(UPDATE: This article received a rebuttal the day after it was published, which you can read here.)
Right now, America is in a state of fundamental moral conflict. On the one side, we have a group of people with incredible power available at their fingertips. Most of them have no desire to hurt anyone and simply wish to be left alone. A relatively minor few have abused that power and caused catastrophic damage, taking lives, wounding others, and leaving everyone else frightened. They want to take that power away from everyone else in the name of safety.
Guns? Of course I’m talking about guns. But if we were in the Marvel Universe, we could just as easily be talking about the X-Men and mutants.
As the issue of private gun ownership versus gun confiscation continues to occupy our minds, it is…disappointing, to say the least, that I’m seeing pop culture fans who would presumably be on the side of the X-Men and mutant rights are, nonetheless, motivated by a total gun ban in real life. The phrases “ban all guns” and “nobody needs a gun” and general notions of “I don’t trust anyone to have this” are running rampant on my social media right now. Essentially, the argument seems to boil down to: these are scary and kill people, so no one should have them.
I am not completely discrediting that. Many children died at Parkland High School, at Sandy Hook, as well as any other prominent shooting incident like the Pulse nightclub, Las Vegas, San Bernadino, or Fort Hood. People are dying. This is a problem, and it needs a solution. Where I deviate from a people who endorse gun confiscation is that I oppose broad-brush solutions that overclassifies all members of a group as being the same as the limited few who commit monstrous acts.
Whether we’re in the X-Men movies or the comics, the issue is incredibly similar: bad mutants do bad things and cause catastrophic damage for ordinary people who just want to live their lives. A number of mutants are criminals; many are terrorists. Magneto’s first act was to invade a military base. The Ultimate version of Magneto attacked the White House and tried to kill the President. The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants attacked Congress. There’s problem groups like the Mutant Liberation Front. There are individual problems like Sabretooth. And then there’s extremely dangerous mutants, like Proteus and Apocalypse, who basically see ordinary people as beneath them and are prepared to commit mass slaughter…or even Namor, who, although generally a hero, does often try to kill everyone in the surface world. (Remember, before he fought Hitler, he flooded Manhattan.)
Even among the “good” mutants, we have problems. The Scarlet Witch isn’t usually evil, but she went insane and completely rewrote reality. Rogue, as a teenager, put a boy in a coma with an accidental early manifestation of her powers. Wolverine has animalistic tendencies and is prone to extreme violence. Professor Xavier went mad and his powers created Onslaught, who shut down and almost destroyed New York City. And let’s not get started on Jean Grey.
(Oh, and this doesn’t even get us started on non-mutant superheroes. The Hulk has caused catastrophic levels of damage across America. Speedball and the New Warriors stupidly engaged in a bounty hunt that destroyed a school full of children. You think Civil War was a metaphor for Guantanamo? It was just as easily a metaphor for the gun debate. Read it in light of the author’s intent—the War on Terror in the early 2000s—and then reread it in light of gun control and see if you maintain your original beliefs.)
Still, readers connect with the X-Men despite the bona fide concerns of the world around them. Why?
Because we read the X-Men as “real” people. We know that not all mutants are not the Brotherhood and Magneto. We follow them as ordinary people who come from ordinary backgrounds. While they have extraordinarily dangerous powers, they’re not dangerous people. They date, play baseball, go to bars and movies, and are generally not interested in hurting anyone who isn’t out to hurt them first. For the most part, they want to help.
The human tendency is to judge all people by their worst examples and to act accordingly. This is silly and frankly bigoted, but it’s what people do and you just have to argue around it. Almost all transgender people want to do is use a bathroom in peace and not molest children under pretext; however, people are ready to judge the 99.9% who obey the law by the rare example who actually does commit a bathroom molestation. Most immigrants, particularly from Islamic countries, want to immigrate to the United States for peace and prosperity; however, people are ready to judge all of them because of the few who come here and commit terrorism. I maintain that 9/11 was far more catastrophic than any school shooting, but we shouldn’t block Muslim immigrants because of the dozen or so who killed 3,000 Americans on one very bad day, or the one who killed numerous LGBTQ people in Orlando.
So the X-Men deal with the same crap. Some mutants have gone terrorist; all are judged by that standard. One mutant could commit a crime; therefore, people assume that they will. Consider Senator Kelly’s speech in the original X-Men movie:
Here’s a girl in Illinois who can walk through walls. Now what’s to stop her from walking into a bank vault, or the White House, or into their houses? …and there are even rumors, Miss Grey, of mutants so powerful that they can enter our minds and control our thoughts, taking away our God-given free will. Now I think the American people deserve the right to decide if they want their children to be in school with mutants. To be taught by mutants! Ladies and gentlemen, the truth is that mutants are very real, and that they are among us. We must know who they are, and above all, what they can do!
Was Senator Kelly wrong?
Well, not totally. The notion of a stranger sneaking into your home or messing with your thoughts is scary, to be sure. Except he’s talking about Kitty and Xavier there, and we know they’re both nice, and so Kelly’s concerns are plausible but also not consistent with what we know. To us, Kitty and Xavier aren’t “the scary other.”
I hate to break it to you, but the arguments used against the X-Men aren’t totally off from the arguments used against gun owners. We focus on the worst examples—the guy who shoots up a school; the careless owner who leaves a gun out for a child to find—and never talk about the remaining numbers who don’t make the news because they never did anything. We also ignore the examples that prove gun owners’ points: the woman assaulted during a road rage incident and saved by her concealed carry. The woman who fought off a home invader who stabbed her husband. The woman who shot a would-be rapist. The elderly retiree who shot a home invader. The hunter who shot a wolf that charged him.
