As I was researching permitless carry, friends and strangers alike told me their gun stories. I heard about the organist who started carrying a pistol in her purse after the Sutherland Springs church shooting, and the left-wing activist who’d bought a rifle after he was doxed by white supremacists. I learned that a friend of mine had had a handgun hidden inside his waistband pretty much every time I’d seen him for years. Different people gave me variations on the same argument: if they were going to be armed—where “they” meant anyone from mass shooters to the Mexican cartels to racists to police officers—then I might as well be, too. “I wish there were no guns,” the country singer Natalie Maines told USA Today in 2013. “But I’m also of the mindset if nothing else changes, I’m getting a gun.”
Thanks to the new law, it would be easier than ever to join their ranks. Even without my permit, I could show up at a gun store and, assuming I passed the federal background check, walk home armed—or, if I wanted to bypass the check entirely, I could buy a gun in a private sale. I would start to scan for signs that other people were carrying, noting how they carried themselves, looking for a hitch in their step or whether they subtly favored one side. Scholars have found that people carrying guns have a tendency to perceive others as armed, whether they are or not; perhaps I would begin to imagine guns where there weren’t any. Fraught situations would become charged with deadly potential—a potential that, as the Rittenhouse verdict indicated, I could use to justify violence.
When I spoke with Patrick Blanchfield, author of the forthcoming Gunpower: The Structure of American Violence, he wondered about the “social accommodations” we make for the pervasiveness of guns in public, and he brought up the cognitive load of carrying a firearm. “You have to constantly think, There’s a gun there,” he said. “The use of the gun becomes a live option. It’s imaginable. That’s not the same as saying it’s inevitable. But it’s imaginable.” It seemed to me that more and more people were bowing to the idea that the problem of guns would be solved with more guns. And that a world operating under that self-replicating logic left all of us moving differently through it, carrying a little more weight.
I thought about how [former Texas State Rep. Poncho] Nevárez had described his life now. He’d left the state legislature after a drug scandal and gotten sober. The sense of ambient threat he’d once felt had abated, and he seemed grateful for it. He told me he still shoots, but he doesn’t carry that often anymore. He no longer saw the world as a place made safer by being armed. “I don’t live in a place like that,” he said. “We may at some point. But I don’t want to feel that way. And I don’t.”
— Rachel Monroe in Free Country