At the Nation’s Gun Show in Chantilly, spirits seemed high. People wandered from booth to booth, and the scent of popcorn filled the air. It could have been mistaken for a state fair or weekend flea market were it not for the rows of weapons and accessories — gun parts, AR build kits and body armor — laid out on every surface. It was easy to overlook the one common emotion underlying the event: fear.
OpinionWhy do Americans want guns? It comes down to one word.
Here were weekend shoppers intently inspecting tools of death: moms testing the heft of handguns and fathers stocking up on ammo. When I asked attendees and sellers what gun ownership meant to them, most replied with the same word: “protection.”
The previous week had brought three highly publicized shootings. Ralph Yarl, a Black teenager in Kansas City, Mo., was allegedly shot by an 84-year-old White man after he rang the wrong doorbell to pick up his younger siblings; a 65-year-old man in Upstate New York allegedly shot and killed a 20-year-old woman who accidentally pulled into his driveway; and two cheerleaders in Texas were shot after trying to get into the wrong car after a practice.
For all the talk of protection, gun violence is now the leading cause of death for children and teens in the United States. Yet over and over, people told me they needed their guns to keep themselves safe.
Safe from what? Most couldn’t answer; they simply had a feeling that the world had become a more dangerous place. How would they use their guns in a crisis? Their confidence in their own abilities seemed inflated.
This manifested in the constant invocation of the word “tactical” — a gun-industry buzzword used to suggest that buyers of weapons, body armor and shooting courses will be able to engage with enemies like trained soldiers. In other words, a fantasy.
Republican leaders, including Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, have resisted calls for increased gun regulation after shooting deaths, arguing that the root problem is mental illness. But the paranoia that fuels gun-buying has come to seem like a mental health issue in its own right.
“It’s crazy out there,” a woman named Dinah told me, an unloaded rifle slung over one shoulder. “People don’t care anymore, and criminals go for the low-hanging fruit. I don’t ever want to be in a situation where I can’t protect myself.”
counterpointAmericans have to stop thinking that guns offer protection
A record-high 56 percent of Americans believe that crime has increased in their area, even if reality is more complicated. Republicans in particular have grown sharply more concerned. Many Americans no longer assume that a stranger might be well-meaning, innocent or harmless; rather, the world is seen as an increasingly dangerous place. Incessant media coverage of violent events has encouraged this thinking, the gun-show attendees told me. And poorly understood “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws perpetuate and protect a vigilante mind-set.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of gun ownership for “protection” is the sharp-edged individualism it implies: an every-man-for-himself mind-set. Institutions can’t be trusted, police will be unresponsive, and the government might one day turn on you. Your only obligations are to yourself and your family.
Individual fear becomes a greater priority than collective safety. Increasing the number of guns in the system will almost certainly spell death for others, but at least your gun will keep you safe.
“You can’t predict who is going to shoot someone,” one ammunition salesman told me. “It’s just the nature of the evil world we live in. So I’ve got to be prepared.”
Today there are about 393 million privately owned firearms in the United States, according to an estimate by the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey — in other words, 120 guns for every 100 Americans. That’s the highest rate of any country in the world, and more than double that of the next country on the list.
The gun owners I spoke to were open to some violence-prevention measures. They suggested mandatory training courses, raising age limits for gun-buying or cracking down on dealers who sell to people not legally allowed to buy guns.
But no one was willing to give up their own weapons. They would rather “open the floodgates,” as one shooting instructor put it. If everyone has a gun, the theory goes, everyone will be more careful. If the side effect is a private arms race in a country already flooded with guns, so be it.
Over and over again, I heard the NRA-approved phrase: “An armed society is a polite society.” But guns might be leading us to give up on the concept of society altogether.