Sunday, October 24, 2010

Living The Gun Life


Comments now closed. Everything that could possibly be said has been said.



As usual, the personal attacks have begun. I've allowed plenty of pro-gun folks to comment on this thread and share their ideas. I welcome reasonable conversation but if you're going to be an asshole and attack me personally I'm going to close this comment thread.


I love sharing my thoughts about guns, gun violence, and gun policy. Without fail my blog gets trolled by gun loons, 99% of them the same folks -- directed here by the same pro-gun blog -- who have hated what I have to say since the Tennessee guns-in-bars bill that started this whole thing. They come over to my blog to whine about how I won’t let them trash me or my regulars with comment spam. Apparently the idea that shouting over everyone else is not conducive to a conversation is a completely foreign concept.

It’s thuggery, pure and simple: I know this because one of my regular trolls once promised to call off the dogs if I’d stop blogging about guns. I don’t like poking a stick at a hornet’s nest but I like being intimidated even less, so I’ll keep writing about stuff that strikes a nerve with me, gun loons be damned.

Back in August I was fascinated by Dan Baum’s CCW story in Harper’s: "Happiness is a worn gun: My concealed weapon and me.” Baum is a Boulder, Colorado-based avowed liberal, and also a CCW holder and gun enthusiast -- many liberals are, contrary to conventional wisdom and what Fox News pundits and NRA newsletters say. (Of course, Fox and the NRA have a vested interest in dividing the country into “us” and “them,” so what do you expect?)

Before I go any further, let me tell my pro-gun readers that Baum’s piece is probably the best argument for guns, open-carry, shall-issue laws, etc. which I’ve ever read. (Hint to the gun loons: trolling liberal blogs acting like dicks does not exactly do your movement or your point of view much service. But I digress.)

I’ve been wanting to write about Baum’s piece since I read it back in August but every time I try I end up basically quoting the whole thing, because it’s so full of insight. Unfortunately, Harper’s is subscription only, so if you don’t subscribe you’ll have to find some other way of getting your hands on a copy.

The truth is, I have a lot of friends and family members -- political liberals and Dem-leaning moderates -- who like to shoot firearms and hunt. Heck, I met Mr. Beale at a shooting party. Yes, it’s true! Go figure.

That said, there’s a difference between my liberal gun friends and the ideological purists who deny guns pose any danger at all, who claim that all CCW permit holders are always responsible, and pretend that guns are as innocuous as Bic pens. I detect a cult-like mindset, something which comes up again and again when Baum writes about what he calls “living the gun life.”

Let’s start with Baum’s description of the handgun class he was required to take by Colorado law:
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.)

These are Kool-Aid drinkers who, like Zach Wamp, appear to be so drunk on the fear porn we get 24/7 from the news media that you’d think they were the last defense between civilzation and utter mayhem. Even though violent crime has been dropping for years, apparently thieves, rapists and murderers lurk around every corner, ready to defile their daughters and steal their flat-screen TV.

Their paranoid vision of America is not one I share. “Living the gun life” appears to require being in a constant state of fear, mistrust, and paranoia, viewing your fellow citizens as potential threats, and ready to fight to the death for material objects that are not nearly as valuable as a human life--even the life of a criminal.

Fear is a potent drug, as bad as heroin or cocaine, and equally addictive. Of course this is what the gun loons are selling -- a populace that isn’t in fear doesn’t need to arm itself, does it?

Baum continues:

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, 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.

Welcome to the gun cult! You are now in an exclusive, “special” group: defenders of freedom, liberty, chastity, and family. The fate of the Republic rests on your shoulders.

There's more:

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. Of course, it’s not for everyone; the armed life in Condition Yellow requires being mentally prepared to kill. As John Wayne puts it in his last movie, The Shootist, “It’s not always being fast or even accurate that counts. It’s being willing.”

This is a classic cult mind-control device: to portray those who are in the cult as having special, privileged knowledge, an exclusivity or "elite" status. Those who are outside the cult are portrayed as lost souls, in extreme cases they are evil. It's a separation of humanity into the privileged few and the "other."

This cracked me up, but it also made me sad:

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.”

You honor me? Dang. That's some serious whack.

Fear is an effective tool; its opposite -- certainty -- is equally enticing. I don't want to live in fear all of the time -- I daresay most people don't, but when you live in a world where fear messages are thrust at you nonstop, it's a hard habit to quit. I've said more than once that if fear is what you're selling, I ain’t buying.

