In an era when the lines seem starker between black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, and even strong and weak, I have a guilty pleasure. I have a reliable go-to that seems especially fitting, specifically in regards to where we stand today in Texas. Our home on the range is now a gun range.
Sure, we watch coverage of or read the stories about road rage and code rage and lament lapses of goaded rage, and we complain about the innocent men, women, and children dying in schools, grocery stores, churches, and other public spaces, and our political representatives carefully monitor our collective pulse on the issue and appear to dabble in gun control legislation. There’s no denying that. But are firearms the real problem?
Are my liberal friends listening (and ready to pounce)?
I’ll say it again. Are firearms the real problem?
Or are they just a deadly symptom?
Are we not a culture obsessed with criminality and murder sprees? Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Vudu, Hulu — check out their most popular programming, especially for men and young men. Are we not entertained?
Vengeance sells. Righteous and even pseudo-righteous indignation lines the pockets of conservative and liberal progenitors of gratuitous violence alike. And the majority of us buy guns with nobody in particular to fire at. We’re simply compelled by streaming services and infotainment to be prepared.
We have to be ready to protect our land or our family or our way of life. Most of us don’t have much of a life, and very few of us have lives that someone else would want to take or even take on. But we are obsessed with vigilance.
Can’t get a date, can’t get laid, or compete with persons of color? Can’t hold our sexist, chauvinist, racist, or pseudo-righteous heads up with pride? Is someone disrespecting us or challenging our scam or our hustle or our familial excess or our personal indulgences? Or threatening the deviants in our family?
(And this for my objecting liberal friends.) What would James Gandolfini’s character in The Sopranos do? What would Bryan Cranston’s character in Breaking Bad do? What would Jason Bateman’s character in Ozark do? What about Kevin Costner’s character in Yellowstone?
Do I even have to ask?
In America, the good, the semi-good, and even the serially sometimes good solve their problems with guns — and we all like to watch. And we prefer the bad guys (or the others we perceive as bad or a threat to our badness) dead. It’s box office gold. It’s a tickertape, tuxedo honor at the Oscars and parade-worthy, name-a-traffic-thoroughfare-after, key-to-the-city courage practically everywhere else. It’s the American way, especially of late.
But I look around, and I can’t help but think of my go-to. It’s also black and white. It’s the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Harper Lee’s book. I’ve read it four or five times at least. But for me, the face of Atticus Finch is always Gregory Peck. A white, male protagonist trying to do what’s right. A white lawyer seeking justice, regardless of the time period or the all-white male jury. A white man challenging an oppressive Jim Crow atmosphere that pervades every aspect of his community in 1962 — isn’t it amazing how far we haven’t come?
I don’t think many Americans remember the film, but perhaps they deserve some slack. It came out 60 years ago. And To Kill a Mockingbird was a little choo-choo train that thought it could. And it did, at least for a while.
Do any of y’all remember Peck as Atticus Finch? Did you know he won the Academy Award for best actor for that role?
Did you know, in fact, that — according to the American Film Institute’s first 100 years of film list of the greatest motion picture heroes of all time — Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is ranked No. 1? That’s No. 1, ahead of Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, Sean Connery’s James Bond (Dr. No), Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine (Casablanca), and Gary Cooper’s Marshall Kane (High Noon). And obviously Bruce Willis’ John McLane in Die Hard, Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, Die Hard 5 (A Good Day to Die Hard), Rambo 5 (Rambo: Last Blood), and the upcoming buddy spinoff, Die Hambo: Let’s Make a Billion Dollars fleecing bloodbath-addicted halfwits.
Atticus Finch’s kids were threatened. Another white man even spat in his face. Dirty Harry wouldn’t have stood for that. The Duke wouldn’t have taken that lying down, and neither would have Liam Neeson, Tom Cruise, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Matt Damon — they would have popped a cap in someone’s ass or aired out somebody’s skull. We’re Americans, dammit!
Atticus Finch’s courage was quiet and dignified. Atticus Finch’s courage was plain and softspoken.
Atticus Finch didn’t have a pistol, and he used his shotgun only to kill a rabid dog — and the canine’s rabies was symbolic of ignorance and ignorant rabidity in general.
It seems bizarre now, right?
These days, our most rabidly ignorant friends and neighbors are stockpiling guns and strapping up to go to Dairy Queen. What happened to us?
We have chances to be Atticus Finches all the time, but we choose “God and Guns” over real guts and prospective death-dealing over empathy and human decency.
Do we have any real courage or dignity left?
The recent profligacy of gun ranges is not reassuring. — E.R. Bills
Fort Worth native E.R. Bills is the author of Texas Oblivion: Mysterious Disappearances, Escapes and Cover-Ups (History Press 2021) and Fear and Loathing in the Lone Star State (2021).
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. Columns will be gently edited for factuality, clarity, and concision.