My father's Iver Johnson .410 shotgun, which he promised would be mine soon, leaned on its stock in a closet off the kitchen filled with other guns and camping gear. The shotgun was given to him by my granddad, who'd bought it at an Ohio sporting goods store in the early 1950s. It was a squirrel gun that took only one shell and had to be manually cocked to fire; my father said it would teach me to shoot safely. I was months away from turning 15 and felt that a gun was the proper acknowledgment of oncoming adulthood.
When spring came, I got to use the Iver Johnson, but not for hunting, as it turned out. My father, a lawyer, was on a business trip and had left us behind, my mother, my brother, and me, on our small farm in eastern Minnesota. We were miles out of town, on a hill above a river, and there was a feeling of being on our own. One night a convict escaped from a state prison—a dangerous convict, someone known for mayhem—and several news reports placed him in our county. It was nighttime when we heard the warnings, first from a Minneapolis radio station and then, a few hours later, from a neighbor, who called us to say the convict had left some clothing in a barn on a nearby dairy farm.
"Lock the doors," said my mother, hanging up the phone.
The rest of the plan was my idea, hatched in a moment of rustic melodrama that seems, 35 years later, picturesque, like a "Little House on the Prairie" episode. I loaded the shotgun by sliding a slim red shell into the chamber. I clunked the barrel shut. Then I made everyone go upstairs with me. My mother and brother stayed inside a bedroom while I took up position on the top step and pointed the old Iver Johnson down the staircase. For the first hour of my vigil, I imagined the violent scene that might unfold. I wouldn't shout a warning; I'd shoot on sight. The load wasn't powerful enough to kill a man, but if it struck him in the head he'd drop, allowing me time to ready another shell. Given the distance, there wasn't much chance I'd miss. I pictured blood. I pictured a person staggering. How realistic these pictures were I didn't know, since the movies in those days weren't graphic about such matters, at least not the movies that teenagers could see.
The night dragged on and on and nothing happened. The next day, the convict was captured by the police. I slid the shotgun underneath my bed where I felt it belonged, now that it was mine.
Growing up around guns and owning them as an adult affords a person memories and experiences that strangers to guns may have trouble understanding. The divide is phenomenological, not political (or not political until it gets to be), like the gulf between those who've had sex and those who haven't or those who smoke and those who've never lit up. Pulling a trigger and being prepared to do so cuts patterns in the self. Depending on the nature of your social life, which time around guns can shape and color in ways that I'll describe, you might forget that these patterns are even there, because you're surrounded by people who share them—until someone or some event challenges you to answer for your thinking.
In Aurora, Colorado, last August, on assignment for this magazine, I stood at the edge of a movie theater parking lot where twelve people had been shot dead the night before and 58 others had been wounded. The shooter (I dislike this term; it seems too procedural, too flavorless; I still prefer the harsh, judgmental "killer") had been armed with a shotgun, a pistol, and a rifle. He'd used all three, according to reports, firing into the crowd of moviegoers from a position near the screen. The casualties would have been greater, experts speculated, had the rifle—a semi-automatic model based on the Army's M-16—not jammed (a sensation that gun owners know inside their muscles and at which others have to guess). The haunted parking lot was strewn with popcorn, great yellow streaks of it spilled from trampled buckets, that conjured up the chaos and the panic and left me unable to enjoy the stuff.
But I could still shoot—with pleasure, without guilt, and with no evident post-traumatic pangs. When the time to lay blame for the massacre arrived, it wasn't Americans' easy access to firearms that I found myself deploring, but a depraved, unbalanced culture of splatter-fest games and other dark entertainments. I blamed the potential for gruesome fame nurtured by the Internet, as well as a mental health system that's not a system.
But then, soon enough, another mass shooting occurred, at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. And then another, at Sandy Hook Elementary. The crimes were no longer discrete abominations but one continuous siege, it seemed, broken only by pauses for reloading. This was a war that warranted wartime thinking; cultural criticism could go to hell. The hour of reckoning had come, particularly for gun owners like me who'd never thought clearly about where we stood, only that it was somewhere between the militants and the innocents—a dangerous spot, since both sides felt attacked.
