I once shared a workplace with a man who carried a loaded pistol on his person at all times. He was mostly a quiet, brooding guy, but over time he revealed a generous core and a good sense of humor and I came to like him very much. Much more than I liked my other coworkers, who were scum.
A period of months passed before I knew he carried a pistol on his person at all times. Another coworker mentioned it in an off-hand way, and it was a shock, and my immediately response was to feel less safe around the office. That feeling has a value of roughly jack shit—a pistol makes me feel unsafe, while a black person makes my grandmother feel unsafe, and so on. We are not entitled to a world that bends itself to our feelings.
It was some time after learning of his pistol before I ever actually laid eyes on the thing. This coworker also carried a sharp knife on his person at all times, and one day he had the idea to put a camouflage wrap on the knife, for no reason other than that it might look cool. It did look cool. Later that week he wondered about putting a wrap on his pistol. In the course of thinking about this, he unholstered the pistol so that he and others could visualize it wrapped to look like carbon fiber.
It’s a scary thing to be in a small room with a loaded pistol. It’s just a tool, of course, and people who are familiar with guns are generally pretty careful with them, and pretty comfortable around them, but I am none of those things. There’s a volatility to a pistol that makes it different from a knife, or a hammer, or even a dangerous power tool: a pistol’s safety is easily disengaged; a pistol’s trigger is even more easily pulled; and, of course, the consequences are enormous. A pistol can end a life in the time it takes for someone to even begin to swing a hammer.
I can count the times when I have been in a small place with a pistol not in the possession of a police officer on one hand. As I sit here, this one and another specific one come to mind. That other time, I was leaning awkwardly and against my will into a parked car, with someone’s hand firmly gripping my shirt and the muzzle of a pistol pressed roughly into my sternum.
There is probably nothing in common between the two gun handlers. My former coworker is from rural West Virginia, drives a pickup, is an avid (if chronically unsuccessful) hunter, and is now over 40 years old. I know next to nothing about the other guy—he was a teenager, he was black, and he was parked in an old car with some friends near a known drug corner in Deanwood, a neighborhood in D.C. that, back then, had some trouble corners.
What they had in common during the brief (or very brief) times that I knew them came from their pistols: a level of control over their surroundings that is generally not otherwise held by adults, among adults. It seems to me, now, that this is mostly the point of arming oneself with a pistol: it gives the carrier an important and final trump card that will confer to them near-total control over a situation, should the need arise.
I can imagine this power inspiring a kind of confidence in the carrier that the rest of us do not experience much. I can think of a couple of reasons why this might be: the more obvious one is that they can physically extend their will over a vast area and use at least the threat of violence to enforce it; the other is the possibility that some people perceive around them a world that is far more threatening to their personal safety than the one that I observe around me.
In the former scenario, the carrier need not defer, ever, because they can render their will into commands with a gesture, and so they will not experience the intimidation I sometimes feel when confronted with aggression in the world. The pistol functions as an equalizer against any conceivable level of personal aggression, and so the carrier is free from intimidation. And that must be an intoxicating feeling, the at-worst equal footing the pistol grants in nearly all situations.
In the latter scenario, the carrier is genuinely afraid of the world around them and thinks of the pistol as something that can save them from what must be the likelihood of danger. For this person, the pistol doesn’t make them feel powerful, it makes them feel safe in a world in which they would otherwise not feel safe. But it occurs to me now that this isn’t the feeling of safety—the feeling of safety comes from the removal of danger, and the pistol cannot remove danger until after the danger is revealed. It can empower the carrier to confront danger, but in order for the need of a pistol to be a response to danger there must be danger, danger everywhere, a world of dangerous things that can be stopped with bullets. I do not conceive of the world this way, but it is evident that some do, otherwise there could be no rational personal safety-based justification for carrying a pistol on your person at all times.
Ever since the night it happened, I have always thought of the kid who pulled his pistol on me as fitting into the former group. He used the pistol to intimidate only. I was a dipshit unarmed doofus with a bad mustache and a clipboard, manifestly no danger to anyone but myself, and the pistol was used to frighten me, for the purpose of causing A Thing To Happen in the world, to thereby demonstrate the power of the carrier. But I have considered recently that I crossed his way in the most dangerous part of a fairly violent neighborhood. He could not have thought of me as a threat, but he was in a place that was, then, several orders of magnitude more dangerous than any I have lived in in my life. He used the gun for power, but perhaps he had the gun for personal safety. He might be one of those people who see the world around them as a dangerous place, and maybe he’s right. Maybe, that night, in that place, he was right.
