Article — From the August 2010 issue

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

My concealed weapon and me

In the 1943 noir thriller The Fallen Sparrow, John Garfield asks the police inspector whether his permit to carry a gun is still valid.

“Good for a year,” the cop says wearily. “Why did you want to carry a gun?”

“To shoot people with, sweetheart!” Garfield snarls, as the cop’s face falls comically.

I think about the ambivalence of that line every time I strap on my .38—mixing the brutality of shooting people with that wise-guy sweetheart. It’s so endearingly American.

Garfield’s were the days when people who wanted a concealed-weapon permit had to convince the police to issue one. Merchants in rough neighborhoods, bodyguards to the rich, and the well connected could usually manage it. The rest went unarmed, or carried illegally. That’s how it was for generations: if you wanted permission to carry a gun, you had to have a good reason.

Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.

Good thing or bad? Most people can answer that question instinctively, depending on how they think about a whole matrix of bigger questions, from the role of government to the moral obligations we have to one another. Politically, the issue breaks along the expected lines, with the NPR end of the dial going one way and the talk-radio end the other.

The gun-carrying revolution started in Florida, which in 1987 had a murder rate 40 percent higher than the national average. Another state might have reacted to such carnage by restricting access to guns, but Florida’s legislature went the other way. Believing that law-abiding citizens should have the means to defend themselves, it ordered police chiefs to issue any adult a carry permit unless there was good reason to deny it. In the history of gun politics, this was a big moment. The gun-rights movement had won just about every battle it had fought since coalescing in the late 1960s, but these had been defensive battles against new gun-control laws. Reversing the burden of proof on carry permits expanded gun rights. For the first time, the movement was on offense, and the public loved it. The change in Florida’s law was called “shall-issue”—as in, the police shall issue the permit and not apply their own discretion. Six states already had such laws, but Florida’s became the model for the twenty-nine others that followed. Most of these states recognize the permits of other shall-issue states. Nine remain “may issue” states, leaving the decision up to local law enforcement. Alaska and Arizona have laws allowing any resident who can legally own a gun to carry it concealed with no special permit. And one—can you guess which?—is silent on the whole issue, meaning anybody over sixteen from any state can walk around secretly armed inside its borders. (Most people guess Texas, but it’s Vermont.) Only two states, Wisconsin and Illinois, flatly forbid civilians to carry concealed guns.[1]

[1] The implications of the Supreme Court’s recent McDonald decision—which established that the Second Amendment confers the right to bear arms on the local level, and not just the federal—remain unclear.

I got hooked on guns forty-nine years ago as a fat kid at summer camp—the one thing I could do was lie on my belly and shoot a .22 rifle—and I’ve collected, shot, and hunted with guns my entire adult life. But I also grew up into a fairly typical liberal Democrat, with a circle of friends politely appalled at my fixation on firearms. For as long as I’ve been voting, I’ve reflexively supported waiting periods, background checks, the assault-rifle ban, and other gun-control measures. None interfered with my enjoyment of firearms, and none seemed to me the first step toward tyranny. As the concealed-carry laws changed across the land, I naturally sided with those who argued that arming the populace would turn fender benders into gunfights. The prospect of millions more gun-carrying Americans left me reliably horrified.

At the same time, though, I was a little jealous of those getting permits. Taking my guns from the safe was a rare treat; the sensual pleasure of handling guns is a big part of the habit. Elegantly designed and exquisitely manufactured, they are deeply satisfying to manipulate, even without shooting. I normally got to play with mine only a few times a year, during hunting season and on one or two trips to the range. The people with carry permits, though, were handling their guns all the time. They were developing an enviable competence and familiarity with them. They were living the gun life. Finally, last year, under the guise of “wanting to learn what this is all about,” but really wanting to live the gun life myself, I began the process of getting a carry permit. All that was required was a background check, fingerprints, and certification that I’d passed an approved handgun class.

I live in Boulder, Colorado, a town so painstakingly liberal that the city council once debated whether people are “owners” or “guardians” of their pets. “Guardians” won. Bill O’Reilly regularly singles out Boulder for his trademark contempt as a place even more California than California. I expected to have to drive some distance to find a class, but it turned out that half a dozen shooting schools operate in the Boulder area, with classes so overbooked I had to wait a month for a vacancy. The number of carry permits issued annually in Boulder—Boulder!—has risen eighteenfold since 2001; almost 3,000 of us, about 1 percent, carry guns, and 900 more apply every year. I began examining more closely the aging hippies milling about Whole Foods.

I ended up taking two gun-carry courses. The first sent me an enrollment-confirmation email on November 5, the day that Major Nidal Hasan killed thirteen people and wounded thirty others at Fort Hood in Texas. The next day, Jason Rodriguez of Orlando, Florida, used a handgun to kill one person and wound five others at the office of his former employer. He told reporters, “I’m angry.”

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

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October 2019