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Batman's complicated history with guns and firearms

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Batman's history with guns is not quite as clear cut as you might think it is. For several decades now, Batman has pretty consistently hated guns. Ask any loyal reader and they'll probably all say the same thing — Batman doesn't carry a gun, doesn't use guns, and could even be described as having a fear of guns.

Yet accurate Batman historians will point out that Batman has used a gun in the past. In fact, his origins are filled with examples of him using a gun. Here we're looking at all the times that Batman has dabbled with using more conventional weaponry, and we went to a few Batman experts to gain perspective on why the hero evolved into a character who never uses them.

Pulp Roots

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"What a lot of people forget is that Batman originally had guns," explained Brian Azzarello, who's written Batman for comic books and film and is co-wrote Batman with Frank Miller for Dark Knight III: The Master Race. "Batman was pulp, born and bred. Other than wearing a cowl, that character was a pulp character."

The idea of Batman as a pulp hero was echoed by Dennis O'Neil, who wrote and edited Batman from the '60s through the '90s. O'Neil said that although the character was introduced May 1939 in Detective Comics #27, his origins can be traced to earlier pulp heroes.

"Bill Finger openly admitted that his main source of inspiration was [the 1930's pulp character] The Shadow," O'Neil said. "And of course, as Jim Steranko once said, The Shadow didn't believe in the death penalty; The Shadow was the death penalty. Those blazing .45 automatics that he whipped out."

In fact, O'Neil said he's seen evidence that "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate," the first Batman story, "was lifted pretty directly from a Theodore Tinsley Shadow story that appeared a couple of years before."

During 1939 and 1940, in both Detective Comics and later his own title, Batman, the character was shown carrying and using a gun.

"There's an incident [in Batman #1] where a bad guy is escaping and Batman dives on him with an airplane and machine guns him," O'Neil said. "And Batman has some dialogue in that panel that's like, 'I hate to do this, but it's necessary.'"

"In another story [from Detective Comics #35], on the splash page, he's carrying an automatic, but it does not show up in the story itself," O'Neil said, adding that there were several other instances of Batman either carrying or firing a gun during the first couple years of his existence, though rarely at actual human beings.

"I think once or twice in that first year, he was shown with a firearm. And I think what that's about is that they didn't really know what they had," O'Neil said. "The character was very much in intensive evolution mode, for about the first year. And it's right and proper that that be. One of the reasons that the character has lasted is that he has changed with the times."

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Neal Adams, the legendary Batman artist and writer who frequently worked with O'Neil, agreed that the character's use of firearms was a product of him being undeveloped.

"Nobody seemed to care much about it," Adams said of Batman's early gun-toting. "Bill Finger and Bob Kane, who did Batman, had Batman actually regularly shoot a gun.

"But in Batman, I believe, issue #4, they discontinued Batman carrying a gun and I think Batman even commented that he doesn't carry guns," Adams said. "But that was 20 issues into Detective Comics, because Batman started there. So he was still carrying a gun for a couple years at the beginning."

No More Guns

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There's no definitive source for the reason Batman stopped carrying guns, but the important thing to note about the decision is that an editorial note in Batman specifically stated that "The Batman never carries or kills with a gun," according to Adams and O'Neil.

"They not only decided to do it, but they codified it," Adams said. "The conversation in the comic was, yeah, we don't carry guns."

Adams said he believes the decision was made by Whitney Ellsworth, an early DC editor. "There was a discussion, I'm told, a discussion around the office about the idea of Batman not carrying a gun," Adams said. "Superman did not carry a gun. Wonder Woman didn't carry a gun. Why is Batman a stone killer? It just seemed uncomfortable for everybody at that time. I can't go back in time, and I can't speculate on it, but I would have agreed [that Batman shouldn't use guns], if I were there at that time. He's certainly got enough weapons, he certainly scares people, and he does all these things that Batman needs to do – why does he pull out a gun and plug somebody?"