I never got around to asking my coworker why the hell he carried a pistol. He drove from Berkeley Springs to Reston each day, traversing what has to be one of the safest stretches of America. His home is in a town where he is far, far more likely to be threatened by a family of wild turkeys than any violent criminals, and the town where he works is, somehow, even safer. I almost hope he carried the pistol so that no one could fuck with him, because the idea that he imagined mortal danger lurked in the tame suburban and exurban landscape that hosted basically his entire existence is somehow more frightening. Either way, it was never lost on me that should some teenager suddenly get the insane idea to start keying my coworker’s truck he would have the pistol in a holster on his person as a deterrent.
And I wonder, now, how things might have gone if my coworker had been the one walking stupidly through a drug corner after dark, and a black teenager had suddenly leapt from an idling car along the curb and grabbed at the sleeve of his shirt. I wonder which impulse would have guided his hand to his holster: the refusal to be fucked with, or the instinct to fear a dangerous world? I wonder which one of the two men might have squeezed off first. I wonder whether either one of them would have truly been a bad guy with a gun, just then.
Here’s what I know: I banged my head on the passenger side A-pillar when the kid pulled me into the car, and his friend in the driver seat stared straight ahead the whole time and said nothing. I dropped my clipboard and all my papers and they scattered all over the place, and I never picked them up again. The kid let out a quiet boo! when he jumped from the car, but then he asked if I had “some money” and I was able to answer honestly that I did not. I never got around to pleading with him—I was in the middle of stupidly babbling about how little money I had to my name when someone walked by on the sidewalk behind me and asked what was up, and the kid loosened his grip on my shirt enough that I was able to lean back out of the car and then scramble to my feet. The whole thing lasted less than 30 seconds, and when it was over it was like nothing had happened at all. He started a conversation with the guy on the sidewalk, and it was over. And I went right on breathing, and so did he.
I have an icky feeling this is exactly the kind of scenario my coworker pictured when he decided he needed a concealed carry license: nighttime, alone, the ready-made boogeyman that is the black American teenager leaping out of the shadows. I knew someone would fuck with me and I will not be fucked with. The impulse to shoot one’s way out of this situation forms the basis of Stand Your Ground laws, and Stand Your Ground laws provide a legal framework for the Good Guy With A Gun/Bad Guy With A Gun concept. That concept addresses itself to both impulses—the refusal to be fucked with and the generalized fear of a hostile world—and does the subtle work of convincing us that the presence of guns is the only universal constant.
It’s interesting, though: if he’d jumped out and grabbed me without having a gun, he’s just a dipshit teenage boy pulling the kind of dipshit stunt teenage boys are known to pull. When I was probably 16 I once rode around in a car with some friends and an extremely real-looking air pistol. I was dumb enough to point it out the open car window when we drove by a high school. To me, right then, it was a joke, and a harmless one. But had I not been the one playing the joke—had I, instead, been standing on the high school grounds at the moment someone stuck a pistol out a car window as they drove by—I would have taken off running, in mortal terror. What I’m saying is, teenagers are dumb, and often fail to appreciate the potential consequences of their actions. That night in Deanwood it was the presence of the pistol that turned that particular teenager from an idiot teen in need of some counseling into a Bad Guy With A Gun. And it would have been a pistol on my waist that turned me from an unarmed doofus into a Good Guy With A Gun. Part of the power of guns is to strip us of our nuances and make us one or the other.
I was not a Good Guy With A Gun that night. I wasn’t even a Good Guy Without A Gun. I was a putz, a blubbering dipshit mere seconds away from pissing himself. I had absolutely nothing at hand with which to protect myself, and that fact almost certainly saved both our lives. If I’d had a pistol, one or the other of us would have died that night. I’ve thought about that quite a lot over the years.
Everyone who owns a pistol is making the same transaction, all at odds with one another, an endless series of bad faith deals with the same bad dealer. A less dangerous world will require that you accept that you will be fucked with. You will have to get over your generalized fears, and you will have to be okay with sometimes being less safe, in the way that you are sometimes less safe when you are in a plane or in a car. We do not get to demand a world that bends itself to our feelings. And as long as we try, we will be stuck with this one.
Alright, that’s enough. Thanks for reading.