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February 2022 Issue [Letter from Texas]

Free Country

Permitless carry and the new gun-rights extremism
Photographs from Austin, Texas, November 2021, by Christian K. Lee for Harper’s Magazine © The artist

Photographs from Austin, Texas, November 2021, by Christian K. Lee for Harper’s Magazine © The artist

[Letter from Texas]

Free Country

Permitless carry and the new gun-rights extremism

On the afternoon of Friday, March 13, 2020, when Michael Cargill arrived at his gun shop in a strip mall on the southern fringe of Austin, he thought he’d been robbed. The glass display cases were empty; there were no rifles hanging on the wall, no pistols secured behind the counter.

He’d been away from the store for a day and a half, and in that time every gun in stock had been purchased. “Old guns, used guns, didn’t matter whether we had ammunition for it or not,” Cargill told me. Early that morning, the City of Austin had announced its first two cases of COVID-19, and a few hours later Texas governor Greg Abbott had declared a state of disaster. Cargill realized that people were not only caching toilet paper in response; they were arming themselves.

Cargill knew there would be more buyers the next day, and the day after that. He drove to every pawnshop within a few miles, scooping up dozens of guns, all the Glocks and Berettas he could find. These sold just as quickly. As the weeks and months went by, people continued to buy firearms at an astonishing rate. He doubled up on staff and bought a tent to shade the line that snaked into the parking lot. The customers included regulars—some validated to see the world collapse around them, as they’d long predicted. Others were newcomers, distressed by the idea that they were now gun owners.

The sales boom was part of a national trend. Americans have a tendency to buy firearms as a bulwark against fears of a failing state, and 2020 felt like one long emergency. Over the course of the year, nearly twenty-three million firearms were purchased in the United States, nine million more than in 2019. Forty percent were bought by first-time gun owners, the same portion bought by women.

Last summer, in the wake of this historic surge, Texas enacted one of the most dramatic expansions of gun rights the state had ever seen, establishing “permitless carry,” or, as its supporters prefer to call it, “constitutional carry.” True to at least one of its names, the law would allow almost any adult who set foot in Texas to carry a concealed or holstered gun without a permit in nearly all public spaces. Under previous regulations, being armed outside the home had required a half-day class on gun law and safety, a proficiency test, a background check, and a small fee. The new law removed all these barriers. Schools would still be off-limits, as they are for license holders; likewise, places of worship and private businesses could choose to ban guns with notice. But the status quo would change drastically.

In August, one month before permitless carry was scheduled to go into effect, Cargill and I sat at Bender, the pub across the parking lot from his store, where he was enough of a regular that he only had to nod for the bartender to deliver him a Long Island iced tea. Cargill is short and stocky and wears steel-toe cowboy boots that click when he walks. In addition to owning the shop, he hosts a gun-rights radio show called Come and Talk It and has been an occasional long-shot candidate for local office. As a gay man, he felt it was important to be able to defend himself. As a black man, he knew he needed to understand gun laws as well as, if not better than, anyone who might challenge him. He reads state and federal statutes obsessively and can rattle off subclauses from memory. In the firearm safety course he teaches a couple of times a week, he regularly makes a joke that isn’t really a joke: “When an officer pulls me over and he’s like, ‘Are there any guns in the vehicle?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I have one on my left, one on my right, I’m sitting on top of three, I’ve got four in the back seat, and ten in the trunk. You wanna borrow one?’ ” Over the years, Cargill has persuaded all his family members, even the Democrats, to arm themselves. His partner of twenty-two years identifies as left-leaning. “He’ll call me after my radio show, like, ‘I hate you on the radio! What do you want for dinner?’ ” He, too, carries a gun.

In 2018, Cargill went toe to toe with the Texas Republican Party for sidelining the Log Cabin Republicans, the conservative LGBT group, and then turned around and argued with the Austin Pride organization for putting the Log Cabin float at the back of the parade. He sued the Austin City Council because they wouldn’t let him bring a gun into open meetings. After he won that case, he appealed the results, claiming that the damages he was awarded ($9,000) should have been greater—almost $6 million. He’s currently suing the ATF for its 2019 ban on bump stocks, devices that allow semiautomatic weapons to fire at a rate approaching automatic. He told me that his critics on the left and the right had called him a troll, based on his proclivity for shit-stirring. Well, was he one? “Yeah,” he admitted, chuckling at himself.

