. Clark Kent is a bit prone to taking orders from paternalistic nationalistic authority figures (one in this case that looks suspiciously like one Ronald Reagan). His Kansas upbringing has left him a tad to trusting of authority. Oliver Queen (the Green Arrow) is a bit of a terrorist, and a Marxist. The youth of the future crave heroes, and one them, brave Carrie Kelley, becomes one. Many of the rest turn to crime and the security of gangs. Miller doesn't shrink from the implications of a teen side kick either. Batman always dealt with the most horrific of DC's villains, and throwing a child into that thresher isn't exactly a moral act. Miller lets us deal with that. It isn't comfortable. The other important contribution, almost prophetic on Miller's part, was his depiction of the popular press reaction to a world in which gods actually do walk among us. It is in his examination and exploration of the media in which his biting critique of the America of 1986 is sharpest and most accurate. His media is an example of the Crossfire trend. Talking heads arguing as if that was information. For me, his treatment of the media and popular press,  even more than his brilliant and novel interpretations of DC icons, is maybe the most important thematic element in the whole of The Dark Knight Returns. That should be enough to get us started, -Old Man Batman, Old Man Superman (both giant larger, than life), time as a finite and moving element and media critique. Go read it if you have not. 
look at the size of them!

The Review Strikes Back!
In 2001 Frank Miller returned to his future Batman with a dismal something called Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It picks up the story of Old Batman three years after the events of the The Dark Knight Returns. Between the two endeavors though lies about 15 years of changes in the author, and, depressingly, it shows. When I read it in 2001, I honestly couldn't get through the first issue. I considered the whole endeavor, just another excuse to kick over people's favorite apple carts, even his own master work. Almost every portion of the book was ugly. Not even the subtle color palette of Lynn Varley could save any image. Gone were Miller's larger than life motifs. All the heroes looked sickly, thin, with the exception of Carrie Kelley, no longer the girl just hitting puberty, here she is built like Miller's Sin City strippers, in Catwoman's body suit. Chew on the psychology of that for a moment and see if you can look at old man Batman as favorably as you might have in the previous installment. In 2001 one, I refrained from buying the book. I thought Miller was giving us all the finger, so I gave it back and I gave up on Frank Miller.
From The Dark Knight Strikes Back

A short necessary backstory

This year (if you are reading this in the far future, it is 2015 as I write this) it was announced that Frank Miller and a new creative team would be returning to that increasingly dystopian Gotham in a book called, Batman: The Master Race. I knew that I would not be able to resist reading the new book. The tragedy of Frank Miller has become a bit hard to avoid looking at. If nothing else, it will, I thought, provide some content for the always easy to write negative review. As such, I felt I must bear witness to the book I rejected fifteen years ago. Thus, with a heavy heart I ordered it. With a heavier heart I read it and bore witness to disaster. 

A few things happened. The first was that I had to eat a little crow. While the book is still an unmitigated disaster, I realized that I was wrong in 2001, Miller didn't phone in the book. I think it represented, and honestly, his approach to comic book story telling. 

His art is pared down, and his approach is to embrace ugliness, with the notable exception of a few of the book's key women. 
Wonder Woman

The daughter of Wonder Woman
and Superman, whose skirt is always threatening to reveal her lady parts.

For Miller composition, context and organization in his panels is, he suspects, unnecessary. Whie he doesn't exactly reject the agreed upon narrative convention of the American comic book (images flow from top to bottom, left to right generally, like reading an english sentence) he doesn't organize his panels in very coherent ways, and the book has a very jumbled, disorganized feel. It is more like the impression of a narrative than the actual thing. The action rarely makes sense, and Miller's Batman has morphed into a kind of joke- unintentionally I think- about Batman rather than the considered creation he gave us in his two great Batman stories.

The basic plot, though fairly boilerplate as comic book stories go, had strong potential. Lex Luthor and Brainiac, drawn as ugly as you could ever imagine, both zit faced, warty and obese, have captured and held hostage the Bottle City of Kandor- the last remnant of Krypton, a city in miniature complete with a living populace. It is this hostage that has bought Superman's obedience. They don't make him do anything against his nature, except maybe stay out their fiendish plans. But that causes a lot of damage too. For it means he cannot rescue the Flash, who powers the world on the cheap, chained to a tread mill. The Atom too is imprisoned, though why we don't learn until much later. 

