…I believed that I wouldn’t be able to understand where I lived unless I wrapped my head around the guns themselves. No other state is so closely associated with the mythology of the gun, and, by raw numbers, Texas has more of them than anywhere else in the U.S. (Per capita, our rates of firearm ownership are closer to the national average.) No matter where I go, when I tell people where I live, they grin and point gun fingers at me. Bang, bang—the universally understood symbol for Texas. …
In 2020, amid the upheavals of the pandemic, the Presidential election, and the George Floyd protests, the United States, a country that already had more guns than people, accumulated millions more of them, many purchased by first-time gun owners. A large share of the 22.8 million firearms sold that year were bought by white men, who make up the vast majority of gun owners. But some of the fastest-growing segments of gun owners are from backgrounds the industry considers “non-traditional”: women, Asian Americans, liberals.
That year and into the next, I continued with my gun research. I got a concealed-carry permit, for journalism, and spent some time at a gun store in Austin, also for journalism. Or at least that was the excuse I gave my friends. The store had flyers for a gun-themed comedy show called “Guns and Giggles,” which I did not attend. I was at the shop so frequently that I developed a crush on one of its employees, a lanky bicycle mechanic whose name was Freedom. The natural next step would be to get a gun, for journalism. Freedom recommended a Glock 19: compact, with minimal kickback. A year earlier, the idea would have struck me as absurd, but now it had the aura of possibility.
Friends and acquaintances kept telling me about the guns they had bought, or almost bought. My mother, who had never displayed any interest in firearms, mentioned that she’d taken a women’s-only handgun class. On Instagram, I followed a collective of trans alpaca farmers living in rural Colorado whose pictures of their baby animals were interspersed with pictures of their self-defense arsenal. A couple of my most politically active friends went to the woods for mysterious tactical training that they were pointedly close-lipped about.
In November, I travelled to Arizona to take a defensive pistol class at Gunsite, a bucket-list destination for a certain kind of dad. For five days, a sinewy, joyless ex-special-ops soldier watched over us as we practiced drawing, aiming, firing, and reloading as quickly and as accurately as possible. The point of all the repetition was to build muscle memory, to make the actions automatic, movement that preceded thought. Before holstering your weapon, you were supposed to ask yourself: Is my world safe? If not, you stayed drawn.
I loaded enough bullets that week that my thumb cramped, so I bought a speed loader. It was pink, the preferred color for gun accessories for women. (You can get pink thigh holsters, pink-camo gun safes, and enough pink parts to build an almost entirely pink AR-15.) I was one of two women in the class, and our instructors kept praising us for our presence. All week long, they had been presenting scenarios to justify our imaginary use of force. They were usually laced with sexual menace: the biker gang, the meth heads, and the “unspeakable things” they wanted to do to women and children. Being armed was not just a means of self-defense but a responsibility, according to this way of thinking. Men were armed in order to protect women; empowerment, in gun world, was women protecting themselves.
I wouldn’t say I had a good time at Gunsite, exactly, but I did feel a growing pride in my competence. I wasn’t the worst shooter in the class, as I’d feared. I wore my loaner pistol in a hip holster, and its presence, initially unnerving, soon faded into the background of my day. One evening, back at my hotel, I had the sudden sense that I had forgotten something important. I looked around the room for a minute before I figured it out: it was the weight of the gun that I missed.
The sociologist Jennifer Carlson writes about the figure of the “citizen-protector”: “Gun carriers use firearms to actively assert their authority and relevance by embracing the duty to protect themselves and police others.” For Carlson, this new model of citizenship emerges from a context of American decline, economic precarity, and social alienation. In a world of decaying institutions, the citizen-protector takes matters into his own hands. The implicit assumption that he is not just a guy with a gun but a good guy with a gun is fundamental, a conviction so automatic that it precedes thought. During my lunch break at Gunsite, I indulged in my own citizen-protector daydreams. In them, I was in the midst of some future calamity, a mass-shooting incident, say. It never ended with me coolly bringing down the bad guy with a single shot—in my fantasies, I was unarmed—but with me using my new knowledge to seize his gun and confidently eject the bullet from the chamber.
The grand finale of the week was a tour of the home of Gunsite’s late founder, an imperious and erudite racist named Jeff Cooper. The house was built like a fortress, with walls that could withstand small-arms fire, steel gates to shield the bedrooms, and window slits near the front door so that Cooper could target any unwelcome visitors. As Cooper’s granddaughter served us cookies and juice, my classmates asked, again, if I was going to get a gun. They wanted to recruit another person to their side, I’m sure. But I think they also thought that I should own a gun for my own good.
“A gun is status—that’s why they call it an equalizer,” Richard Hofstadter quotes “a young Chicago black” as saying, in a 1970 article in American Heritage on American gun culture. “What’s happening today is that everybody’s getting more and more equal, because everybody’s got one.” But convictions for gun crimes still disproportionately impact Black and Latino populations. A police officer killed Philando Castile when he was reaching for his gun license; Marissa Alexander was sentenced to twenty years for firing a warning shot in the air to scare off her abusive husband. As an equalizing instrument, guns are no match for an unequal society; if anything, they merely make existing inequalities more volatile.
— Rachel Monroe in The Last Gun I Shot