Bowling for Columbine is testimony to the unquestioned role of violence as the organizing principle of American life. We don't even notice anymore. It's just the air we breathe. This role is reflected in American film, where its clearest expression, the gun, has been stripped of personality and meaning. Never before has it been so completely invisible. It can hide in plain sight.

There was a time when the authority and presence of a gun in a film was unavoidable. At the turn of the century, audiences screamed during The Great Train Robbery when the bad guy fired his revolver in their direction. They were responding to a world just beyond the frontier experience, where the knowledge that one could die was conscious, and a cinematic moment such as that uncovered a terror near the surface. Elegiac mid-century Westerns such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance positioned the gun as the last talisman against evil. It expressed the solemnity of personal responsibility, and showing it made the viewer tense up. Reckoning was at hand.

The gun has been used to further subtle and dizzying symbolisms. To name a few: the crucifixion of Sonny in The Godfather; the balletic opening scene of Hard-Boiled, as an entire restaurant of gangsters fly through the air on a trapeze of shell casings; Dirty Harry prowling the wharves of San Francisco with that .44 magnum, its long barrel the nose of the entire Silent Generation bending out of joint. In instances like these, the gun had the power to encompass shades of meaning. It made audiences reflect back on themselves and helped draw them into sympathy with the characters. It noted the gravity of a situation and provided a dark underscore to the seriousness of the filmmaker's theme.

Nowadays, the gun is more of an obligatory prop, its ubiquity allowing little use other than punctuating a scene. As on the evening news, audiences expect to see it, like the weather and sports. But they don't expect it to touch them. The snake is firmly in the grass.