On July 20th 2012, a young man walked into a midnight showing of the Dark Knight Rises in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado. He released tear gas and open fire on the audience. 12 people died and 70 were injured.
This grissly confluence of Batman and firearms led New Yorker journalist Jill Lepore to explore the history of the character and the weapon. Batman is generally associated with a rather unamerican antipathy to guns. For example, in the Dark Knight Rises, even during a hairy rooftop fight with Bane’s henchmen Batman still stops catwoman trying to shoot her way to safety.
But Lepore notes that:
It hasn’t always been this way. Americans used to hold a different set of beliefs about guns. So did Batman, who started out with a gun—until he got rid of it. The nineteen-thirties, the golden age of comic-book superheroes, was a time of landmark gun legislation. In 1934, the National Rifle Association supported the National Firearms Act—the first federal gun-control legislation—and, four years later, the 1938 Federal Firearms Act. A great many gun-safety measures on the books today date to those two pieces of legislation, which together mandated licensing for handgun dealers, introduced waiting periods for handgun buyers, required permits for anyone wishing to carry a concealed weapon, and effectively prohibited the sale of the only gun banned in the United States today: the automatic weapon (or “machine gun”).
Then in the 1940s, following a wave of concern about the social impact of comics that changed:
Maybe it was a simple demurral to the critics, but the disarming of the Dark Knight reads like a concern about the commonweal, a deferral to an accepted and important idea about the division between civilian and military life. Superheroes weren’t soldiers or policemen. They were private citizens. They shouldn’t carry concealed weapons. Villains carried guns. The Joker, introduced in the spring of 1940, carried a gun, and sometimes two. (Batman thwarts him with a bulletproof vest; once Joker realizes this, he aims for his head.) After Ellsworth told Kane to lay off the guns, Kane wrote a two-page piece—issued in November, 1939—explaining Batman’s origins: “Legend: The Bat Man and How He Came to Be.” When Bruce Wayne was a boy, his parents had been killed before his eyes, shot to death.
Batman, then, came out of a time when the private ownership of firearms was considered a proper matter for government regulation.
Lepore suggests that it is not Batman that has changed but America. Starting in the 1960s, conservatives began asserting their current absolutist reading of the second amendment. They took over the NRA and began using its mass membership to propogate their views. Batman belongs to an older and in many ways saner America.