The country went berserk. Or further berserk. Where incidents of gun violence were concerned, there was suddenly no such thing as local news. The media sent out daily, rolling body counts. Four dead in Pennsylvania, five in New Mexico. Then came the shadow statistics. Gun sales, up. Ammunition inventories, down. Membership in the NRA, expanding. Meanwhile, on YouTwitBook—our virtual town square where actual bodily harm is not a threat and aliases, masks, and hoods are common—the usual anarchy turned to savagery. After Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's vaguely mortician-like leader and chief inflamer, called for armed guards in the schools on "Meet the Press" and David Gregory, the host, broke character as a fresh-faced voice of reason to wave around a rifle magazine, the video of the encounter unleashed comment streams that read like the transcripts of prison riots. A contingent of Sandy Hook "truthers" even emerged to call the horror a hoax. Naturally, this provoked obscene responses.
I hunkered down and started to reflect. To certain fellow gun owners whom I was ashamed to regard as fellow anythings, my belief that the public has a right to collective self-defense from those who abuse their individual rights qualified me as traitor and a weakling. To certain purists among the unarmed, my guns marked me as unwholesome, perhaps a "nut job." A girlfriend had called me this name once, partly in jest, after coming across some bullets in my desk (a few. 22 shells, just pocket litter to me and no more ominous than thumb tacks). I shouldn't have, but I bristled. This troubled her slightly. Which troubled me.
You all know how that goes, that spiral of defensiveness when someone questions something you take for granted. Or maybe you don't, since you've never owned a gun.
Let's go shooting together. It might help us talk.
They push back when they're fired. That's the elemental fact involved, the deep Newtonian heart of the whole business. They kick at your will in the instant they also project it, reminding you that force is always two-sided. It's a shock the first time, an insult to the senses, but once you've learned to expect it, absorb it, ride it, recoil becomes a source of pleasure. You're up on your board turning turbulence to flow. You want to do it again, again—again!—and the urge becomes part of your body, your nervous system. It feels as though it was always there, this appetite, this desire for a small, acute struggle that you can win. Win consistently. Repeatedly.
When I shoot at the range, I don't feel personally powerful but like the custodian of something powerful. I feel like a successful disciplinarian of something radically alien and potent. Analyze this sensation all you want; you still can't make it go away. But that's the primitive, underlying fear, of course, which the likes of LaPierre exploit: the fear that it will be curtailed, suppressed, prohibited—perhaps not any time soon, but ultimately.
We're not talking rights here; we're talking instincts. It's not the gun that the so-called "clingers" cling to and don't like the thought of anybody screwing with. It's not even the power of the gun. It's the power over the power of the gun.
Guns alter your reflexes, your neural pathways. The changes are subtle at first, and welcome, like the heightened awareness that posture golf clubs bring. Later, if you're an imaginative type, the changes can grow more pronounced, more conscious. You start to entertain scenarios that might not occur to you if you didn't shoot.
My friend, an Army captain, a tall West Pointer, was just back from Iraq. He'd had a tough time there. We were wrapping Christmas presents. He asked me if I'd ever heard of a law passed under President George W. Bush (he called it a new "order," actually) that established a formal military command, USNORTHCOM, over the country itself. His tone was dark, insinuating, and I looked at him, concerned. PTSD. We're all hip to its signs (at least in others), and a moment ago my friend had asked me (oddly, I thought) to turn off a ceiling fan whirling above our heads whose blades kept distracting him as he tied ribbons.
When I asked my friend what bothered him about the Northern Command, his answer, as I half-feared, boiled down to this: Americans beware America. I pressed him. Did he seriously, genuinely believe that soldiers, our soldiers, soldiers much like himself, could possibly be prevailed upon to intimidate or attack their fellow citizens?
Affirmative. If ordered to. They're soldiers.
