The Supreme Court is apparently preparing to send us a message: No matter where you live, no matter what you and your neighbors feel, you’ll have to live with the idea that just about anyone who wants to will be able to carry a gun in your community. If you’ve ever said, “I’m glad I don’t live in a place where people are armed,” you may no longer have any choice.
Precisely how far the court will go is still unknown. But in oral arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit challenging New York state’s requirement that those who want a permit to carry a gun most places need must show a “special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community,” a few things became clear.
First, the court is almost certain to strike down the New York law. All six conservative justices expressed skepticism of New York’s regulation, and some — especially Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil M. Gorsuch — have made clear even before now that they are eager to expand the scope of gun rights as soon as possible.
Second, when the court does so, it will probably for the first time in American history create an individual “right” not just to own guns — which the court established, also for the first time in our history, in 2008 — but to carry them to public places.
And third, when they do so they will in effect be taking the gun culture of conservative states and forcing the rest of us to live under it.
The idea of “culture” is key to how we understand guns, yet only one side of the debate regularly invokes it. Which is unfortunate, because those of us who wish America’s gun laws were far more restrictive than they are have a “culture” when it comes to guns, too.
Gun advocates are fond of talking about how their high esteem for guns is deep and meaningful, part of the culture of their families and the places they come from. They’ll tell you about the bolt-action hunting rifle their daddy’s daddy passed down, which now hangs in a place of honor in their own home and is so much more to them than just a tool.
Gun culture exists on many levels. Some people are deeply enmeshed in it: reading and talking about guns, shooting guns, and generally organizing a substantial part of their lives around guns. It has many attractions, from all the gear head fun you can have tricking out your AR-15 to the feeling of potency you get from just holding one in your hand, let alone firing it.
It’s social, as well. As a pair of political scientists wrote in 2019, “At the recreational level, participants can indulge in hobbyist debate and discussion; on a political and cultural level, they can also forge a shared commitment to armed citizenship.”
Then there’s a more collective gun culture that exists in many places, one in which guns are just part of the environment. People have them in their homes, they see them all the time, and they aren’t the least bit alarmed when someone in line ahead of them at the 7-Eleven leans over and they see a holster on their hip.
When we refer to that as a “culture,” it can serve to insulate it from criticism; you might think someone’s religious practices are silly or their people’s traditional music is dull, but you know you shouldn’t say so, since that would be insulting to something that carries deep meaning for them.
But guess what: The rest of us have a gun culture too. It’s one defined by the absence of guns.
Where I grew up, I never saw any guns. If any of my friends’ parents had them in their homes, I never knew it. Hunting was not one of our common forms of recreation. The only time I ever touched one was when I took riflery at summer camp. And if we saw someone with a gun in their waistband walking down the street, we’d call the cops.
There are thousands of communities just like that around the country, and for the people who live there, the absence of guns is part of what makes them the kind of place they want to make their home.
According to a 2020 RAND Corporation study, rates of gun ownership vary enormously by state, ranging from 66 percent in Montana and Wyoming all the way down to less than 15 percent in New Jersey and Massachusetts. And there are many different kinds of places within each state: conservative states have more liberal cities where gun ownership is lower, and liberal states have more conservative rural areas where ownership is higher.
But what the Supreme Court is poised to do is say to every American: You live in Oklahoma now. People are just going to be carrying guns around.
We don’t know precisely how far the court will go in this regard, but it’s obvious they’re going to keep steadily expanding gun rights. And if the presence of those guns terrifies you and your family? If it ruins part of your culture and the character of your community? Tough luck.