Cargill maintained that he supported the permitless-carry law—the state legislature had given him and other gun-rights maximalists the freedom they ostensibly wanted. But he was clearly concerned. He believed that Texans didn’t understand the new law, including how it would interact with the state’s existing regulations, and that this presented a significant threat to safety. “I love the Second Amendment,” he said. “I don’t want anything to tarnish that right.”

He opened the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission app on his phone and searched for Bender. He showed me the blue dot by the bar’s name, which indicated that, like thousands of other bars in Texas, it had changed its classification to “restaurant” during the pandemic in order to stay open. Under Texas law, guns are prohibited in bars but not restaurants, and though it hadn’t attracted much public notice, the designation change had opened places like Bender to concealed guns carried by the state’s 1.6 million license holders. Now, with permitless carry on the way, Cargill realized, nearly all patrons of these new “restaurants” would soon be able to be armed. Cargill was opposed to mixing alcohol and firearms. “We’ve known since the nineteenth century that that’s a bad idea,” he said. When I asked him if he thought permitless carry would lead to more shootings, he was unequivocal: “Absolutely,” he said. “There’s a powder keg coming and you guys don’t even know it.”

In July, he staged an intervention of sorts, aimed at forcing attention to the loophole created by the pandemic and the vast expansion of carrying rights on the horizon. Armed with his .38 Special and a .45, he drove to 6th Street in Austin, a popular nightlife area. Just two and a half weeks earlier, a teenager had killed a man and wounded thirteen other people there with a Glock 9mm. In Austin, as in many cities, violence was ticking upward from historic lows. But the city was flush with the brief optimism of pre-Delta hot vax summer, and the streets were packed. Cargill brought his concealed weapons into bar after bar. The next day, he posted about it on Facebook: “I carried my handgun into 12 bars on 6th Street last night in Austin. #takeaclass.”

People flipped out, as he’d expected: “You openly admit u broke the law 12 times?” an employee at one of the bars wrote. “You’re a fucking idiot. I showed your pic to my staff and you are now banned from our bar.” Some of the harshest comments came from fellow gun-rights advocates: “My guy, I’m very pro 2A, but you’re just immature, disrespectful, and reckless.”

“I don’t and didn’t break the law,” Cargill replied. And when permitless carry went into effect, millions of unvetted Texans and countless civilians from other states would be able to do exactly the same thing. The demonstration had confirmed what he’d believed: most Texans didn’t want this. “If you put it on the ballot,” he said, “it would fail.”

Michael Cargill

Michael Cargill

Until the past decade, permitless carry was considered a radical idea throughout the country, and it was supported by only a small minority of Second Amendment hard-liners. Other than in Vermont, which has never required a permit to publicly carry any gun, the overwhelming majority of Americans couldn’t carry handguns outside their homes for most of the twentieth century. When some states began to allow concealed carry in the 1980s, they maintained permitting processes that allowed them to vet, track, and sometimes train anyone who would be armed in public.

What Cargill said at the bar was right: Texans, despite their gun-toting reputation, have consistently been opposed to permitless carry. In 2015, a poll conducted by the University of Texas at Austin found that only 10 percent of state residents thought it was the best approach, and even among those who identified as “extremely conservative,” only 18 percent preferred it to licensed carry options. Republican leaders in Texas were at best uninterested in the policy. Until last year, Abbott was strategically evasive about where he stood on the matter. In 2019, Republican Dennis Bonnen, then speaker of the House, who boasted an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, wrote on Facebook that permitless-carry supporters were “fringe gun activists,” and accused them of setting “back the entire 2nd Amendment movement” with their absolutist demands.

The fringe had first started to attract broad attention in 2013, when activists began striding into Starbucks and Chipotle with rifles slung across their backs. Their purpose was somewhat nebulous—open carry of long guns was already legal in most states. (In the past, few people had tested it, and there was little need for restriction.) Some claimed they wanted to normalize the presence of guns in public spaces, arguing that firearms worn openly would deter crime. But they were also looking to provoke and, arguably, intimidate. Throughout the next few years, they staged protests at chain stores and fast-food restaurants, and angled to go viral with videos like “Open Carrying a Glock in Whole Foods” and “Open Carry Expert Schools a Rookie Cop.” In November 2013, when three members of the gun-control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America met at a restaurant in suburban Dallas, at least two dozen people—men, women, and children—armed with AR-15s and AK-47s paraded through the parking lot. The demonstrations were divisive within the pro-gun community. An NRA spokesman condemned the activists as an “attention-hungry few” who risked “turning an undecided voter into an anti-gun voter.”