That basic skeleton of a story could have been a fun exercise in exploring the sequel. There is laced throughout the piece an Alex Jones level of conspiracy and paranoia which doesn't really fit or make sense given what has happened in this world before. Lex and Brainiac, and their corporate backers reap the rewards of being the powers behind the scenes. They control the president (a computer generated image). Miller's media critique, once brilliant, misses the mark enormously, perhaps entirely. He seems to believe that American sensibilities are distracted by sex in the media. All his female correspondents are nude, spout propaganda, and demand that people look at them during commercial breaks in which they speak in innuendos. That isn't the case of course. Popular media is an extension of the talking heads shows Miller skewered in 1986. The format has expanded to include whole ideologically motivated stations that distort facts to suit specific political narratives. Miller, distracted by sex, and still somewhat focused on point vs point "debate" shows, seems oblivious to this trend in media. His future imagines a populace distracted by news run by porn sites I think. Other troubling trends, confined to the back ground in previous work, but impossible to miss in The Dark Knight Strikes Again, present themselves. 

The most troubling of these to me, is what appears to be Miller's general contempt for intellectuals, and deeper contemplations of the just city. Those who question the morality of Batman, or Superman,  are depicted as middle or upper class, often somewhat jewish or "gay looking" are, not infrequently, from San Fransisco, whereas the supporters of our protagonists are generally salt of the earth, working class. Miller's analysis is uneven at best, but generally he is just wrong, appearing as it does, to be little more than a view through crankish  lens of an old man who more often than not doesn't grasp a world that has moved on.  And everything is just so relentlessly ugly. The ugliness isn't an accident.  Miller's work has been evolving in this direction for decades. There are always some beautiful women, often naked or mostly so, but every one else in Miller's books has become uglier. I think it is just how he sees the world as an ugly place with weak people and one that needs fascists to protect it.

Miller peaked a long time ago. Lets hope for his latest return to his dark Gotham that he has found his way back, at least a little, from the paranoia and ugliness that has characterized his work for the last twenty years.

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23 September 2015

The Intervention of Jerry Coyne.

Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist, and sharp critic of religion, saved my workout.

I was running a bit behind last night at the gym, a slightly dilapidated YMCA, in northern Maine. It closed at 8 pm, and I managed to get on the stationary bike at 6:40. If I was diligent, I'd just barely finish my workout before they closed my shitty gym. My plan was twenty minutes of cardio on the bike that doesn't move forward by way of warm-up, followed by about an hour of chest and back super-setting. It would be tight, but if I could keep flat bench moving at a reasonable pace, I would get it done.

With only five minutes left on the bike, up to me sidled the Talker. God fucking damn it was the thought that immediately exploded in my mind. This fucking guy. I have seen him vaporize half hour chunks of people's work-out time before. I've watched as horror set in on his victims, who realized, with alarm and dread that they were, in fact, cooling down. True deer in headlights behavior. The Talker, I've observed, doesn't really give his victims a clear moment to break away and get back to their work outs. People start to walk away, and then he launches in with another salvo of fucking talk. They never keep walking, but turn back in defeat. They don't realize that walking away, sans intro, sans segue way, sans any preparatory dialogue whatsoever is the key to training a Talker, or breaking one of the desire to converse with or -and this is always the more terrible danger of a Talker- monversate to you. Simply turn your back on them while they are mid-sentence and go do your fucking set. If that offends them and they don't want to bore you with whatever dumb shit they just read in Flex magazine anymore then you win. If you get them to at least respect the proper cadence of gym conversation then you win (and maybe others do too). Talk for thirty seconds or a minute, go do your fucking set. Its not fucking rocket science, and it isn't conversation hour at the fucking coffee shop. Its gym time. GYM TIME DAMN IT!
Do. The. Fucking. Work.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, up to me walks The Talker.
"Anything good?" Asked the Talker.
I looked at the time. Fuck he has me for at least five minutes. 
"I'm sorry?" I asked.
"What are you reading, anything good." He asked, fleshing out his inquiry.
"Faith vs Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible."  I said.

It was kind of sad. His face transformed, going from really excited, to sad and confused. It wasn't instantaneous, there was a struggle as desire to talk fought with the turn of events. I was the only other person in the gym, the only potential victim of his chatty depredation, but here I had thrown him an unexpected and obviously unwelcome curve ball.

