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Batman and his complicated history with guns

Batman and guns
(Image credit: DC)

Batman doesn't kill, right? And Batman doesn't use guns either, right? 

Most people would answer those two questions in the affirmative.

But hold up a second, it's not that simple.

With the release of each new major Batman property on film - in this case, March 4's The Batman - the Caped Crusader's methodologies, including his no-kill edict are usually examined and then re-examined.

The Batman's star himself, Robert Pattinson has reinforced the no-kill edict. "There is this rule with Batman: he must not kill," he told the French magazine Premiere (opens in new tab).

But that wasn't always the case. DC itself (opens in new tab) recently highlighted the times that he did kill.

But what about guns ... (and we don't mean the grappling kind)?

The history is not quite as clear-cut as you might think it is. For several decades now, Batman has pretty consistently hated firearms. As we say, 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 Batman historians will accurately point out that DC's Dark Knight has used a gun in the past. In fact, his origin years are filled with examples of him using a gun. A couple of years back Newsarama took a close look at the issue, examining the times he has dabbled with using more conventional weaponry, and we went to a few Batman experts including the late, legendary Denny O'Neil to get some perspective on why the hero evolved into a character who never uses them.

Pulp Roots

Batman #15 cover excerpt

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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 co-wrote Batman with Frank Miller for Dark Knight III: The Master Race (opens in new tab). "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 the late Dennis O'Neil, who wrote and edited Batman from the '60s through the '90s. O'Neil told Newsarama at the this article's original publication that although the character was introduced May 1939 in Detective Comics #27 (opens in new tab), 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 explained. "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 saw 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."

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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 (opens in new tab)], 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."

Batman Year Two cover excerpt

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"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 of years at the beginning."

Oddly enough, the story of Batman's fight with the vampiric villain known as the Monk, one of Batman's most famous gun-toting adventures, doesn't seem to be available on the DC Infinite digital comic reading service in either of its forms. Neither the original story in Detective Comics #31 nor Matt Wagner's early '00s limited series telling an updated version of the tale are on the service.

There are plenty of other comics in which Batman uses a gun in some capacity, including Final Crisis #7 (more on that shortly), so that may not be why the story isn't available. However, there are two notable clues that suggest there's something or other in the story of Batman vs. the Monk that's keeping it from being widely available in either of its forms. 

For one thing, both Detective Comics #30 and #32, the previous and subsequent issues, are on the app. And for another, the story is somewhat notorious as it ends with Batman discovering that the Monk is a vampire - and shooting him with a silver bullet in his sleep, killing him.

No More Guns

Detective Comics #710 cover excerpt

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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."

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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.

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 superhero 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

Batman Year Two cover excerpt

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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 (opens in new tab)" in Detective Comics #575-578. Published on the heels of Crisis on Infinite Earths (opens in new tab), 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.

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"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 a more recent example of Batman with a gun, Final Crisis (opens in new tab) by writer Grant Morrison featured the hero confronting Darkseid with a gun. "I made a very solemn vow about firearms," they said, 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

Final Crisis #7 panel

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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.

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"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."

If you're a Batman fan you check check Newsarama's list of the best Batman stories and/or check out our weekly guide of all new Batman comic books, graphic novels, and collectiong coming out in 2022

Vaneta Rogers

Vaneta has been a freelance writer for Newsarama for over 17 years, covering Marvel and DC, and everything in between. She also works in marketing. 

With contributions from