In Texas, it had always been legal for licensed gun owners to openly carry long guns, and in 2015 the state legislature considered a bill that would extend the right to handguns. Poncho Nevárez, who was then a state representative, told me that he “wasn’t particularly opposed to open carry.” He was a Democrat serving a West Texas district whose demographic complexities belie the caricature of the state sometimes drawn in national media: its population was mostly rural, left-leaning, predominantly Hispanic, and supportive of gun rights. Nevárez himself was an avid hunter, with a concealed-carry permit and a shooting range on his ranch. “I’ve got guns to spare,” he told me. “I mean, I’ve got a lot of, you know, backups.”

On January 13, the first day of the legislative session, gun advocates gathered outside the pink granite state house, many of them armed with rifles. “With your help, we are going to storm this capitol and quit getting on our knees and asking for the Second Amendment back. We are going to take it back,” Republican Jonathan Stickland, the sponsor of the open-carry bill, told the crowd. Inside, a half dozen armed men and women marched into Nevárez’s office, ready for a confrontation. The political momentum was on their side—the open-carry bill seemed likely to pass—and Nevárez wasn’t really their opposition. But they wanted more than open carry.

The group was led by Kory Watkins, a rail-thin bartender with authority issues and a dog named Glock. Watkins, who is white, was known around his hometown of Arlington, Texas, for his regular “cop watches,” where he’d shadow and film police officers, sometimes with an AK-47 strapped over his shoulder, purportedly to watch for abuses of power. While many Republicans were pushing for licensed open carry, Watkins wanted permitless carry. Nevárez told the group he didn’t support it—very few people then did. He let the protesters berate him for a little while, a small smile playing on his mouth, before asking them to leave.

Watching a video of the incident, which Watkins filmed, you can see the precise moment when the mood in the room shifted. As some of the protesters file out, a couple of them, including Watkins, hang back. They quote the Second Amendment at Nevárez, call him a tyrant, tell him he “won’t be here very long, bro.” Nevárez isn’t smiling anymore. He tells them to get out of his office. They tell him that it’s the people’s office. “The funny thing is, that day I had walked in with a pistol,” Nevárez told me. “The sofa I’m sitting on, there’s a pistol underneath it. And I’m thinking to myself, these people don’t know, I could just reach under there and shoot them for trespassing.”

He stood up, without his gun, and attempted to herd the group into the hallway. Watkins stuck his foot in the door and kept talking, less to Nevárez than to an imagined future audience on Facebook. “What are you going to do?” he asked, the challenge thickening his voice. Someone off camera told Watkins to be nice. “I’m being nice,” he said. “I’ll show you mean.” A few weeks later, he posted a video, now deleted, doubling down on his threats: “I want to put more than my foot in that door. . . . We should be demanding that these people give us our rights back. Or else it’s punishable by death. Treason.”

The story went viral; within a few weeks, the Texas House of Representatives passed an amendment tightening security at the capitol, including an allowance for panic buttons in lawmakers’ offices. Nevárez dismissed the incident as the agitation of a small group on the farthest edge of gun advocacy. Prominent Republican lawmakers condemned the protesters’ belligerence. “House members are not going to be bullied,” said Joe Straus, then speaker of the House.

But from what Nevárez could tell, the hardcore activists were more motivated than ever. They took pictures of themselves, and their guns, outside his law office and at the gate of his ranch. They sent him aerial pictures of his house to remind him that they knew where he lived. Nevárez wasn’t sure how seriously to take it all, but he started carrying a weapon more often. Two weeks after the initial confrontation, Watkins was back at the capitol, this time posing for selfies in Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s office, where he’d been welcomed to discuss permitless carry. As expected, the open-carry bill passed handily a few months later.

Watkins and his crew were part of a broader movement of hard-liners building off the NRA’s half century of success in advocating for more guns in public spaces. The gun-rights behemoth had begun that effort in the late 1970s, pushing for expanded concealed-carry laws in campaigns that played on racist fears of urban crime. At that time, almost all states effectively prohibited guns in public by requiring civilians to obtain special permission to be armed outside their homes. This is called a “may issue” policy: applicants seek to justify their particular need, and the government may or may not grant a permit. The NRA lobbied for states to enact “shall issue” policies, meaning that anyone who applied and met minimal criteria would receive a license to carry a concealed weapon. By 1986, they had succeeded in five states; a decade later, in more than half the country.