"Another theory," O'Neil added, "is that Vin Sullivan, who was the editor, didn't want Batman to carry firearms. I don't know if that's covered in any of the histories or not. Vin Sullivan is comics' forgotten man. His name pops up all the time, but I know nothing about him except that he started his own company in 1948."

Whoever decided it, subsequent editors have respected the law laid down in those early Batman years, that the character never uses guns.

"By the time my merry men and I were running the franchise, by that time, it was established that Batman was not a gun-toter, and I like that," O'Neil said. "Even if it had not been a given of the character, if it had not been, by that time, established for 25 years, I might have done it anyway."

The modern rationale for Batman not carrying a gun — and even hating guns — is that he witnessed his parents' murder by one.

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Paul Levitz, long-time DC writer, editor and former president and publisher, said it just made sense for the character. "In the days when I was editing Batman, it seemed like a natural character facet to have him hate guns, given the horrific gun violence he had witnessed as a child," he said.

But Levitz said the 1940's decision is important because it makes Batman a superhero. "Every writer and editor has their own take, of course, but it probably was an important development in separating him as a super hero from the pulp traditions of characters like The Shadow, who used guns as freely as the villains in their stories."

Azzarello agreed. "The genesis of [Batman] was changed once Superman and the Flash and some of these more superpowered characters started being written," Azzarello said. "It took that Batman out of what was essentially a pulp world.

Exceptions to the Rule

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Still, there are plenty of examples where this rule has been bent and even broken. Not only have alternate versions of Batman carried guns, but even main Earth Batman has been shown with a gun — even firing at people — from time to time.

One of the more notable gun-carrying Batman stories was "Batman Year Two" in Detective Comics #575-578. Published on the heels of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the story written by Mike W. Barr briefly established that Batman kept the gun that killed his parents, and he was determined to use it to avenge them.

"I'm 76 years old, so my mind's not working so well anymore," O'Neil laughed, trying to remember the story that was published early in his tenure as a Batman editor. "It doesn't seem like the type of story I would have been comfortable with.

"But Mike always wanted to do that. He wanted to emphasize certain elements of the character," O'Neil said. "And my policy with writers was, if I cannot give them a very firm, well-reasoned argument not to do something, then they get to do it. If I don't like it, that's not a sufficient reason."

That said, the gun-toting Batman story didn't stick for very long. By the early '90s, "Year Two" had been eliminated from continuity.

In one of the most recent examples of Batman with a gun, Final Crisis by writer Grant Morrison featured the hero confronting Darkseid with a gun. "I made a very solemn vow about firearms," he says, but then pulls out a gun and adds, "but for you, I'm making a once-in-a-lifetime exception."

Why Batman's Rule Works

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Yet for the most part, Batman's one steadfast rule is no guns. And it's something that makes Batman who he is today.

"People have tried to sneak guns into the Batman mythology, but I think it's unfortunate because it does change the character," Adams said. "Batman has replaced the gun. He's replaced the gun with his costume and his ability to terrify gangsters for that little, short second where he can disarm them.

"Batman is one of the greatest trained athletes in the world, so he knows everything you need to know about disarming somebody," Adams added. "And Batman does have armor in his costume. So he has all the weapons necessary to do the job without a gun."

O'Neil said that during his tenure as Batman editor, they even portrayed Batman as having an "almost-phobia" of guns.

"Our rationale was that Batman's parents were killed by gun violence, and that that gave him a kind of phobia about guns, but more than that, it gave him the realization that killing is something that can't be undone, and he might make mistakes, which is one of the compelling arguments against capital punishment.

"So he didn't carry guns because he intensely disliked them and he was afraid that they would enable him to make a mistake that he couldn't unmake.

"Also, footnote to all of that, in my reading of it, he was almost scarier because he didn't use guns," O'Neil added. "He was so formidable that he didn't need guns. Don't f-- with the Batman, 'cause he'll tear you apart with his hands and he won't bother to pull a gun.”