"Uh, do you think they are incompatible?" He asked, his voice betraying a lot less excitement than it had a moment earlier.


There was a bit of silence.

"I've known Christian scientists." He offered, but without much enthusiasm. "...I mean scientists who were Christian, not Christian Scientists."

"Yeah. So have I."  I said.

Apparently there was no where left to go for him but silence. Which was fine because I had work to do.

Who would have thought that Jerry Coyne, author of the offending book, could intervene and save a poor wretched atheist like me from the long form of the gym Talker problem? Not me. But, alas, here I am confronted with this minor miracle.

Clearly Professor Coyne moves in mysterious ways.

Thanks Jerry!

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13 September 2015

The Fantastic Four: A Brunch Review.

What it should have looked like.

Directed by Josh Trank
Starring: Who cares

Here watch the deceptive trailer:

Like most Marvel fans, I keep waiting for a good Fantastic Four movie. At this point, I'd settle for merely okay. The requirements to be good, or even great relative to other action films, are actually not many, nor are they out of reach of most competent directors.

1.     The adaptation! There must be a commitment to hew at least to the spirit of the characters and adapt them as faithfully is possible in film. Any added characters must serve the basic vision of the source material.

2.     There must be some plausible or at least interesting science in the film. Reed, Sue and Doom are some of the most brilliant people on the planet, and are always getting up to science-y hijinks. They can go cosmic, or sub-atomic.

3.     Compelling Action. Ben Grimm is easily one of the most capable Marvel heroes in a scrap. Dooms, Reed, Sue and Johnny aren’t slouches either, nor are their various enemies. Give them some interesting, intelligent action to engage in.

4.     And most importantly sound filmmaking. This is basic but….

Examining the Adaptation.
Going into Trank’s Fantastic Four the previews led me to believe the direction would be the more low key, pseudo-realism of Bryan Singer’s X-Men franchise, and less the comic book glory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe produced by Marvel/Disney. In that spirit I expected the character essences and traits and somewhat powered down versions of the characters. I love most of Singer’s X-Men movies so I would have been cool with such a direction in Fantastic Four. Was this Josh Trank’s template?

Alas, no.
Trank essentially dismisses almost every part of the 54 year history of the Fantastic Four, (involving comic book, prose novel, film and cartoon) with the exception of the powers of the four and the number 4 itself. Seriously, that is about all he chose to draw on. Well, that, and maybe some of the hot-headedness of Johnny Storm/the Human Torch, but even that misses the mark, and by a wide margin.

The Title that essentially birthed the Marvel Universe.

For the past 54 years of story, the Fantastic Four has had roster changes, and gone through many ups and downs, but it is essentially the story of a highly intelligent family that doesn’t always know how to interact with one another because of their diverse and not always complimentary personality traits. Their cutting edge work also puts them in danger. Reed Richards is clearly brilliant, but also on the Autism Spectrum, and often preoccupied. Sue, is his brilliant wife, the not always happy with Reed and his obssessions, but also an independent woman with her own interests. There is Johnny Storm, not a man rebelling against his own brilliance wanting get our from under the shadow of his father (the Josh Trank vision and a tired cliché). He is a gifted athlete, with something of an inferiority complex that causes him to show off, consistently trying to demonstrate his usefulness, importance and general coolness all of which are, he thinks, huge assets to the team. Ben Grimm, Reed’s best friend had a different experience of life than Reed, Sue or Johnny. As a kid he was street thug, gang member. Athletics took him out of that life and to college and then the military, becoming a skilled test pilot. Not nearly as brilliant as Reed or Sue, Ben is nevertheless a sharp guy. Anyway, the core of the FF, is the Richards family, Grimm included and the way the deal with Reed’s brilliance as it takes them all through the galaxy and often into adventure or trouble, which can amount to the same thing. Firing on all cylinders the FF should read like some mad combination of Star Trek, and Dr. Who.

Trank opted to make Victor Von Doom, the film’s main villain. And, like the previous two attempts to bring the FF to the big screen, he also managed to fail in adapting the character. Doom has no powers in the source material. He is simply brilliant and being a bit of a despot, in a rich and prosperous, natural resource rich country, has no trouble funding his pet projects. Trank, essentially recapitulates the origin story of the 2005 film, arguably another nod to the past 54 years of source material, but instead of taking all five leads into space and exposing them to cosmic rays, he takes them to another dimension (via a scenario that could only work in a comedy) and exposes them to, uh, well, who knows? More importantly who cares?