By the 2010s, the NRA was losing its stranglehold on the gun lobby. The organization was in financial trouble, and even longtime supporters were chafing under the excessive spending and self-dealing of chief executive Wayne LaPierre. The NRA’s schmooze-and-lobby style, its reliance on men in expensive suits, was also out of step with the increasingly brash political tone of the moment. A cohort of more radical groups such as Gun Owners of America and the National Association for Gun Rights, and smaller grassroots organizations like Open Carry Texas, began to draw an increasing share of attention and donations, and had growing influence on Tea Party Republicans. Combative and uncompromising, these groups were often led by younger activists with a trollish, theatrical bent, and a keen sense for what would go viral online. Permitless carry was one of their main rallying points, and by 2015 they’d already helped it pass in Arizona, Kansas, and Maine. (When the NRA scrambled to take credit for the spread of permitless carry a couple of years later, a North Carolina activist scoffed: “They’re sort of Johnny-come-latelys on this.”)

But the Second Amendment absolutists who dominated these groups were still in the minority among conservatives. According to Texas Politics Project polling, after open carry passed in the state in 2015, a majority of Texas Republicans thought that gun laws should be left alone; less than a third wanted more permissive regulations. When Republican lawmakers were asked about permitless carry at the time, they were dismissive. “Constitutional carry? I would say highly unlikely,” the Republican state senator Joan Huffman told the Houston Chronicle. “It could create some chaos in an ordered society. I think that we have a process in place that appears to be working.” Law enforcement officials, too, opposed the idea, on the grounds that it would make their jobs more dangerous.

Over the next few years, Texans endured a number of high-profile mass shootings, including the murder of twenty-six people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs in 2017; of ten people at Santa Fe High School, outside Houston, the next year; and of twenty-three people at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019. In 2018, the outspoken survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, reinvigorated the movement for gun control nationally. And after the El Paso shooting, which was perpetrated by a young man with virulently racist views, the push for new restrictions had enough momentum that even Patrick, who had remained committed to the Tea Party line, spoke in favor of expanded background checks.

But these challenges galvanized gun-rights absolutists. They weren’t in the majority, but they didn’t have to be, the director of the Texas Politics Project, Jim Henson, told me. The Republican candidates in statehouse elections, he said, are decided in primaries where no more than fifty or sixty thousand people vote. The newer hard-line gun organizations are “mobilized, and they support primary candidates, and they’ve become more and more entrenched in the Republican Party.” Part of the absolutists’ power, Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and the author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, told me, comes from “the cycle of democratic politics” itself. There’s an artificial need for new efforts, new edges to push. “The pro-gun elected officials need to have something to give to their constituents. And you’ve already loosened the gun laws so much, so what else do you do?”

These dynamics were playing out across the country. From 2016 to 2020, eight new states enacted permitless carry, largely in the South and Midwest. By the 2021 legislative session in Texas, sixteen states had instituted some form of the law, and in the first few months of the year, four more did so in quick succession: Utah and Montana in February, Iowa and Tennessee in April. Texas would be the largest and most urban so far. Kory Watkins had by then moved to Puerto Rico and reinvented himself as a “digital asset consultant,” claiming expertise in cryptocurrency. In his absence, activists applied more polished but unrelenting pressure. One state representative told me that his office received hundreds of calls and emails about permitless carry every week between January and May, many of them from non-Texans.

As the session wore on, it became clear that the state’s Republicans were focused on winning their upcoming primaries by placating their most active voters. By May, legislators had essentially banned abortion and radically tightened the state’s already restrictive voting laws. That month, a Texas Tribune poll found that 59 percent of state residents were opposed to permitless carry. But when it came time to vote, only one Republican voted against the bill. Seven Democrats supported it. The partisan divide was the sharpest it had been in decades; Republican lawmakers could trust that even if a majority of their conservative constituents wanted permit requirements for guns, they still wouldn’t vote for Democrats.

In June, Abbott signed the bill in a ceremony at the Alamo, with a brief speech invoking cartels, gangs, and the federal government’s assault on Second Amendment rights, with the NRA’s LaPierre by his side. The fringe was now the law.

Today, twenty-one states allow permitless carry. The same number follow “shall issue” gun licensing, under which nearly all citizens who want them are granted concealed-carry permits. Though “shall issue” policies expanded state by state throughout the preceding two decades, it wasn’t until the Obama Administration that new permits really began to surge, rising by 256 percent between 2007 and 2017. During the Trump Administration, the number of new license holders continued to grow each year—even as the spread of permitless-carry laws meant that licenses weren’t necessary in many places. Excluding residents of New York and California (about 17 percent of the country), nearly one in ten American adults now has a license to carry a concealed weapon.

