Batman is always going on and on about his one rule, which can be confusing since he has a couple of rules. Don't kill, don't use guns, make sure to wear a different colored costume every night.
Though, as is the way with comics, which rules apply depends entirely on the ever-shifting continuity. Movies have shown him strapping large guns to his fleet of bat-themed vehicles or even just blatantly shooting people, but at least he's more consistent in the comics, right? Just a man in a bat costume fighting crime as peacefully as possible. Unless, you consider the Golden Age comics, which were being written as the character of Batman was still developing.
The Dark Knight didn't initially have any rules against using guns or killing people in general. He was brutal and merciless, killing vampires with silver bullets, shooting down criminals from his Batplane, and let's not forget about this striking image from Detective Comics number 35.
The nudged Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger into developing the modern direction for our crusader. He was an incredibly popular character who shared many traits with the caped crusader. Always shrouded in darkness, this master of stealth was an expert in hand-to-hand combat and a skilled detective, attributes that should sound pretty familiar. Both The Shadow and Batman wielded a handgun. Probably thinking that Bats shared one too many similarities with the Shadow, Kane, and Finger figured they needed to differentiate the two just a little bit more.
Even if that story was true, as many people believe it to be, it still wouldn't be the main reason why Kane and Finger would make the switch, though it is fun to see this panel, where Batman actually refuses to take a gun from The Shadow, implying that the Dark Knight has risen above his roots and has cemented himself as a distinct character in the world of heroes. No, the predominant reason why Batman swore off firearms was the real-life gun legislation that was being passed at the time. The early 1900s saw the rise of organized crime in America. As gang warfare ruled the streets of Chicago, chief gangster Al Capone sought to seize control by eliminating his competition in what became known as the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre from 1929.
Not long after, in 1933, there was an attempted assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and all of this and more led to a public outcry for better gun control, which set the stage for the National Firearms Act of 1934. The NFA, put simply, called for firearms to be registered and taxed as an attempt to end the rampant and abundant crime. Without going into too much detail, the famed Supreme Court ruling of the United States v. Miller in 1939 upheld that the NFA was not unconstitutional. It did not violate the Second Amendment right of the people to keep and bear arms, and coincidentally, guess what else was happening during this same time, possibly even the same month. That's right, Batman made his big debut in Detective Comics number 27, and a few short months later, he was out there just shooting up bad guys, a vigilante with a presumably unregistered firearm which doesn't seem like a great idea for a hero in this particular era.
However, Bob Kane didn't really care. He kept writing up stories where Batman used guns to kill his enemies and save the day. Turns out, critics were not too happy about this, calling comic books a, quote, national menace. And this would be before Fredric Wertham stepped into the picture with his book, Seduction of The Innocent, which would just add more fuel to the anti-comic book fire, even literally, crusading against what he considered to be a medium that was toxic for the morals of the youth.
Before long, DC Comics hired on a new editorial director by the name of Whitney Ellsworth along with an entire editorial advisory board reportedly consisting of psychologists and English professors in what I imagine was an attempt to legitimize the comic book industry. When Batman number one hit shelves in 1940, it featured a story in which Kane once again wrote the world's greatest detective firing away at criminals.
This issue was cited as being the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Ellsworth demanded that Batman have all of his shoot toys taken away from him. In Batman number four, it was explained in an editor's note, of all things, that Batman never carries or kills with a gun, which became the standard for the Dark Knight. This change led to Batman stories being more censor-friendly and therefore more kid-friendly. He became more of a true hero and less of a gritty, morally questionable vigilante. As Jill Lepore pointed out in a fantastic New Yorker piece,
- [Jill Lepore] "The disarming of the Dark Knight reads likes 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."
So if Batman needed to have an aversion to guns because the editorial board and society at the time called for it, there would have to be a reason for the change in the continuity of the comics, and luckily, Kane and Finger had previously written up Batman's origin a few months prior, which featured an iconic sequence that we have seen repeated in comics, movies, TV shows, video games, everywhere. As a child, Bruce Wayne saw his parents gunned down in front of him. It was probably the first gun he ever saw, and it was used to scar him for life. It follows then that Bruce wouldn't want to become the very criminal that murdered his mother and father.
He wouldn't want to succumb to the tactics of cowards. Bruce would make a vow to never kill with guns, Batman's one rule, which honestly might be a huge misconception in and of itself. Most people probably believe that Batman's one rule is simply no killing, but we've seen him kill plenty of people throughout comics, whether it's hanging people from the Batplane, crushing people under junkyard cars, punching people into statues that fall over and strangle them to death, not to mention the countless times he's blown vehicles with people inside of them or simply thrown people from deadly heights. There are infinite examples that come from every era of Batman, not just the Golden Age. If he does have a no killing rule, it's more of a guideline. Of course, the other rule he's said to have is no guns, which again, doesn't make a lot of sense in and of itself, as we've seen Batman use guns attached to almost every vehicle he's owned, not to mention his classic grapple gun, which, yes, admittedly, is a stretch but still has the word gun in the name.
Batman has not been too afraid to use guns throughout his career, like disarming thugs or summoning the police, making sure Joker doesn't get away or even as a threatening scare tactic. Again, these examples are present throughout every Batman era. You may have noticed that all of those examples are instances where Batman used a gun non-lethally, and I think that's the key here. His one rule isn't any killing or no guns, but rather, no killing with guns. Think about it, that editor's note that first introduced Batman's aversion to firearms doesn't say that Batman never kills. It doesn't say that Batman never uses guns, period.
It states very specifically that Batman doesn't kill with guns, not allowed. That's where we draw the line. That's how his parents died and he has no interest becoming that same person. When Batman picks up a gun in Final Crisis, intent on killing Darkseid, the god of evil who has threatened the entire multiverse, Bruce calls it a once-in-a-lifetime exception to his vow.
Now, the line wouldn't make a lot of sense if his rule was simply no killing or no guns separately, but together, it adds a much-needed weight to this climactic scene. Batman fires the bullet, killing or at least intending to kill the villainous Darkseid right before he himself dies. Bruce Wayne's story has come full circle, a lethal gunshot starting his journey to become one of the greatest heroes the world has ever known and a lethal gunshot ending it once and for all.