Anyway, Trank gave Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the fans the finger along the adaptation axis. His fantastic foursome is fresh out of high school. Doom is a 30 something obsessed with Sue (apparently has been for years—make of that what you will), and is some kind of wealthy guy. Whatever. Doom and Reed are brilliant sure, but catastrophically arrogant, and cavalier with the technology they have invented, and after one trial of their tech decide to take the whole team to a different dimension. They even take Ben, not part of the project at all in this film but a high school grad with no aspirations beyond his parents’ junkyard.
Fucking ridiculous. One wonders if the arrogance of its protagonists wasn't mirroring that of the director.

The Science-y bits. 

Crossing dimensions in any other film might be interesting. Not. Fucking. Here. Its one badly lit and deeply, perilously uninteresting set, mostly CGI over and over again.

This is sad too, because the idea was really rich with potential mystery and possibility. Where does their dimension-hopping machine take them? Why not discuss the very real Multiverse hypothesis, currently a hot topic in cosmology? Why is travelling to the parallel dimensions useful? What is the project? Have they really made a device that can travel to parallel dimensions or have they created something more surprising? Maybe the desolation they see isn’t some place else, but their very own Earth in the future? Whoa? Right? Rich possibilities. But nope, desolate rock world with green lava, with absolutely nothing inhabiting it. YET! Yet, Doom will be trapped there for a year -subsisting on what you ask? Who cares? Not Josh Trank- and late in the third act will return to our world, viewing earth and its people as a threat to his adopted world. Why would he think this? It doesn’t matter, and in any event Doom never really articulates a sound rationale for deciding to annihilate Earth, which is very, very un-canon Doom behavior. Doom wants to rule earth, because he thinks he can do it better than anyone else. I mean the trains do run on time in Latveria after all. All we know is Doom is very worried about his barren, green lava infused world.

Is there any exploration of the FF’s powers? Any fun attempts to explain what has happened to our heroes. Nah. Move along. There are just more Trank middle fingers here.

Compelling Action…
Obviously no. Play fighting super-heroes with my three-year-old son is vastly more compelling than anything Trank offers us in Fantastic Four. Well, there is one notable exception. There is an awesome sequence in which Doom walks through the halls of a military base, popping peoples heads like balloons filled red syrup with his telekinetic powers (which he has never ever had in the comic book) that is totally badass and would have been a very compelling scene in almost any other movie. In this movie though the scene just makes you wonder why he doesn’t pop the heads of the Fantastic Four when they have their final dust up. Instead he exchanges punches and kicks with them until they beat him, after the startling realization that Doom, “is stronger than each one of us individually, but together…”
Why does Doom want to live in green lava world again….?

My goodness this movie sucks.

But Max, what about the filmmaking itself?

Maybe, just maybe, when the adaption goes to shit it is possible, you might suggest, that viewed as a just a low-key super hero movie it could work. Pretend not to be a fan Max. Pretend you don’t know anything about the Sue, Reed, Johnny, Ben or Doctor Doom, as a film, is it okay?

No. As a film it functions not at all. It is, in point of very serious fact, absolutely terrible as a standard action fiction film. Most of the films of Jean Claude Van Damme are more finely crafted than Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four. The infamous Roger Corman version is vastly more worthy of fan love than this film, and that movie probably had a tenth the budget of this one if not less. It did have a script written by someone who had at least read a ten issue run of FF though.

There is a romantic dialogue between Reed and Sue seems as if George Lucas wrote it after he had watched season one of Bones. Why is it, Constant Reader, that when a screenwriter is developing a brilliant woman, they try to turn them into Spock. Love is alien to them and they delight in describing the evolutionary biology and chemistry of the emotions –which, I admit could be interesting- but seem to be committed to more shallow couplings. This pops up so often now as to have become a trope. It pops up in the aforementioned Bones, it was in the equally bad, G.I. Joe where Scarlet is brilliant, cold and only interested in sex as a mode of entertainment. We see the trope at work in all the flashy crime shows too, notably NCIS, but also a bit in CSI (pick the city). It fucking abounds.