The Supreme Court is currently considering the constitutionality of “may issue” permitting for guns outside the home, through a challenge to a New York law that limits concealed-carry licenses to those who can show “a special need for protection distinguishable from that of the general community.” If the New York statute is struck down, as most court watchers believe it will be, the handful of holdout “may issue” states will almost certainly be obligated to grant permits to practically any law-abiding adult who wants one. In Los Angeles County, home to roughly ten million people, only a few hundred civilians have concealed-carry permits. “The numbers are similar in New York and San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and Boston,” Adam Winkler told me. If California becomes a “shall issue” state and 5 percent of L.A. County residents get permits—a low estimate—“you’re going from four hundred people to approximately half a million,” he said. “So that’s what the stakes are.”

Ideas about what a world with more civilian-carried guns might look like often have a whiff of fantasy about them. Gun advocates have a propensity for Hollywood action-hero scenarios, where armed warriors take down criminals with cold precision. Gun opponents tend to foresee open battle in the streets and mass chaos—and now, following the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, unbridled vigilante violence. But there is not yet any scholarly consensus on the link between concealed-carry laws—including permitless carry—and either increases or decreases in civilian violence. (Gun availability generally does seem to lead to an increase in suicides, which make up the majority of American gun deaths.)

However, as private individuals have become more heavily armed, police have upped their firepower in turn—from six-shot, .38-caliber revolvers to semiautomatic Glocks in the 1990s and AR-15s in the 2000s—an inconvenience for the libertarian position that permissive gun laws will prevent a state monopoly on force. The ambient presence of guns in public space seems to heighten a cop’s anxious sense of patrolling hostile territory. Robert Shockey, the executive director of the Police Chiefs Association for the state of Missouri, where permitless carry has been legal since 2017, told me he thinks most officers consider most people to be armed during traffic stops. “It just puts us all on higher alert,” he said. Four of the five states with the lowest per capita rates of police shootings are “may issue” states, where very few people can legally carry firearms. The five states with the highest per capita rates of shootings of civilians by police have permissive gun laws; four allow permitless carry.

When the sociologist Jennifer Carlson interviewed police chiefs for her book Policing the Second Amendment: Guns, Law Enforcement, and the Politics of Race, between 2014 and 2017, she found that many of them seemed supportive of the growing number of legally armed Americans. “I had one police chief who straight-up said he felt safer knowing there are more civilians who are legally armed,” Carlson told me. But her interviews made clear who the officers had in mind: “There was a clear racialization of the ‘good guy with a gun,’ who was implied to be a white middle-class guy, encountering a violent scenario in a rural or suburban area imagined to be primarily white.” In fact, permissive gun laws are often paired with legislation that creates harsher punishments for people who possess guns illegally—laws that have been shown to disproportionately affect black people. (In Texas, the permitless-carry law includes a clause establishing a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for gun possession by felons released from prison within the past five years.)

When Michael Cargill told me he believed that the permitless-carry law would undoubtedly lead to more violence, the solution he suggested was more private security and surveillance. His own preparedness can sometimes seem closer to paranoia—he’s rigged his car with three cameras that continually upload their footage to the cloud, and a battery pack that powers them even when the vehicle is off—but it’s informed by personal experience. Five years ago, Cargill’s parents, who live in Georgia, called him in a panic. In the middle of the night, his stepfather had discovered a man climbing into a second-story window of their house. According to Cargill’s mother, his stepfather attempted to fire a warning shot. It hit the man in the face. The intruder, a young man who lived down the street, died on the roof. “I said, ‘Mom, you’ve never listened to me a day in your life, but listen to me now: Do not talk to the police,’ ” Cargill told me. He said that the responding officers initially assumed the shooting was drug related; fortunately, he’d wired the home with four security cameras, which captured the entire incident. “You have to protect yourself from the criminals, and then when the police start the investigation, you kind of have to protect yourself from them,” he said. “Because, as a black family, the police are not your friend. Everyone else thinks they’re your friend. No. They are not your friend.”

In August, I started the process to get my Texas license to carry. When permitless carry went into effect on September 1, the certification would still have some use. It would allow me to buy a gun without undergoing a background check, and to carry one in any of the dozens of states that reciprocally recognize Texas’s permits, such as Louisiana, Georgia, and Delaware. It would also enable me to carry in some places where others couldn’t, such as university campuses and government meetings open to the public. But, in the waning days before the new rules, it felt like something of a relic, a holdover from another time.

