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Column: My Father Wouldn’t Have Approved of the Way I Pack a Gun

West Lebanon

Since the massacre in Newtown, I’ve been trying to understand the fears of those who oppose gun regulation. I grew up in a gun-toting Oregon family. My father, a Republican businessman, often wore a pistol when we camped in wilderness areas, and he sometimes carried it when we traveled. My grandfather, a Democrat who grew up as the family hunter on a ranch in western Montana, taught me to shoot a rifle. My brother, a Republican, was a Marine reconnaissance officer in Vietnam.

My doubts began in the summer of 1961, when I planned to head back from Baltimore to Oregon with my wife after our first year of marriage, and my father sent me his pistol, a five-shot, .32 revolver. We meant to camp along the way, and Dad wanted me to be able to protect Nancy. On our first night of sleeping outside, somewhere in Kansas, I loaded the pistol, but I couldn’t get to sleep while wondering what I would do with it if someone came after us. It wasn’t just that I was much less accurate with a pistol than a rifle. There was the matter of shooting someone. I was pretty sure I couldn’t do it, so I packed the pistol away in the back of our car.

This was not what we meant by packing a gun in our family, and I didn’t mention it to my father when we arrived in Oregon. We were not members of the National Rifle Association, and we didn’t talk about our Second Amendment rights. But we believed in guns, and now I suspect that hiding the pistol away, like disassembling and storing the beautiful .22 rifle I inherited from my grandfather, was part of a slowly dawning change in my thinking about how to live in our well-armed society.

Now, age 74, I live in New Hampshire, which has more semi-automatic weapons per capita than any other state in our country, and my memories of Oregon help me understand why some people feel safer with guns.

On a moonless night on the Pacific coast, 12 years after I packed away my father’s pistol, Nancy and I were walking with our young daughters, and a man came out of the darkness to ask how the fishing was. He seemed friendly enough, and I made a joke about the challenges of nighttime fishing. Then I noticed another man approaching us furtively from the side. Nancy spotted him, too, and she took the girls’ hands and started down the beach away from them. I turned so I could watch both men and put my hands in the pockets of my hunting jacket. The second man stopped walking toward me. The first man asked again about fishing, and I said nothing.

What I was doing, you will have guessed, was trying to look like a nervous man with a handgun in his pocket. I must have looked nervous enough because neither man moved, although the first man kept talking despite my silence. After a bit I began to walk slowly backward until the two of them were swallowed in the darkness. Then I ran to catch up with Nancy and the girls, and we got off the beach.

You might think an experience like that would make me susceptible to the claim that we’d all be safer if people who mean to do us harm had to worry about whether we were packing heat. But the deception that appeared to work on an Oregon beach would not have helped much in a desperate encounter with seriously violent criminals. They’re not likely to let a gun get in their way. In a society where buying guns can be simpler than getting on an airplane, the bad guys are likely to have arsenals. And if Oregon had a “stand-your-ground law” like New Hampshire’s, those men could have killed me with impunity simply because they felt threatened.

Still, I know carrying a concealed weapon can make you feel powerful. Robert Louis Stevenson captured the feeling in The Lantern-Bearers, an essay that has nothing to do with guns. He describes a tradition from his youth, when he and his friends went out walking on dark nights with small lanterns under their coats. Hidden from sight, the lanterns were not really functional, but Stevenson and his friends took great delight in them anyway. “The essence of this bliss,” he wrote, “was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public: a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool’s heart, to know you had a bull’s eye (lantern) at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge.”

It’s an adolescent dream of hidden power, and most of us have probably longed to feel it. As a case for concealed weapons, the dream translates into a fantasy like this: A man walks into a public place and starts shooting, and before he can squeeze off more than a few rounds, you reach inside your jacket for your pistol and drop him, saving many lives. Reality intruded on that fantasy at a recent shooting outside the Empire State Building, where a killer was confronted and killed. Nine bystanders were accidentally hit by fragments and bullets from guns aimed by two trained police officers who were probably much better shots than most of us.

The dream of pursuing justice based on the unrestricted right to bear arms has fostered a fear of government and years of overheated rhetoric about a pernicious federal bureaucracy, which led to the huge sale of guns and ammunition after the election of Barack Obama and again after the killings in Newtown. It leads to bizarre claims like one I heard at a recent meeting on gun control in Hanover, where a man made his case against gun regulations by appearing to suggest that Japanese-Americans might have escaped internment during World War II if they had owned assault rifles and 30-round magazines. Disconnected from reality, this is a dream of a government both weak and treacherous.

The fear that a ban on assault rifles and 30-round magazines will lead inevitably to a government agent at the door demanding our shotguns is built on dreams that combine adolescent innocence with dark paranoia. There are authentic fears, too, heightened by entertainment news and a popular culture filled with violence, but the evolution of my own attitude over the years has forever broken the link between guns and personal security.

William Nichols, a West Lebanon resident, teaches writing at the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric at Dartmouth College. His most recent book is Fleeing Ohio. He can be reached at WmN@Dartmouth.edu.