The unarmed fear the armed, but the armed are disposed to fear the better armed. Occasionally, in idle moments, as an exercise in guided paranoia, I let myself picture the mythical siege of kicked-in doors and smoky, barricaded streets implanted in my head by my West Point friend. As a creative aid, I run the newsreel: Waco, the Rodney King tape, Kent State, etc. I also think back to a haunting traffic stop in the winter of 2004–2005 on a freeway near Junction City, Kansas. It started when I was pulled over for a bad headlight and ended with a dog sniffing my car, watched by a cop in a swat-team-style black uniform. I felt vulnerable, humiliated, outmanned.
I also know the opposite feeling, of outmanning someone else, because I pulled a gun on a guy once. It happened outside of the building where I live in downtown Livingston, Montana, a town of 7,000 that I moved to from New York City 23 years ago, back when New York was still considered dangerous. I was in the cab of my Ford pickup after a trip to a mini-storage locker with my two children, who were nine and six. Right across the street was the Mint Bar, a cavernous old brick hideout for midday tipplers in front of which was standing a lean young man who'd glared at me with a manic, feral focus the moment I'd parked and opened the truck door. He seemed high, not just drunk, with that toxic aura of meth, and when our eyes met, he bared his teeth and hissed that he was going to kill me, that I was dead, shifting his weight toward the curb at the same time. Somehow my kids didn't hear him as they climbed out, nor did they see my reaction to his threat: I opened the glove compartment and removed a long-barreled .22 target pistol that was there by chance, as part of the move. Its rubber grip met my hand and melded with it in a smooth, reflexive motion. I held the gun across my belt line, displaying its silver profile as I turned. The scary young man was about ten yards away by then, but when he saw the gun, his body rocked backward as though in a cartoon. I watched his flushed face drain pale as he backed off, one shoe untied and dragging a long, loose lace. He vanished around the bar's corner, a full retreat that left me presiding over a total victory that no one, because the street was empty, had witnessed.
A single win is not a streak. It may, in fact, be a basis for self-delusion. Statistics on the dangers guns pose to the health of their owners and those who live with them suggest that I'd be safer selling my guns than reserving them for Tombstone II. Trouble is, in an armed showdown, statistics tend to lose. In those who've learned to imagine assailants everywhere and may even have faced a real assailant, guns encourage a sense of personal exceptionalism. It's the essence of their magnetism. Firearms exist to manage situations where rationality has failed, so thinking rationally about them can be hard.
Guns can turn you into an insider even if you're an outsider by nature, recruiting you into a loose fraternity of people who feel embattled and defensive and are primally eager to win allies. For the apprehensive newcomer, this process of ingratiation happens in increments, through a series of pats on the shoulder and other encouragements.
Last year, I visited a local outdoors store with a well-schooled, citified young woman who'd taken a shooting-sports course at a friend's urging, discovered in herself a natural acumen, and decided to buy a firearm of her own so she could hone her aim. The clerk at the glass display case was a maven, clearly eager to make converts. He regaled us with talk of light-weight alloys, laser sights, and "concealability." When my friend chose a single-action Ruger pistol, there was a problem with the paperwork; her driver's license listed a P.O. Box, not a physical address, as the law required. No worries, the clerk offered a workaround. If she bought a fishing license in the same store, she could enter a street address on the honor system. Voilà, a second state ID!
A couple of weeks later, with our new sidearms, we sat in a spartan club house at a gun range as a folksy retired small-town cop gave about twelve of us a short exam that would qualify us for concealed-carry permits. The instructor made sure, with hints, that everyone passed. He also briefed us on the gun laws of states more tightly wound than ours. Special caution was urged when traveling through Nevada, where even an unloaded gun locked in a car trunk might land its owner in hot water. The presentation was neutral on the legitimacy of such regulations and restrictions, but its unmistakable, unvoiced premise was that we were entering hostile territory, a world poised to trip us up. The only solution was rigorous self-discipline, a heightened sense of vigilance and caution that those without guns didn't need to cultivate.
