What Critics Don't Understand About Gun Culture

In an essay last week on TheAtlantic.com, the writer and Iraq War veteran David French explained why he carries a gun.

David French’s article about the mentality of gun owners is meant, I think, to make gun owners seem sympathetic, but instead it encapsulates everything damaging about gun culture. First, fear and paranoia are the motives for gun ownership here, not hunting or recreation. French is up-front and thinks this fear-motive is a good thing. He offers no acknowledgement that fear and paranoia impair your judgment, and are likely biased in various ways (such as racially). I had plenty of contact with guns growing up, and in my experience guns also make people more jumpy and aggressive, not less. You become more afraid, because you are always looking for threats. I’ve seen others (like a former Marine recently in the New York Times), say the same.

Also, in the only example French gives, the guns were no help. He states that his wife was outside and the guns inside. This is the problem with carrying: You have to do it every second, even though you might have good reason for not wanting a gun on your hip or in your purse while you’re playing with your kids. Maybe because you know deep down how common accidents are.

Next: French’s experiences at gun stores and shooting ranges. He seems to think it amazing the employees at these places were nice and friendly to him. Did I miss something? Are these not businesses? It is absolutely their job to be nice to you, to listen to you, to help you find the right product and teach you how to use it. And being nice and making you feel like part of a tight-knit community are also not always positive things. Cults do that too. Gun ownership isn’t necessarily a cult, but just because it makes you feel good doesn’t inherently make it positive.

Lastly, French ends on a fairly menacing note: We can be nice, but don’t cross us! Almost as if the whole point of the previous discussion was not empathy but threat. Almost as if the gun were an intimidation tool to silence dissent.

Melissa Kutner
Baltimore, Md.

There is nothing in this article that I fail to understand.

What I don’t understand is how people like the author feel more free with a gun instead of a heavy burden of responsibility—and think that their newfound brazenness is a good thing. Or how they can write an article like this without addressing how frequently guns in the home get used (by people who have them legally) to commit crimes and suicide, get stolen and used for crimes, and injure people accidentally. Or how they can fail to at least consider that “gun culture” and the feeling of safety and liberty that they get from carrying a gun might be outweighed by how the presence of a gun could actually make others (and possibly themselves) less safe.

This was another piece about “feelings,” not data.

Nick Thielen
Omaha, Neb.

French’s piece is surreal from the start.

The threat of violence looms, as represented by the man’s gun holster, strangely empty. The defense is not, as you might expect, the French family’s guns—those were unavailable. Rather, the confrontation is defused with cleverness and, notably, no counter-threat of violence.

Yet French goes on to passionately—dissonantly—defend gun culture and gun ownership, the very things which presented the threat in the first place.

This paradox is seemingly driven by fear. Fearing imposition of liberty or freedom by the threat of others—and invariably these others force this threat with guns—one must likewise arm oneself. This fear is what drives French through the rest of the piece, in which he uses substantial and warm community dynamics to gloss over the dark implications of the paradox.

Guns, French explains, provide a sense of security at home, which compels him to acquire the same sense of security abroad in the form of a concealed carry permit. A sojourn into gun culture soon instills a “burning conviction that you, your family, and your community are safer and freer because you own and carry a gun.”

What French fails to explain is that describing a sense of security as something that must be acquired implies a baseline sense of fear and helplessness. What’s more, he frames security as a “sense” or a “conviction”—there’s no indication that French’s family or community is actually safer for the presence of guns. One imagines that if David French had statistics to support his conviction, he would readily and willingly marshal such data to his defense. However, like fear itself, this sense of security is psychological, not empirical:

We’re not scared. We’re prepared, and that sense of preparation is contagious. Confidence is contagious. People want to be empowered. That’s how gun culture is built.

This is what really terrifies me. Armed with weaponized hypotheticals, Mr. French empowers the individual with mutually-assured-destruction-style deterrence that makes the rest of us profoundly unsafe. As much as he might try to reframe the conversation with the language of empowerment, he betrays himself with the language of contagion; he is scared.

One hypothetical French leaves unconsidered is what might have happened if his wife did have access to their guns during her encounter with that strange, empty-holstered man. Presumably, her expert handling of the situation resulted in the best case scenario. Would the presence of a gun on the French side of the line have improved the outcome?

I’m not optimistic.

Ariel David Brenman
New York, N.Y.

As someone who doesn’t own or carry a weapon, I found David French’s “What Critics Don't Understand About Gun Culture” immediately riveting, insightful, rational, and a new point of view I can understand. I get it. I can agree with it. Until he extends this logic to assault-weapons and large-capacity magazines, and incredulously suggests banning them will be a “form of collective punishment for the innocent.”  He had me. I bought in. I got it. Then he didn’t.

Michael Speicher
Brookline, Mass.

Several readers responded on Twitter:

David French replies:

I’m grateful for the responses to my piece, especially for the thoughtful critiques. The goal was to provide a slightly different insight into the gun control debate. Rather than provide charts, graphs, and statistics—the stuff of modern political wonkery that rarely penetrates the larger culture—I wanted to introduce readers to the lived experience of their fellow citizens.

And that brings me to my key point. I’ve noted that a number of responses begin with the presumption that it is somehow illegitimate to make a decision based on fear (or, more precisely, based on the existence of a real threat). A number of correspondents have noted that my wife was able to defuse an alarming encounter without a gun. Yes, she was. But because the piece was not intended to dwell solely on our own experiences, it did not detail the life we’ve lived since.

Without rehashing the last three years, when my wife and I opposed Donald Trump in 2015 and 2016 (we were both “Never Trump” conservatives), my family was subjected to a withering series of attacks. My youngest daughter is African American, and we began to see her sweet, seven-year-old face photoshopped into gas chambers, with a picture of Donald Trump in an SS uniform, pushing the button to kill her. My wife’s blog was flooded with gruesome pictures of dead and dying African Americans. She received a specific and direct threat via email. Someone—strangely enough—even hacked into a call between her and my elderly father-in-law and began screaming profanities at her and him.

While there may be readers who’ve endured similar threat environments and casually brushed them off, we did not believe we were safe, and we knew that sheriff’s deputies could not simply remain by our side.

I provide these additional details to help readers understand how unpersuasive it is when a person says, as one correspondent does, that “fear and paranoia impair your judgment”—or when a person describes my mindset as a “baseline sense of fear and helplessness.” To the contrary, the existence of a real threat can concentrate the mind, and the ability to take direct action to protect your family is the opposite of “helplessness.”

When responsible gun owners arm themselves, the result is not the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. There are not shootouts between “jumpy” citizens in the streets. In fact, the best available data indicate that concealed-carry permit holders are more law-abiding than the police.

It is one thing to deal with threats in the abstract, to run though all the hypotheticals as merely an intellectual exercise. It’s another thing entirely to grapple with them in real life. When you talk to gun owners you will time and again find a real experience—something that happened to them or to a loved one—that concentrated their minds and made them believe that they had to take concrete steps to protect themselves. The gun debate will go nowhere unless we can acknowledge their experiences and respect their actual need for effective means of self defense.