Article — From the August 2010 issue

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

My concealed weapon and me

( 2 of 9 )

The classes I took taught me almost nothing about how to defend myself with a gun. One, taught by a man who said he refuses to get a carry permit because “I don’t think I have to get the government’s permission to exercise my right to bear arms,” packed about twenty minutes of useful instruction into four long evenings of platitudes, Obama jokes, and belligerent posturing. “The way crime is simply out of control, you can’t afford not to wear a gun all the time,” he told us on several occasions. We shot fifty rounds apiece at man-shaped targets fifteen feet away. The legal-implications segment was taught by a cop who, after warming us up with fart jokes, encouraged us to lie to policemen if stopped while wearing our guns and suggested that nobody in his right mind would let a burglar run off with a big-screen TV. It’s illegal to shoot a fleeing criminal, he said, “but if your aim is good enough, you have time to get your story straight before I [the police] get there.” Thank you for coming; here’s your certificate of instruction. The other class, a three-hour quickie at the Tanner Gun Show in Denver, was built around a fifteen-minute recruiting pitch for the NRA and a long-winded, paranoid fantasy about “home invasion.” “They’re watching what time you come home, what time do you get up to go to the bathroom, when you’re there, when you’re not,” said the instructor, Rob Shewmake, of the Florida company Equip 2 Conceal. “They know who lives in the house. They know where your bedroom is, and they’re there to kill you.” (Eighty-seven Americans were murdered during burglaries in 2008; statistically, you had a better chance of being killed by bees.)

Both classes were less about self-defense than about recruiting us into a culture animated by fear of violent crime. In the Boulder class, we watched lurid films of men in ski masks breaking into homes occupied by terrified women. We studied color police photos of a man slashed open with a knife. Teachers in both classes directed us to websites dedicated to concealed carry, among them usacarry.org, an online gathering place where the gun-carrying community warns, over and over, that crime is “out of control.”

In fact, violent crime has fallen by a third since 1989—one piece of unambiguous good news out of the past two decades. Murder, rape, robbery, assault: all of them are much less common now than they were then. At class, it was hard to discern the line between preparing for something awful to happen and praying for something awful to happen. A desire to carry a gun seemed to precede the fear of crime, the fear serving to justify the carrying. I asked one of the instructors whether carrying a gun didn’t bespeak a needlessly dark view of mankind. “I’m an optimist,” he said, “but we live in a world of assholes.”

At the conclusion of both classes, we students were welcomed into the gun-carrying fraternity as though dripping from the baptismal font. “Thank you for being a part of this, man. You’re doing the right thing,” one of the Boulder teachers said, taking my hand in both of his and looking into my eyes. “You should all be proud of yourselves just for being here,” said the police officer who helped with the class. “All of us thank you.” As we stood shaking hands, with our guns in our gym bags and holding our certificates, we felt proud, included, even loved. We had been admitted to a league of especially useful gentlemen and ladies.

Partly, gun carriers are looking for political safety in numbers. Alongside a belief in rising crime lies a certainty that gun confiscation is nigh. I had a hard time finding cartridges for my hunting rifle the past two seasons because shooters began hoarding when Barack Obama was elected president. Since then, the gun industry has had its best sales on record. At the Tanner show, posters of Obama’s stern face over the words firearms salesman of the year were as common as those of him in Joker makeup over the word socialism. Looking for a holster for the .38 I planned to?carry, I stopped at the table of a big man wearing a cargo vest and a SIGARMS cap and idly picked?up one of his Yugoslav AK-47s. “Buy it now!” he barked. “Tomorrow they may not let you!” I must have looked skeptical; he reached across the table, snatched the rifle from my hands, and slammed it down. “You don’t think he’s waiting for his second term?to come and get them?” he said. “You’re dreaming.”

Shooters see their guns as emblems of a whole spectrum of virtuous lifestyle choices—rural over urban, self-reliance over dependence on the collective, vigorous outdoorsiness over pallid intellectualism, patriotism over internationalism, action over inaction—and they hear attacks on guns as attacks on them, personally. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence sound like groups even the NRA could support: who wouldn’t want to prevent violence? But the former was called, until 1989, the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, and the latter wants to prohibit the “military-style semi-automatic assault weapons” popular among shooters. From the point of view of gun enthusiasts, it’s not gun violence these groups want to end, but gun ownership. Another gun-show vendor—wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed alcohol, tobacco, and firearms should be a convenience store, not a federal agency—was yelling to potential customers that they’d better buy guns now because the “liberals want to take away your gun and your McDonald’s both.” As I headed for a table heaped with old holsters, I picked up a free copy of the NRA’s America’s 1st Freedom magazine. Its editorial captured perfectly the class-based resentment that permeates modern gun culture, characterizing the opposition as “those who sip tea and nibble biscuits while musing about how to restrict the rest of us.”

is the author, most recently, of <em>Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans</em> (Spiegel & Grau).

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