Thanks to the tireless efforts of the NRA and the gun manufacturers, 49 states now issue concealed-carry permits to people for whom merely owning guns is not enough. As we focus our attention on military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, we need to remember that the most important change in recent years isn't in the equipment, but in the spread of a new kind of mentality among many gun owners, one that seeks to make fear the organizing principle of American society.
This has been the essential focus of gun advocates' work in recent years: changing laws so that as many people as possible can carry as many guns as possible into as many places as possible. Since the people who want to do so have driven the discussion and the laws on guns, it's important to understand where they're coming from. And frankly, it's an ugly place.
Most gun owners don't have concealed carry permits, and there is a profound psychological difference between someone who has a gun in his home and someone who decides to carry a gun wherever he goes. Even apart from the threat the carrier poses to the rest of us, he has decided to transform his view of the world into one in which every person he encounters is a potential assailant, every space he walks into a potential scene of carnage, every moment the moment before violence and death erupt. It isn't just that he's adequately prepared for a two-hour gun battle should Seal Team Six try to to breach his home (though he is), but that for him the battlefield is everywhere and at every moment. Supermarkets, parks, sidewalks, and schools are all places where the gunfire just hasn't begun yet.
And in his fantasy, not only will he be firing his gun some day to stop crimes and save bystanders, but things would be better if everybody was carrying, so that all of us could be gripped by the same fear as him, the fear that anyone might try to kill us at any moment, the fear that can only be handled by being able and willing to kill first. Gun advocates are fond of saying, "An armed society is a polite society." To a certain degree that might be true. But you know what else is a polite society? North Korea. A society that's polite because everyone is terrified of everyone else is a society that is sick down to its bones.
A couple of years ago, Dan Baum wrote an excellent article for Harper's in which he talked about the experience of carrying a gun everywhere and the perspective of those who do so. Here's an excerpt:
Beyond mere politics, gun carriers are evangelizing a social philosophy. Belief in rising crime, when statistics show the opposite, amounts to faith in a natural order of predators and prey. The turtle doesn't apologize for his shell nor the tiger for his claws; humans shouldn't be bashful about equipping to defend themselves. Men and women who carry guns fill a noble niche between sheep and wolf. "Sheepdogs" is the way they often describe themselves—alert, vigilant, not aggressive but prepared to do battle.
In both classes, and in every book about concealed carry that I read, much was made of "conditions of readiness," which are color-coded from white to red. Condition White is total oblivion to one's surroundings—sleeping, being drunk or stoned, losing oneself in conversation while walking on city streets, texting while listening to an iPod. Condition Yellow is being aware of, and taking an interest in, one's surroundings—essentially, the mental state we are encouraged to achieve when we are driving: keeping our eyes moving, checking the mirrors, being careful not to let the radio drown out the sounds around us. Condition Orange is being aware of a possible threat. Condition Red is responding to danger.
Contempt for Condition White unifies the gun-carrying community almost as much as does fealty to the Second Amendment. "When you’re in Condition White you're a sheep," one of my Boulder instructors told us. "You're a victim." The American Tactical Shooting Association says the only time to be in Condition White is "when in your own home, with the doors locked, the alarm system on, and your dog at your feet. . . . The instant you leave your home, you escalate one level, to Condition Yellow." A citizen in Condition White is as useless as an unarmed citizen, not only a political cipher but a moral dud. "I feel I have a responsibility, and I believe that in my afterlife I will be judged," one of the Boulder gun instructors said. "Part of the judgment will be: Did this guy look after himself? It’s a minimum responsibility."
Just as the Red Cross would like everybody to be qualified in CPR, gun carriers want everybody prepared to confront violence—not only by being armed but by maintaining Condition Yellow. Hang around with people committed to carrying guns and it’s easy to feel guilty about lapsing into Condition White, to begin seeing yourself as deadweight on society, a parasite, a mediocre citizen. "You should constantly practice being in Condition Yellow all the time," writes Tony Walker in his book How to Win a Gunfight....
I'm more alert and acute when I'm wearing my gun. If I'm in a restaurant or store, I find myself in my own little movie, glancing at the door when a person walks in and, in a microsecond, evaluating whether a threat has appeared and what my options for response would be—roll left and take cover behind that pillar? On the street, I look people over: Where are his hands? What does his face tell me? I run sequences in my head. If a guy jumps me with a knife, should I throw money to the ground and run? Take two steps back and draw? How about if he has a gun? How will I distract him so I can get the drop? It can be fun. But it can also be exhausting. Some nights I dream gunfight scenarios over and over and wake up bushed. In Flagstaff I was planning to meet a friend for a beer, and although carrying in a bar is legal in Arizona, drinking in a bar while armed is not. I locked my gun in the car. Walking the few blocks to the bar, I realized how different I felt: lighter, dreamier, conscious of how the afternoon light slanted against Flagstaff's old buildings. I found myself, as I walked, composing lines of prose. I was lapsing into Condition White, and loving it.
Condition White may make us sheep, but it's also where art happens. It's where we daydream, reminisce, and hear music in our heads. Hard-core gun carriers want no part of that, and the zeal for getting everybody to carry a gun may be as much an anti–Condition White movement as anything else—resentment toward the airy-fairy elites who can enjoy the luxury of musing, sipping tea, and nibbling biscuits while the good people of the world have to work for a living and keep their guard up. Gun guys never stop building and strengthening this like-minded community. When I mention that I'm carrying, their faces light up. "Good for you!" "Right on!" "God bless you!" The owner of a gun factory in Mesa, Arizona, spotted the gun under my jacket and said, with great solemnity, "You honor me by wearing your gun to my place of business."
This week, Florida will issue its one millionth concealed-carry permit. To repeat, concealed carriers are a minority of gun owners. But their preferences, and the fantasy world in which they live, have more and more determined the collective choices we as a society make about guns.