My problem isn’t with the idea that a brilliant female scientist would excise emotions and be interested only in the sex as a thing to do for one’s own gratification. My problem is with the laziness of screenwriters and the inaccuracy of the trope. I actually do know a lot of female scientists, some really brilliant, and they behave a lot more like humans than the nerdy sex bots that seem to fever the imaginations of bad science fiction writers.

Anyway, this trope is out in full force in the character of Sue Storm. It goes without saying that it isn’t even done very well in this film, which gives us one scene of “flirtation” between Reed and Sue. They have one scene of terrible dialogue, so bad in fact I actually tuned it out, which is supposed to demonstrate their extreme chemistry and hint at their romantic destiny. It fails. Sue seems to be channeling Ally Sheedy’s shy awkward heroine from The Breakfast Club. And Reed can barely bring himself to look interested. These are two actors reciting lines hoping a single film can’t sink careers.
And cue the librarian with the clichéd “Shhhhh.”

In addition to terrible dialogue writing, the script betrays the confusion of its writers in that it can’t figure out what its through-lines are. The writer(s) have given us a script that indicates they had absolutely no idea what to do with these characters. It has no sense of place, the script doesn’t understand young people, it doesn’t understand adults.

At least a year of time passes from the moment the characters get their powers and the film’s denouement and the script engages with the character arcs of the protagonists in no meaningful way whatsoever. Ben Grimm, the enormously powerful Thing, has become a hammer used by the US military to solve tough issues of “diplomacy.” Could be interesting, but we see this only in the form of newscasts and shaky cam footage. There is no reflection, no exploration. Reed escapes from the lab and spends the year working on a way to help fix his “friends.” That is to say, he spent a year of story time on the run from several government agencies. Potentially interesting, correct? Well, not to whoever wrote this movie. Sue is in a coma for much of the film and exists sort of to recap a few plot elements with Johnny who gets about as much character development as Ben. Dr. Doom as I mentioned is just gone, assumed dead by the characters, if by no one else watching.

They are supposed to be a bit of a team, and friends. None of that gets developed.

Obviously there is a government bureaucrat so venal, greedy and self-absorbed in the film. And in a good, if forumlaic film, would use McGreedy to seriously upset the goals of a film’s protagonists. In this instantiation of the Fantastic Four he exists to eat up screen time, and to get his comeuppance in a grisly way.

I could continue to list things that are wrong with the film but there would be no point. Go see it if you feel like you must bear witness to a train wreck. But it won’t be fun.
My advice would be to see nearly anything else. Seriously a Fantastic Four porn parody, which I am sure has to exist, would be a marked improvement.
That can't be unseen.

-10/10 stars.

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09 September 2015

The Oft Repeated American Tragedy

NOTE: I'm sharing this on social media on 13 September 2015. There is, being reported by the news as I type, an active shooter event occurring on the campus of MIT. That is less than a month since the shocking North Carolina shootings that inspired the blog in the first place. No doubt there have been more such active shooter events between then and today. NOTE to my NOTE: MIT has since called off the active shooter warning and reported that a single person was shot.

One of the hallmarks of dramatic tragedy is that we all see it coming. We’d love to pull Hamlet aside and warn him that his course can’t end well. “Othello,” I wanted to say, “Just go talk to Desdemona, ask her what is going on.” We can’t intervene in these tales. We aren’t the gods of The Iliad, or The Odyssey. All we can do is watch as the characters careen toward their fates. The principals in these stories, that is to say our protaganists, and antagonists don’t always see their doom bearing down on them like a runaway train. Or, if they do, they see the train too late to do much about it.  Sometimes, of course, the various heroes and villians do see the preventable tragedy ahead, but accept that it is as inevitable as the sunrise. Achilles understands fully that the war with Troy is unjust, that Agemmemnon has a certain economic interest in war with Troy that far outweighs any worries he may have about Meneleus’ lost honor. Knowing doesn’t necessarily lead to actions consistent with that knowledge. The question before us in the US is will we continue to be like Achilles, and Hector and countless other protagonists down through the ages, and merely accept as inevitable the thoroughly evitable.