The course met in a back room of Central Texas Gun Works, where a pot of coffee burbled in the corner. Cargill said that enrollment had been dwindling since the permitless-carry bill passed, but there were still a dozen people in my Saturday morning class: a young man wearing a crucifix on a chain necklace, a mother and her twenty-year-old son, a realtor in denim cutoffs and a reagan bush hat who said she worked in “sketchy neighborhoods.”

The state-approved course, once ten hours long, had been trimmed to around five. It included segments on nonviolent communication, use of deadly force laws, and gun safety. Cargill rattled off the regulations in a practiced patter, sometimes giggling at his own jokes. When he sensed attention ebbing, he would holler like a drill sergeant, then break into a wide, disarming grin.

He walked us through the bewildering logic of Texas firearm law: You can bring a gun into the parking lot of a school, but not a school building. In your car, your gun has to be concealed or in a holster. What counts as a holster? Unclear. If there isn’t a posted sign, a licensed person needs to be verbally told that they can’t carry their gun into a hospital or nursing home; an unlicensed person commits a crime as soon as they walk in the door armed, even with permitless carry in effect.

We spent an hour exploring the circumstances under which we’d be legally justified in shooting someone. Some of the cases made a kind of sense—to prevent murder, sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping. Others were less intuitive—to prevent theft or criminal mischief (graffiti, toilet-papering) if after dark. “You can shoot someone for TP-ing your house?” the man with the crucifix necklace asked. Cargill nodded. “At night, yes.” “Seems a little harsh,” the man muttered.

After a brief multiple-choice exam, which everyone passed, we decamped to a shooting range for a proficiency test. Cargill was assisted by a quiet man with a mustache—his partner, I later learned. “He likes to watch my back at the range,” Cargill said. “He’s so protective of me.” We shot at human silhouette targets from 3, 7, and 15 yards. My vanity requires me to brag that I scored 245 out of a possible 250, the bullet holes mostly clustered in the silhouette’s gut. I glanced at the realtor and her boyfriend; their targets were a chaos of perforation, but still apparently good enough to qualify for a license. Later that week, I made an appointment to get fingerprinted, then filled out a form telling the Texas Department of Safety where I’d lived for the past five years. A few weeks later, my license arrived in the mail.

As I was researching permitless carry, friends and strangers alike told me their gun stories. I heard about the organist who started carrying a pistol in her purse after the Sutherland Springs church shooting, and the left-wing activist who’d bought a rifle after he was doxed by white supremacists. I learned that a friend of mine had had a handgun hidden inside his waistband pretty much every time I’d seen him for years. Different people gave me variations on the same argument: if they were going to be armed—where “they” meant anyone from mass shooters to the Mexican cartels to racists to police officers—then I might as well be, too. “I wish there were no guns,” the country singer Natalie Maines told USA Today in 2013. “But I’m also of the mindset if nothing else changes, I’m getting a gun.”

Thanks to the new law, it would be easier than ever to join their ranks. Even without my permit, I could show up at a gun store and, assuming I passed the federal background check, walk home armed—or, if I wanted to bypass the check entirely, I could buy a gun in a private sale. I would start to scan for signs that other people were carrying, noting how they carried themselves, looking for a hitch in their step or whether they subtly favored one side. Scholars have found that people carrying guns have a tendency to perceive others as armed, whether they are or not; perhaps I would begin to imagine guns where there weren’t any. Fraught situations would become charged with deadly potential—a potential that, as the Rittenhouse verdict indicated, I could use to justify violence.

When I spoke with Patrick Blanchfield, author of the forthcoming Gunpower: The Structure of American Violence, he wondered about the “social accommodations” we make for the pervasiveness of guns in public, and he brought up the cognitive load of carrying a firearm. “You have to constantly think, There’s a gun there,” he said. “The use of the gun becomes a live option. It’s imaginable. That’s not the same as saying it’s inevitable. But it’s imaginable.” It seemed to me that more and more people were bowing to the idea that the problem of guns would be solved with more guns. And that a world operating under that self-replicating logic left all of us moving differently through it, carrying a little more weight.

I thought about how Nevárez had described his life now. He’d left the state legislature after a drug scandal and gotten sober. The sense of ambient threat he’d once felt had abated, and he seemed grateful for it. He told me he still shoots, but he doesn’t carry that often anymore. He no longer saw the world as a place made safer by being armed. “I don’t live in a place like that,” he said. “We may at some point. But I don’t want to feel that way. And I don’t.”

 is the author of Savage Appetites: True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession. She lives in Marfa, Texas.

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