Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A World With More Guns

One of the larger questions after last week’s massacre in Aurora, Colorado, has to do with the kind of lives we want to lead, how we arrange society to provide safety and peace of mind.

Going to the movies should be a pleasurable experience. Airport-like security measures for entry would pile anxiety about being groped or arrested on top of anxiety about being shot. That is unlikely to happen, but the anxiety about being shot will remain. Less peace of mind for all of us, and lower profits for the movie industry. That’s one consequence of last week’s events.

Most Americans grew up in a world with a lot fewer guns than we have now, most of them kept at home in locked cases. We don’t expect gunfights in the streets. But the NRA has lobbied hard to open up laws to carrying guns in public and encourages its members to have their weapons with them to change our expectations. That’s a different kind of world than we’ve had since Bat Masterson cleaned up Dodge City.

Dan Baum likes guns, but he didn’t carry them. He decided to see what it was like and wrote about his experience two years ago. He found that he wasn’t comfortable carrying them in normal social situations.

Baum describes the training sessions necessary to acquire a concealed carry permit, which seem to have more to do with indoctrination into a way of thinking than with gun safety.

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…

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.

At the end of the article, he longs to go back to Condition White.

I don’t think Condition Yellow, which is also called situational awareness, must be linked to guns. It seems to be a normal part of my life, although perhaps that wouldn't be true for those who didn’t grow up in cities.

I grew up in the northern New Jersey suburbs, learned to ride the bus when I was nine years old, and frequently used buses into and the subways in New York City by the time I was twelve. I was also subject to frequent warnings from my mother, which had grown from “The tramps will cut you into little pieces and stuff you in the sewer” relative to my earlier forays into the several blocks and intriguing railroad between home and the playground.

I don’t feel like I’m constantly checking for danger, though. Warning flags spring up in my head at appropriate times. In Tallinn, a rhythm of footsteps too much like mine and perhaps several yards back in the crowd filtered into my consciousness. I didn’t look back, speeded up my pace, and crossed the street. The footsteps went away. Another time, a friend and I were examining a map near the Eiffel Tower, and both of us turned simultaneously to see a young woman moving toward us and our wallets. She turned and rejoined her friends leaning on a wall.  I’ve changed pace in many cities or just avoided certain streets that didn’t feel quite right.

This seems like elementary prudence to me.

Knowing that others are carrying guns has to push toward Condition Orange, particularly if gun instruction is as Baum describes, with nothing on how to fire (or when not to) in a crowd. If more people carry guns, we have to be alert for an incident that could provoke cross-fire from none-too-competent but hyperready civilians.

Condition White would be a thing of the past.

Here’s how Baum’s consciousness changed when he was carrying a weapon:

Moving through a cocktail party with a gun holstered snug against my ribs makes me feel like James Bond—I know something you don’t know!—but it’s socially and physically unpleasant. I have to remember to keep adjusting the drape of my jacket so as not to expose myself, and make sure to get the arms-inside position when hugging a friend so that the hard lump on my hip or under my arm doesn’t give itself away. In some settings my gun feels as big as a toaster oven, and I find myself tense with the expectation of being discovered. What’s more, if there’s a truly comfortable way to carry a gun, I haven’t found it. The revolver’s weight and pressure keep me constantly aware of how quickly and utterly my world could change. Gun carriers tell me that’s exactly the point: at any moment, violence could change anybody’s world. Those who carry guns are the ones prepared to make the change come out in their favor.


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.

When he wore his gun openly:

Overall, I felt less safe with the gun openly displayed than with it concealed. I worried that someone would knock me on the back of the head and steal it, or that some genuinely aggressive nutcase would challenge me to draw. Mostly, though, I felt obnoxious. In all likelihood, I was making somebody silently anxious.

That would be me he was making anxious, probably with his anxious body language.

I will probably stop carrying my gun. It’s uncomfortable, distracting, and freaks out my friends; it’s not worth it. I miss Condition White. If I lived in a dangerous place, I might feel different, and I may continue wearing a gun when I travel to such places (at least to the ones that allow it).

From his final paragraph:

From a public-safety standpoint it may matter little that lots of people are carrying guns now, but if accessorizing with firearms becomes truly au courant, the United States will feel like a different place. We’ll be less dreamy and more secretive. We’ll spend more energy watching one another and less on self-obsession. We’ll be a little more on-task, more cognizant of violence and prepared to participate therein.

That’s what someone says who is experienced and comfortable with guns. His concerns about what carrying guns does to human interactions seem to dovetail with mine.

Cross-posted at The Agonist.

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