On the 26th of August, in the year 2015, a fresh mass shooting in the news nearly before sun had even risen, it is hard to tell what we, the protaganists in this American tragedy, see or don’t see.  Obviously we won't all see the same writing on the wall. It is likely the case that we as Americans are not even looking at the same wall. The media dialogue to follow, social and traditional, will be predictable and nearly rote as news organizations tackle the twin murders of two Virginia reporters. Social media will be abuzz with links and memes. The murders were partially captured on live TV. This will add a lot of zip to the next news cycle. Talking heads will talk in platitudes. Wayne La Pierre or one of his indistinguishable ideological clones will be trotted out to remind viewers that “…the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Whole news stations will take sides in what has sadly become an ideological battle over guns in our society. FoxNews and other news organizations will lever the fiction that advocates for greater and stricter gun control legislation are actually trying to see to it that the government will be taking all the guns. MSNBC will have plenty of commentators and journalists arguing that it is time for increased gun control legislation.  The Daily Kos will say a suite of predictable things about this latest set of very public murders. They won’t be alone among liberal news sources.

In such an intellectually polarized environment, entrenchment seems to be the most common and least helpful strategy. Broadly adopted, it can make people sitting on the fence think there are no real solutions, or imagine there is a dialectical solution that neatly finds the middle ground between two opposite sides. Perhaps that is the case with gun policy. If that is the case, so far the evidence doesn’t support such a scenario. There actually aren’t two sides, equally valid in the discussion, at least currently, the evidence simply doesn’t admit of this possibility. Our current gun laws are inadequate and they need to be strengthened. In the United States, in 2013, there were a total of 33,169 firearms related deaths. Among economically advanced, industrialized democracies that number stands out. In Japan (averaging several years worth of data), the average number of firearms related deaths is about 76 (not many of these will be homicide). Compare the US with any other financially stable, wealthy democracy and the pattern repeats. The US stands out. But more about that below.

If you are an honest fence sitter, with data, and argument, I hope I can convince you of at least a few things. To the ideologically entrenched, I hope at least you will come along for the ride. I would urge you to put aside the ideological lenses for a bit. Forget about what you think the second amendment says. Lets examine the data, and see what it tells us about risk, guns and safety.

Do more guns really make safer spaces?

To begin simply, based on empirical data, raw and barely analyzed, we can see that the hypothesis and would-be axiom, “more guns make us safer,” has been roundly falsified. We cannot, in an intellectually honest way, reject the null hypothesis which is, specifically, “More guns make us unsafe.”

The United States has more privately held guns per capita than any other country in the world.1 That is not to we just have more than any Western industrialized democracy, but more than any country in the world. But comparing our safety with other wealthy, western democracies will be more useful than with countries characterized by dictatorships, or civil war, or that find themselves stricken by other forms of strife and unrest.

As the United States has the most guns per capita than other country in the world, it seems that it should be one of the safest places in the world. The relationship, number of guns vs. safety (number of people killed by firearms) is exactly the opposite of what the hypothesis that “more guns= increased safety” would predict.2 The United States has the most firearms related deaths, while Japan, which has the fewest guns per capita also had the fewest firearms related deaths.3 In 2013, Sripal Bangalore and Franz H. Messerli looked at two possible predictors of firearms death, across 27 developed countries, mental health and number of firearms per 100,000 people. Mental illness was only a very weak predictor of gun violence. However, simple number of guns owned was reliably predictable. If a country had more guns it was statistically less safe than a country with fewer.4

From their conclusion:

The number of guns per capita per country was a strong and independent predictor of firearm-related death in a given country, whereas the predictive power of the mental illness burden was of borderline significance in a multivariable model. Regardless of exact cause and effect, however, the current study debunks the widely quoted hypothesis that guns make a nation safer.”5

That seems fairly definitive. But some may argue that more guns also have some effect on crime rate. If there is a correlation, it eluded Bangalore and Messerli. They found that the number of guns wasn’t a good overall predictor of crime rate.6

There are obviously some cultural things going on here as the relationship isn’t clean, but it is consistent. More firearms=more firearms related deaths. Gun ownership wasn't a good predictor of crime rates in their study. It should be if what many gun advocates say is true. More guns should be associated with decreased levels of crime. 