Likewise, the X-Men are frequently heroic and save more than their share of lives. Several of them have joined the Avengers. They’re heroes and people should be proud of them. But this tends not to fit the popular, fear-based ideas that mutants, or gun owners, are dangerous. In any public debate, competing sides look at the best examples of their side and the worst of the other.
This is a problem. At Marvel, plenty of mutants want to be good people and live ordinary lives, in peace with their neighbors. In the real world, most gun owners want to use their weapons in peace and protect themselves if necessary. (The guy next door to you who goes to the range once a week is not coming to kill you.) In both cases, they fall under the presumption that because a few are dangerous, all are, and they must be dealt with.
Two points I need to deal with as well. One: you’re probably thinking: guns are real. Mutants aren’t. Well, ok then. Except that I’m regularly told that fiction is often a metaphor for discussing the real world and that politics in comics are inseparable. Civil War was a superhero look at the 2000s War on Terror. Civil War II took a hard look at police profiling. Secret Empire was a twisted spin on 2017 American politics. And the X-Men themselves? They’re frequently used to champion minorities such as non-white races and LGBTQ individuals. This is never a precise metaphor, especially considering that blacks and gays aren’t inherently capable of destroying a city block. Yet nobody has a problem with thinking about mutant rights in terms of black or LGTBQ rights.
You can’t have it both ways. Comics and the X-Men are either a means for thinking about contemporary society, or they aren’t. If they aren’t, great. We won’t talk about guns, but we won’t talk about minority rights and prejudice, either. But if they are, be prepared for this to go in ways that make you uncomfortable.
Second: you’re probably thinking: but the X-Men are born with their powers. Nobody is born with a gun. That’s true, but it’s a weak argument based in the “nobody needs a gun” fallacy. For one, you can argue that nobody needs mutant powers, either. And in the X-Men movies and comics, this comes up a lot. In addition to things like control collars, mutant power suppression has come up thrice in the comics: once after an Apocalypse story, once during Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run, and once again on M-Day. In the movies, power suppression was the whole plot of X-3, and Beast was seeking to suppress his powers in X-Men Origins. I’m just saying, there’s a case to be made that if you think the X-Men are dangerous, you could take away their powers…if you think their bodily autonomy is outweighed by public safety.
There’s a deeper problem in that you’re not interfering with a thing, but a culture. It’s sort of like a job that tells a black person that they can’t have dreadlocks, or a Jewish person can’t have a yarmulke, or a Sikh who can’t have a turban. You can say that those things aren’t “needed”…but they kind of cut to the heart of the person, don’t they? A black man may not “need” his dreadlocks and they’re irrelevant to his job, but they’re pretty essential to his identity and sense of self. Take those away, and you might as well be telling him he isn’t welcome, no matter your argument to the contrary about how he doesn’t “need” them.
There’s a case to be made that the X-Men and mutants are a culture, too. They live together, learn about their powers together, and see themselves as a separate part of society even as they try to live among it. Mystique understood this in X-Men Origins with her “mutant and proud” slogan. Her powers weren’t a thing that she carried around—they were who she was. Taking them away is like killing a part of her.
You may not like to hear this, but there is a “gun culture,” and for many people, it’s not shooting cans in the woods and being racist. There are gun owners who shoot for sport, some who hunt, some who practice self-defense. Many are law enforcement or military who want to hone their skills off-duty. As a military member, I can tell you honestly: my weapons training is inadequate and only reserved for when I’m about to deploy, which isn’t that often. (I can also tell you that Uncle Sam trusted me with a firearm in the intensity of Afghanistan for six months, so I’m a little offended that you think I’m totally good in a high-stress warzone but an explosive maniac when I come home. Because that really is what you’re saying when you don’t even consider a military/law enforcement exception to a gun ban.) Gun magazines, websites, and clubs are a thing. Sport shooting is a thing. Gun hobbyists are a thing.
Hell, these things go beyond the NRA, which not every gun owner likes. There are gun associations for black people. For the LGBTQ. For Muslims. For the people with disabilities. For Catholics. And so forth. Point being that if “culture” is simply a common collection of beliefs, practices, and history, then yes, gun culture exists and probably goes beyond your preconceived notions if you’re not a part of it.
Like it or not, culture tends to be ingrained even when it’s intangible. An attack on the externals of a group of people is seen as an attack on the people itself. Most of our major cultural conflicts in world history tend to involve one group of people telling another how they must act. Understand this: you are getting pushback on gun confiscation not because of hate, but because people who own guns see this as an attack on an ingrained part of who they are. You may not care, but that’s why it’s happening.
Believe it or not, many gun owners want to find a way forward on violence, too. They just don’t appreciate efforts to wrap them in with the people who actually cause harm. If you don’t think that’s the case, consider: after Parkland, how much energy did you spend getting mad at Congress, the NRA, and gun owners? Now consider: how much time did you spend getting mad at the FBI, who ignored the warnings of the attack? Or the police, who refused to enter the school during the shooting? Or the shooter himself—you know, the only person who actually killed the kids?
This is like getting mad at the X-Men every time Magneto kills someone….and completely not talking about Magneto at all.
Take this as a life lesson on problems in our world: stop blaming groups and start blaming problems. We should not be concerned with Muslims; we should be concerned with terrorists. We should not be concerned with transgendered persons in bathrooms or Catholic priests in chapels; we should be concerned with rapists. We shouldn’t be concerned with gun owners, but gun abusers. Just like we shouldn’t be concerned by mutants, but by Magneto and his brotherhood.
If you haven’t taken that lesson from the X-Men comics—that we shouldn’t be judging all people by the bad actions of a few—then why on Earth did you ever read them?