Neither do I want certainty. Certainty looks appealing but it's a chimera. There's no such thing. Destiny turns on a dime, the world is a maze of gray. Black and white exists only in morality plays and fundamentalist religion.

The problem is, fear is what they’re selling. Baum writes about the state of high alert, the hyper-vigilance which comes with carrying a gun and being in what's called “Condition Yellow.”

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.

I don't know if Baum was aware he is describing a cult, but he is.

I can’t imagine what living in this constant state of hypervigilance does to one’s psyche. It’s not healthy, and it’s certainly an effective way to exert cult-like influence over a group of people.

The last half of Baum's article addresses the issue of gun policy. He makes some really interesting points. For example:

Shall-issue may or may not have contributed to the stunning drop in violent crime since the early Nineties. The problem with the catchy More Guns, Less Crime construction, though, is that many other things may have helped: changing demographics, smarter policing, the burnout of the crack-cocaine wave, three-strikes laws, even—as suggested by Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner—legalized abortion. And crime dropped more in some states that didn’t adopt shall-issue laws than in some that did.

But shall-issue didn’t lead to more crime, as predicted by its critics. The portion of all killing done with a handgun—the weapon people carry concealed—hasn’t changed in decades; it’s still about half. Whereas the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., can produce a list of 175 killings committed by carry-permit holders since 2007, the NRA can brandish a longer list of crimes prevented by armed citizens. I prefer to rely on the FBI’s data, which show that not only are bad-guy murders—those committed in the course of rape, robbery, and other felonies—way down but so are spur-of-the-moment murders involving alcohol, drugs, romantic entanglements, money disputes, and other arguments: the very types of murders that critics worried widespread concealed-carry would increase.

This is all good information but it’s not a compelling argument to me.

Here is what resonates with me:

When I called Mike Stollenwerk, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who is a cofounder of, he told me right away he thinks displaying a gun outside a presidential event is for “the Tea Party nutties.” He wants more people carrying handguns openly because “we want everybody to have that right.” Wearing guns openly so you can wear guns openly sounds to me like the old Firesign Theatre joke about the mural depicting the historic struggle of the people to finish the mural. Open-carry is already legal almost everywhere. But Stollenwerk said the movement is about changing culture rather than law. “We’re trying to normalize gun ownership by openly carrying properly holstered handguns in daily life,” he said.

And this is my objection. Baum provided an excellent window into “the gun life” and it’s not a life I want, or a community I want to call home. I don’t want the culture changed into this high-stress, hyper-vigilant “Condition Yellow.” I don’t want to be a member of your cult and the eroding of community standards it represents, where killing a fellow human being to defend your big screen TV is a virtue. I’d rather sip tea and nibble biscuits with the other airy-fairy elites. And if that’s something you want to do, then fine - I’m not an abolitionist, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to ask a few assurances. Like, for instance, that you’ve cleared a thorough background check, you have been thoroughly trained, and your permit is revoked if you’re an idiot like Debra Monce. Of course, these things are supposed to happen but we’ve seen what a joke this is. Because when you’re in gun cult country, where those who go unarmed are viewed as parasites and the man teaching the gun class refuses to get a carry permit on principle, such things are not just inconvenience, they are a downright threat.

Baum writes:

We may all benefit from having a lot of licensed people carrying guns, if only because of the heightened state of awareness in which they live. It’s a scandal, though, that people can get a license to carry on the basis of a three-hour “course” given at a gun show. State requirements vary, but some don’t even ask students to fire a weapon before getting a carry permit. We should enforce high standards for instruction, including extensive live firing, role playing, and serious examination of the legal issues. Since people can carry guns state to state, standards should be uniform. States should require a refresher course, the way Texas does, before renewing a carry permit. To their credit, most gun carriers I’ve talked to agree that training should improve, even if some of them get twitchy at the idea of mandates. The Second Amendment confers a right to keep and bear arms. It does not confer a right to instant gratification.

Baum said he’d probably stop wearing his gun. He missed “Condition White,” he felt it put up a barrier between he and his friends. It “militarized” his life and he didn’t like it. And I don't like it either. I don't want to live in a militarized community, just as Dan Baum didn't want to live a militarized life.

Tennessee is a nice place to live. Nashville is a nice city. One always hears that it's "a great place to raise a family." Bringing guns into every school, church, restaurant, bar, park, etc. will change that spirit. And I don't like it.