It's flattering being recruited into an ethos of responsibility. It makes you want to walk the line. It also reminds you how arbitrary some lines are. Cross the wrong state border with your gun or wake up one morning to new legislation or a new presidential executive order, and suddenly you're the bad guy, not the good guy. No wonder some gun owners seem so touchy; they feel, at some level, like criminals in waiting. This feeling helps promote a bond. "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns," says the cussed old right-wing bumper sticker. Perhaps there should be another one that says: "If guns are outlawed, there will be a lot more outlaws."
A few months after taking the concealed-carry class, my friend and I attended a benefit for a small-town charity that attracted several people of means. Barbecued ribs were served on the host's porch and somehow the talk turned to crime and self-defense. The former CEO of a huge company described being kidnapped for ransom many years ago. The man had escaped his captor and cheated death, he felt; he'd carried a weapon ever since, loaded with man-stopping, lethal ammunition of the sort that starts flying off the shelves when "Meet the Press" hosts wave ammo clips around on Sunday morning. Soon, other rib-eaters got to talking guns, and it emerged that a group of them, all women, liked to get together, don fancy clothes, and practice their marksmanship. They invited my friend to join them for their next outing, drawing her further into a new "us" that, only recently, had been a "them" to her.
Will there be fewer murders with tighter gun laws—the modest laws that might actually materialize rather than the grand ones that probably won't but will surely rev up the rhetoric and the hoarding—or only fewer or smaller massacres? Can we expect less violence altogether or merely less outrageous acts of violence? And if the answer is fewer catastrophes, fewer Auroras and Sandy Hooks, would that be a worthwhile accomplishment in itself? I think so. Horror and panic themselves are forms of violence, and diminishing them, restricting their dimensions, is itself a civilizing act.
To civilize, I think, is the key verb. It's a crossover word, with a cultural legacy and a practical, specific meaning—to order; to, yes, "regulate"—that the gun-owning mind responds to and respects. In westerns, the gun (the gun in the right hands; and the gun owner thinks of his own hands as the right ones, which all who wish to engage him in conversation would be wise not to forget) is a tool of civilization, not a totem. It tames, the gun, but only if it's first tamed. Those who won't tame it, or can't—because they're unable to tame themselves—must face being disarmed. Especially hard-to-tame types of guns, moreover, must be closely, vigilantly watched.
Of the five or six guns I've gathered over the decades (IF YOU KNOW HOW MANY GUNS YOU HAVE, YOU DON'T HAVE ENOUGH read a t-shirt I saw once) only one is designed to use on human beings: a .38 revolver of the type that burdened policemen's sagging belts once, before the adoption of sleeker 9mms. The gun is a stodgy old classic, Smithsonian-worthy, that evokes the Made-in-USA age and also speaks of my distance, I like to think, from the cult of maximum firepower that draws harder-boiled folks to stores and gun shows to handle Bushmasters and similar weapons with death-dealing, quasi-military designs. Such ominous firearms hold no allure for me, in part because I doubt they'd do much good against a maniac carrying one or a hypothetical goon squad equipped with their vastly superior big brothers. Ban those guns. Neuter them. I'm fine with it. I can hunt with my shotguns and my deer gun (although I've grown tired of hunting), and I can protect myself from miscreants with my trusty .38.
To some in the gun-owning fraternity, this view makes me a traitor. So be it; I think they're wrong. As they have repeatedly pointed out themselves, and as even Wayne LaPierre might agree, assault rifles are functionally similar to ordinary semi-automatic rifles, differing chiefly in their sinister cosmetics, not in their underlying ballistics. This being the case, what will be lost by giving them up? Nothing but their destabilizing allure for the grandiose, image-obsessed mass killers who favor them—and whose crimes represent a far greater risk to gun rights than does the perceived hostility of certain politicians. By assenting to such a ban, the gun-owning community can demonstrate precisely the sort of reasonable public-mindedness of which some believe it to be incapable. Otherwise, the showdown will go on and we will have only ourselves to blame if our self-destructive intransigence leaves us despised and cornered, with no way out.