The numbers below are sobering:

TableGun Ownership, Mental Illness Burden, and Firearm-related Deaths and Crime Rate
CountryGuns per 100Total Firearm-related Deaths per 100,000Crime Rates per 100,000Mental Illness per 100,000
New Zealand22.62.6610,344.73851.07
South Africa12.79.415674.10725.77
United States88.810.23811.871454.74
United Kingdom6.20.258972.35960.62
Average civilian firearms per 100 people; data from The Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City.3
Firearm-related deaths per 100,000 population; data from a European detailed mortality database based on International Classification of Diseases codes (ICD-10): W32-W34,X72-X74,X93-X95,Y22-Y24 and others.4
Crime rate data were obtained from the United Nations Surveys of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems.7
§Mental illness defined as age-standardized http://data.euro.who.int/dmdb/ rates due to major depressive disorder per 100,000 inhabitants with data obtained from the World Health Organization.8
From Bangalore and Messerli 2013

Good guys with Guns.
Lets begin with what I will hereafter refer to as the LaPierre Hypothesis.

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun."
-Wayne Lapierre, NRA Executive Vice President

This is a popular mantra among gun advocates. An armed citizen is a benefit to a society. Good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns. The idea possess a certain plausibility. It certainly appeals to our human psychology, primed as it is to esteem honor, courage, physical strength and even fighting prowess. It is no accident that stories about men and women of action have almost always dominated the landscape of popular fiction. But there are unavoidable problems with the idea, and they begin right away.

To begin with, the idea is simply untrue. For a recent falisification of the LaPierre Hypothesis, we need look no further than three, unarmed, US serviceman, and a bystander on a French train who, unarmed, took down a would be mass murder armed to the teeth. 
Unquestionably Good Guys

They used Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and courage to swarm, disarm and put the terrorist to sleep. Their story isn’t uncommon. According to the FBI, about 13% of mass/active shootings are stopped because of intervention by unarmed civilians. The rest of these are stopped because the shooter took their own life, ran out of ammo, or otherwise fled the scene (56%). In 26% of active shooter incidences, a traditional stand off with police ensued and left the shooter dead or wounded. Only 3% of mass shooter incidences were stopped by armed citizens, who also happened to be security personnel on duty, or otherwise highly trained.5 Instances in which average citizens with above or below average training have not achieved stellar results.

Another problem we must have with the idea is with its embedded notion of good. For instance, is a good guy with a gun always going to be a good guy with a gun. The human capacity to be carried away by emotion and thus across normal bounds of typical behavior is great. Many people, no doubt, consider George Zimmerman to have been a good guy with a gun when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. I will not, herein, essay any case one way or the other for or against the criminality of his actions on that shooting. I will however look at how good can change in a single person.

Zimmerman owned his guns legally. He participated in neighborhood watches, and by many accounts tried to be a good and faithful member of his community. However, he has twice been arrested on domestic violence charges, and in at least one instance brandished a loaded weapon at his significant other. Two different women romantically involved with Zimmerman have frantically called 911, with similar stories, of violent outbursts and the threatening presence of a firearm.
From the AP accounts:
He was arrested on charges of aggravated assault, battery and criminal mischief after his then-girlfriend said he pointed a gun at her face during an argument, smashed her coffee table and pushed her out of the house they shared. Samantha Scheibe decided not to cooperate with detectives and prosecutors didn’t pursue the case.”

Associated Press description of the second incident: 

“Zimmerman was accused by his estranged wife of smashing an iPad during an argument at the home they had shared. Shellie Zimmerman initially told a dispatcher her husband had a gun, though she later said he was unarmed. No charges were ever filed because of a lack of evidence. The dispute occurred days after Shellie Zimmerman filed divorce papers."

Was he still a good guy in those moments? It seems unlikely that anyone would make that case. Doesn’t that reveal a deep problem with the notion of the good guy with a gun? Human beings aren’t always good, or bad as another example will show.

Here is an example from my hometown. It is a sad story about a guy I know, and once considered a friend, indeed I considered him enough of a friend to maintain a Facebook friendship with him right up until...well, I'm getting ahead of myself. 

On Monday May 18th, Danny Watson went to talk to his future ex-wife. They were scheduled for a divorce hearing the next day. There was no history of domestic violence, no calls, and by all accounts Danny adored his wife, and mother of their several children. During their discussion, one that grew heated, he pulled out his gun and shot her. When the police arrived on the scene, his wife was on the ground and he was holding his gun to his head. The police managed to talk him into putting his gun down before he could complete this sad, American tradition.. They arrested him on felony attempted murder charges.6 His wife survived. And, lucky for Danny, didn’t want to press charges. “He didn’t mean to shoot me.”7 Danny had himself told police he had intended to harm himself with the gun and not his wife. Leaving the aside the implausibility of both the wife and husband’s account of the incident, perhaps pausing to note that the incident hews a bit too closely to the spouse murder-suicide scenario, whatever are we to do with the notion of the good guy?

