Waiting for a court at a private tennis facility near Palm Beach, Florida, I watched four old men, balding and deeply tanned as they wheezed and groaned their way through a competitive doubles match. Suddenly, before their allotted time was up, one held up his hand. “Gotta stop,” he announced, “Gotta go to our kill class.”
They were part of the 1.5 million Florida citizens now licensed to legally carry a concealed firearm. The old banker, insurance salesman and franchise operator who toddled off the artificial clay court that morning could now legally “pack heat” and, being responsible citizens, they had enrolled in a post-license course that would teach them in greater detail when they could legally kill someone and the most efficient means of doing that.
I don’t mean to pick on retired bankers and insurance men. With 1.5 million permits issued to a population of nearly 20 million, 1 in every 15 people in Florida is licensed to carry a hidden handgun. If one takes out children, folks in hospitals and nursing homes and others who are unlikely to carry a gun, then one can assume that when driving on I-95 every fifth driver is legally entitled to carry a gun. I don’t mean to pick on Florida either, thought there is a lot to be picked on. New York, with a population of about the same size (roughly 20 million) has issued 2 million pistol permits (to own not carry). That is one permit for every ten people in the total population. The number is much higher among active adults. Clearly, the time for angry rude gestures through the windshield is over.
I carried a concealed handgun for just over two years back in the early 1960’s when I was off-duty from my job as a patrolman on the Albuquerque Police Department and I would not chose to do it again.
This obligation fell on me because as a policeman I had a responsibility to protect the public 24/7. In simple terms, this meant that if I was in a grocery line waiting to check out and someone pulled a gun and robbed the clerk, I was not simply another citizen witnessing a crime. I had a duty to do something. This is not to say that the right thing to do was to pull out my own gun and confront the robber, but it was understood that an off-duty police officer was still a police officer and would eventuality have to explain whatever action he took or failed to take as he witnessed a crime. And so I went around with one or another pistols holstered under a shirt or jacket.
The first thing I learned about “packing” is how very uncomfortable it is. Walking around with two pounds of steel strapped to your waist, or ankle or hugging the small of your back or banging against your chest is annoying at the very least. Hand guns are lighter now. Carbon fiber, better steel and other advances in technology have made them lighter, more efficient and far more deadly, but the Smith and Wesson .357 magnum I carried most of the time weighed 40.9 oz. or about two and a half pounds. I had a little Colt .380 automatic, far less deadly, far less reliable, but far lighted that I favored for dress occasions.
Then there is the problem of concealment: no more T shirts or polo shirts and jeans. Now we need a jacket, or a long sweater or something to hide the bulge.
We young cops were not all thrilled about this privilege/obligation. I remember fairly intense discussions among new officers as to when, if ever, it was permissible to be unarmed in public. Some officers refused to carry a gun to church. Others felt traveling to and from church was sufficiently uncertain that one should be armed. Funerals? Wakes? Weddings? Classes at UNM? Clearly there were moments or places where wearing a gun was disrespectful. Courtrooms clearly were. No one went armed into a courtroom without being severely rebuked by the judge, otherwise the decision was left to each officer. There was always the question hanging in the air: “what if…?”
The discomfort of “packing iron” was only a small part of the reason I was relieved when I left the police department behind and with it my responsibility to go about armed. The worst part of “concealed carry” is not physical. It is psychological, and moral.
Armed, I was always alert to the possibility that I might have to use my gun. Standing in a line in a convenience store at night, instead of scanning the pulp magazines announcing some celebrity misadventure, I found myself scanning my fellow customers for any sign of potential trouble. Ditto movie lines and in the pharmacy. I didn’t go to bars often, but when I did my incipient paranoia was highly stimulated. So, day to day, vigilant for any sign that I might be called upon to draw my gun and confront another person with a gun, I found my view of the world and other people growing darker. I found myself checking out the lines in men’s clothing, looking for the telltale bump that appears above a concealed gun.
The gun in my pocket did not make me feel safer. It reminded me every minute of the day that I might need to use it. It made the world a far more dangerous place, at least it did in my mind, which is after all where I live. I was like the man who can’t relax and enjoy dinner or television because he is constantly afraid of a home invasion that never comes. Not once, in the two plus years that I served on the Albuquerque Police Department did I ever encounter a situation when I was off-duty where it was necessary to show my gun.
So why have roughly 15 million Americans gone to the trouble and expense of getting concealed carry permits which involve buying an expensive handgun and in most cases a lot of other equipment, like a gun safe, ammunition, gun club dues etc.? No doubt there are many and varied reasons. The precise and intricate machinery that is a hand gun is fascinating in the way that a good watch is fascinating. Some people just love to shoot. Many people have guns that have been handed down to them, that are in fact family heirlooms. Some people like to hunt, although not many people hunt with a hand gun and hunting does not require a concealed permit.
But, taken together, these activities and motivations do not account for 15 million permits to carry a pistol on your person. So why? I think part of the answer may lie in a Walter Mitty fantasy that the NRA has sold to the American public.
The NRA has been as masterful as Ralph Lauren in the manipulation of American icons. The NRA magazine, for example, is called The American Rifleman, not the American Pistol Packer. The name evokes the image that appeared for years on our first class postage stamps of a New England patriot standing beside a horse drawn plough holding his long rifle, ready to defend freedom and democracy.
Inside the magazine is a feature called “The Armed Citizen” which recounts one or several instances where an armed citizen has defeated the bad guys. When some prison tattooed goon invaded a home or business, the armed citizen turned the tables for the good. Who isn’t thrilled when a bully intent on rape or robbery is, as they say, stopped in his tracks? So what is wrong with a situation where an armed law-abiding citizen defends him/herself from a criminal? The answer, of course, is nothing is wrong with that. The problem is that people buy and keep a handgun imagining that when the crucial moment arrives they will behave cooly and rationally. It is a Walter Mitty fantasy. When the crucial moment arrives there is always confusion. There is a flood of adrenalin and often enough palsy. There are nearly always innocent people around. In all the mass shooting in the US in recent years not a single gunman has been taken down by an armed citizen. Most have killed themselves, presumable to deny the public any chance to shame and punish them. And anyway, waving a gun around at the site of a mass shooting is a very good way to get killed by a cop.
But, the fantasy is powerful. Everyday, more people arm themselves and apply for a permit to carry their gun where ever they go. In North Carolina where I live, the practice is now so common that stores, hospitals, and doctor’s offices have added, just below the no-smoking sign, a sign that reads “no weapons.” Odd that I feel so much safer knowing there are no weapons than if I were surrounded by armed citizens. The problem with “citizens” is that they get drunk, they get angry, they get depressed, they get crazy. And, if they are armed, their moods can be made deadly.
I am pretty sure that most people licensed to carry a concealed gun do not actually carry one most of the time for the reasons I have already outlined. Which means, of course, that the gun is left somewhere, like the drawer in the little night stand beside Daddy’s bed. It was one of those unsecured weapons that the16-year old friend of my youngest son used to kill himself in a moment of teen angst.
The idea that having a gun in your belt (or on your nightstand) makes you safer is right there on a par Walter Mitty’s fantasy that when a complex piece of surgical equipment failed in the middle of an operation, he would repair it with the bladder of his fountain pen.