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Feb 24 2013

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A BANG NOT A WHIMPER: What ‘The Walking Dead’ has to say about guns and the NRA mentality

The survivors of ‘The Walking Dead’ open fire on a group of zombies

Includes spoilers for ‘The Walking Dead’

At a gun violence prevention hearing on January 30th, 2012, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) cited a possible “lawless environment in this country” as an example of when a legally owned military-grade assault rifles, and other firearms, would come in handy.  ”I have an AR-15 at home,” Graham continued, “I would be better off protecting my family if there was law-and-order breakdown in my neighborhood.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about the phrase “lawless environment” during The Walking Dead, AMC’s hit zombie drama whose first two seasons I have been digging into with relish on Netflix. It’s a very good, immensely compelling show, set in the South after the undead rose up and brought down society, civilization, and everything we knew and took for granted. There are pockets here and there of survivors, clinging on. America has turned into a harsh, cruel, violent, empty landscape—it’s a good time to have an AR-15. 

Adam Lanza’s mother, a noted “prepper” described as living in fear of, and being ready for, the collapse of society everywhere, kept a small arsenal of weapons in their suburban home in Newton, Connecticut. Among them was the .223 caliber Bushmaster assault rifle, a popular—even more now—semi-automatic civilian variant of the AR-15 and the M4, the latter of which is widely used by American armed forces.

Nancy Lanza, and the thousands of others who stock up on guns in preparation for a “lawless environment,” would have been prepared for the zombie apocalypse. You could see the scenario occurring in, for example, a southern state, more conservative with a looser gun culture—families wakes up, finds the world gone to hell, and put their guns to use to defend the home, hearth, and themselves. They’ll keep the values of America alive as long as their rifles keep shooting and their hearts remain stout and brave.

We don’t see that in The Walking Dead. Yes, there are guns, and the hordes of the growling, moaning undead can count on having their brains splattered open. But as any regular viewer can attest to, this show is about the survivors struggling to keep the light of humanity flickering on amidst the crushing despair. It’s not as much as trying to stay alive as what does living to see another day of hell means, especially if along the way the simplest of human values have gone away.

Where do guns fit in that sobering picture of survival, where it’s not just all about the zombies? It’s not clear.  At one moment guns are the survivors’ best friend, the other minute guns are their worst enemy. It all depends on who is holding it and what state of mind that person is in.

One can argue it is much like today’s world, with responsible gun owners on one side and criminals using guns to rob, hurt, steal, and kill on the other. No matter that the undead have risen — in a perfect world all remaining humankind will bond together against a common enemy but I don’t need to tell you that that’s not going to happen.  Humans, impulsive and emotional creatures that we are, will always get the urge to kill one another, especially when everything—anger, love, pure will,  the availability of guns themselves—is amplified and intensified like it is in The Walking Dead.

Everything that has to do with guns, I feel, was carefully looked over and analyzed in this show, but not in a way that suggests the writers were timidly treading with kid gloves. (It it is worth noting that the two first seasons were shot in 2010 and 2011, before the gun control issue had its resurgence and re-captured the attention of the nation.)

Take, for example, the fact that the two lead male characters in The Walking Dead—Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane (Jon Bernthal)—are former police officers, small-town Sheriff’s Deputies. They are the only survivors in the group of a dozen or so that have gone through gun training and have admirable professionalism in handling firearms, which help when you are leading a group of panicked, terrified, trigger-happy survivors.

The way the group comes across the necessary guns and ammo is also fortuitous, since none of the survivors seem to have had a personal stash of weapons accumulated before the apocalypse; if they had an assault rifle in their closet, they neglected to bring them along. So thank god that Rick, upon leaving to Atlanta to find his family, thought of going to his abandoned police station armory and filling a now-somewhat famous duffel bag with shotguns, scoped rifles, handguns, and more than “seven hundred” rounds of ammunition.

Upon Rick finding his family, Shane, and the lucky few others, and after a major plot point which included going back to find the bag which had been lost in zombie-infested territory—guns are very important—the weapons are eventually distributed to the able shooters, though, wisely, more often than not.

Which brings me to another clever point installed by The Walking Dead‘s creators–the only way Rick and Shane can justify not automatically giving each and every survivor a loaded gun (a certain recipe for disaster) is if there were a downside to having a loaded gun to fight zombies with, which, it happens, there is. The undead are attracted by smell of humans and by noise, and so firearms of any sort, which are noisy by nature, are to be used only as the last resort. The answer? Baseball bats, fire axes, shovels, and other crude melee implements. Less accidental collateral damage overall.

Guns have been called “the great equalizer,” especially with women, and that was before—the need for a woman to be able to defend herself both against humans and zombies is quite formidable. So argues Andrea (Laurie Holden), upset at, well, being treated like a woman, tired of taking care of the laundry while the men guard the fairer sex and go on scavenging trips. After some concerns over her short-lived suicidal tendencies—she pulled the trigger on her own infected sister, and sank into a depression—Rick and Shane relent and teach her to shoot the pistol her father gave her. She’s a natural.

Andrea’s newfound empowerment is deeply embodied in, and represented by, her guns. She annoys many with her wannabe Annie Oakley routine, but she can defend herself and others with something other than a pitchfork if needed. Still, the irony is thick that early on,  more than a bit trigger-happy and eager to show off, she mistakes one of the returning survivors for a zombie and narrowly misses killing him with a faraway shot to the head.

Another point worth noting is the stance taken on guns with young children, especially with Rick’s son. He’s seen his shares of bloody horrors beyond that which any person, let alone a kid, should experience in his life, and he’s surrounded by guns and knows the responsibility that comes along with them. When he asks to be trained to shoot, however, it particularly shocks his mother—because it comes right after the 10-year old was accidentally shot and grievously wounded by an unsuspecting hunter in the woods. He barely pulled through the ensuing emergency surgery.

I feel like there’s a simple balance scale in The Walking Dead‘s writers room, and the people who write this superb show do their admirable best to keep it evenly balanced when it comes to guns.  Because no one can say whether guns are “good,” or “bad,” or even how you define “good” or “bad.” But guns aren’t always the solution, and that’s in The Walking Dead‘s world where violence is a required necessity to survive. What about the world we live in now?

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