Its painful to write about Danny in this article. I like Danny. I’ve always thought he was far too cavalier with his firearms (he once almost shot a friend of ours while showing off his latest rifle). For all that though, I always thought he was generous, friendly and kind. His example though indicates that our notion of good must be carefully considered. It just isn’t a constant character trait. It may be fairly constant, but when guns are present even short deviations from the good are apt to lead to massive tragedy. It is also true that people aren’t universally good. Maybe a gun owner wouldn’t shoot anyone over a verbal slight, or being cut off in traffic, but might shoot a lover in a jealous rage, or someone who kicked their dog, or, well, you get the idea.

I personally know at least four people, generally good who have owned guns legally in this country, and at least once behaved in ways we can only describe as un-good. I won’t bother describing the ways they were momentarily un-good. Anecdotes aren’t that useful, but I do hope that that the anecdotes can at least shake some of the confidence in the idea of the good guy. For the LaPierre Hypothesis to hold, it seems that good must be a stable and constant psychological property, and must pervade every aspect of an individual. Anyone who has seen a particularly conservative, soft spoken grandma, give someone the finger while in a minor fit of road rage can see problems with this idea. 
from Richmond Palladium Item

Are you safer with a firearm?

Unless you are defending property, the answer appears to be no.

From a perspective of self-defense alone a person carrying a firearm is actually about 4.2 times more likely to be killed during an attack than a person who is unarmed.8 There are many factors that lead to this number, but the fact remains carrying a gun is awfully good predictor of whether or not you are likely to be killed by one. Counter intuitively, Charles Branas, professor of epidemiology at the Perlman School of Medicine, found that where victims had more time to engage with an attacker, time to defend themselves, they were even more likely to end up dead.9

The same work by Branas et al found that other forms of self defense, hand to hand, mace etc were not associated with increased risk of death, and that mace, and other interventions were equally effective as guns at deterring property crime.10

This should be troubling for people who purchase guns a primary self defense strategy. It gets a little worse. Guns in the home are a big risk factor for female spouses and children.

Research David Hemenway (2011) analyzed and summarized a vast literature on firearms in the medical literature and came away with the following conclusion (from his abstract):

For most contemporary Americans, scientific studies indicate that the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit. The evidence is overwhelming for the fact that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns. There is compelling evidence that a gun in the home is a risk factor for intimidation and for killing women in their homes. On the benefit side, there are fewer studies, and there is no credible evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in. Thus, groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics urge parents not to have guns in the home.”11

If you read this literature for very long, you will see his findings repeat, over and over again.


Maybe we need guns. I don't know. Maybe we require the unfettered access to them that we currently have. I don't know. I do know that we shouldn't kid ourselves about the risks of having firearms. Nor should we delude ourselves with the fiction that guns make for safer spaces. They simply don't. Guns manufacture risk.

Some principles require sacrifices. Perhaps the right to keep and bear arms is a right principle that requires that we sacrifice 30,000+ lives a year on the altar of gun rights. Make no mistake, we are trading 30,000+ lives a year for unfettered access to guns. Some people think there is a good reason for this sacrifice. I don't think their reasons are well supported by the evidence. More and more it looks to me as if the main reason we hold this annual sacrifice is in the maintenance of the hero fantasy too many gun owners have. 

Somehow I doubt that the framers of our Second Amendment envisioned the amount of gun violence we see in this day and age. Its also unclear to me if the Second Amendment even has a clear context anymore given that we no longer use militias to defend the country, but have adopted a standing, if volunteer, military force. So the old rationale for guns, as a means to oppose government tyranny is over. 

Perhaps in a future post I will essay what I think might be useful policy ideas. In this post my main goal has been simply to shake any readers from the notion that guns make people, and places safe. They don't seem to. 

References to footnotes

1,2,3,4…..Bangalore, S. and Messerli, F.H. 2013. Gun Ownership and Firearm-related Deaths. The American Journal of Medicine. 126:10:873-876.




8,9, 10, 11…https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17922-carrying-a-gun-increases-risk-of-getting-shot-and-killed


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