Think Gun Laws Are Hard to Change? Try Gun Culture.

If you are in the United States, guns are all around you already, in the hands of decent people and well-adjusted people, and also of demons and sickos.

A bullet in the shape of an infinity symbol
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Getty

About the author: Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

The mass shooter in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 children and two adults. That means at some point he probably paused to reload. The mind goes to dark places when it imagines the seconds spent fumbling for fresh ammo, amid the sounds of death, and the click of a new magazine as a murderer’s hand smacks its baseplate home into the mag-well. That click is, for someone who enjoys guns—as I do—a familiar, small pleasure, a tactile indication that the ingenious machine in your hand is working exactly as designed. It is a little mechanical marvel, and to think of that satisfying click in the context of a dozen dead children, with a few more to come, is enough to make even a dedicated gun enthusiast puke.

After most mass shootings, the desperate questions begin: When are we going to do something about our gun laws? How many dead children is too many dead children? Of course, you know the answer already: Somewhat more than the current number.

I speak from recent and direct experience. I live in the state of Connecticut, which even after Uvalde owns the title as the site of America’s most deadly slaughter of tots in their school. (Twenty-seven victims died at Sandy Hook in 2012, including 20 children under the age of 8.) Last weekend, I shelled out about $75 to see how hard it would be, in my state and in my city, to be certified to own and carry a gun, concealed or open. The fee covered a day-long class on guns and gun safety—much of which was devoted not to guns or safety but to explaining the locations and hours of the government offices to which one could go after class to get a five-year pistol permit.

Anyone with an IQ higher than a mango’s could pass this class. Indeed, most mangoes would not, as my fellow classmates did, violate multiple rules of firearm safety immediately upon being handed a plastic replica of a handgun for practice. Keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot. Don’t point the muzzle at your foot. We went to the range afterward, and a patient and vigilant instructor made sure we hit the target and not our toes. As long as we weren’t registered with the government as criminals or psychiatric inpatients, and were not “illegal” residents, the permits would be ours upon paying a fee and getting fingerprinted.

I asked the instructor, who had spent decades working in fire and law enforcement, whether the officers at my local police station might refuse to issue me a carry permit, just because they thought I looked squirrelly and mentally unstable. “If they rejected people on that basis, do you think I’d have a permit?” he joked. “But seriously. You could go in wearing your underpants on the outside and it wouldn’t matter.” Then he taught us all how to load magazines, put a round in the chamber, and start sending lead down range.

He also spent hours describing his regimen of responsible gun ownership, which involves sturdy locked cases littered about his home and in his Escalade, and rules that forbid even legal carriers from bringing guns onto school grounds, say, or into government buildings. (That includes the post office, he noted, “because they don’t like the competition.”) Don’t drink and carry. Teach your children about guns when they’re old enough, but install vaults to ensure that they can never reach them unsupervised.

So a decade after Sandy Hook, that is how hard it is to get a permit to carry a Glock pretty much anywhere in Connecticut: Take a class, then present yourself and your fingertips to the police, who in recognizing the right to carry deadly weapons will not discriminate even against gibbering madmen, let alone the much-harder-to-detect silent loners who perpetrate so many of the atrocities like yesterday’s.

You can probably tell that I think my state should apply more scrutiny in its permit process. But a day among aspirants for these pistol permits confirmed my belief that tightening this process would only modestly affect the amount of gun carnage in America. Tens of millions of Americans already have these permits. I will put on my undies later this week and get one too. If you are in the United States, guns are all around you already, in the hands of decent people and well-adjusted people, and also of demons and sickos.

Some fetishize their guns. In a way, these gun owners are among the safest and most responsible. The attention they lavish on these objects reminds me of devoted pet owners, constantly brushing the hair of their Shih Tzus, sharing a bubble bath with them every night, never letting the little darlings out of their sight. But plenty of Americans treat their guns the way I treat my laptop, as part of the structure of their everyday life, and often as a tool for work as well as fun. They carry their guns and shoot them responsibly. Why should they give them up because of others who do not? I cannot kill anyone with my laptop, but I can certainly do harm with it—and if someone suggested that it should be taken away because the social negatives outweigh the positives, I would be outraged. From my cold, dead hands. You may object to this comparison, on any number of reasonable grounds. But if it baffles you completely, you probably have no clue how deeply guns and gun culture are embedded in America. And to change a culture is infinitely harder than to change laws. I am not sure where that leaves us. Or rather, I am all too sure.