Armed … Not Dangerous

What does carrying a weapon have to do with sex, gender, and relationships?

I hinted at it with this metaphor in my book’s chapter “Masculine & Feminine, Male & Female”:

Macho is to masculine as a thigh holster is to concealed-carry. Macho succeeds by demonstration; masculine, by quiet discipline.

Not even concealed-carry was legal when I was growing up in Texas. (That changed too late to prevent the 1991 Luby’s massacre.) But by 1997, I had acquired a concealed handgun license and carried everywhere the law allowed. Most states recognize my permit, so it’s pretty much the norm. Now, following the Supreme Court’s Heller decision, there’s increasing talk of making open-carry the law of the land, as well.

But to me, open-carry has always seemed unnecessarily demonstrative. What’s the bearer trying to convey? “I’m ready to fight to the death.” I couldn’t think of anyone other than law enforcement or a soldier on patrol who ought to communicate that.

As well, a handgun has obvious phallic connotations. Like those guys who walk around in bulge-enhancing shorts, a man with a full holster can look like he wants your attention … for all the wrong reasons.

See the macho-masculine connection here?

To join the open-carry lobby, I would need more in the way of justification. Or maybe I was still under Hollywood’s influence, having been trained over the years to believe that the sight of a handgun means imminent violence.

 

As the family and I were traveling through Idaho this summer, I learned it was a “gold star” open-carry state. Even non-residents could wear a handgun openly, almost anywhere. I saw this as an opportunity to try open-carry first-hand, to see if my prejudices were justified.

As I’ve noted, I carry concealed most of the time, and it’s a pain in the … back. The butt of my .45 conforms to my lumbar region in a way that’s excellent for posture (I have to hold an anatomically correct arch to avoid a lumpen shirt) but eventually this gets uncomfortable. And because I must wear a belt to hold the gun snugly, plus an undershirt to keep perspiration off the steel, this limits what I can wear comfortably in the summer. Carrying in the open air might just provide the relief I’ve long needed.

To test this, I armed up cowboy-style, holster on my right hip.

For the first outing, I went virtually unseen by the public, taking the dog out to romp along a rural canal.

The immediate lesson for me was, a hip holster isn’t easy to walk with. With the gun out there, I had to swing my arm in a wider arc to prevent chafing.

Weight became an issue, too. I’ve always carried a second clip in my holster, and the combination tugged my belt down on one side so I looked a little like Wyatt Earp, if Wyatt Earp had favored polo shirts and hiking boots.

I returned to my RV sagging, with a reddened inner forearm. This would call for some reconfiguration.

For my next test, my son and I took a late-afternoon bike ride. I had moved the whole package—holster, gun, spare clip—to the small of my back, outside my shirt. This would make my gun obvious to anyone approaching from behind.

As we rode along a four-lane, nobody careened into oncoming traffic to avoid us, but again, this was Idaho, so it’s likely no one thought twice about a father and son out biking with Dad armed up like a DEA agent.

We stopped into a farm store, the kind they have all over the West selling everything from propane to rabbits, and went shopping. Leaning over to look at a display, I became acutely aware that my holster had tilted away from my back, making the butt of my gun more obvious than ever to other patrons. I slowly stood up, then squatted down with my back straight.

But again, nary a notice from clerks or customers. To them, this was just an Idaho father and son, looking at saddles with the dad packing a .45 and fifteen rounds.

Finally, I decided to test my newfound freedom in a crowd. We took kids, flags, and whistles to Idaho Falls’ annual Fourth of July parade, arriving in a suburban area just in time to nab a spot on someone’s lawn about four rows from the curb.

I realized, as the floats rolled by, that I was watching an Independence Day parade while exercising my 2nd Amendment rights to the fullest. And everything about that felt right and good.

Still, there was no shaking the feeling of conspicuousness when I realized I was the only person—aside from the cops—visibly armed. Even the soldiers in the parade probably carried no bullets.

Were the people behind me whispering about that guy up there with the black S&W in his belt? Would they be more comfortable if I hung a pair of handcuffs next to it, the way off-duty cops do?

After a while my nagging doubts got lost in the parade, but they were soon revived by one of the spectators just in front of us. His behavior put me on the spot, and brought to mind a little-discussed caveat about carrying deadly weapons.

This kid—probably 17-20—sat in a lawn chair close to the parade front, with a friend next to him. Every time a float approached, he bellowed at the driver, “Honk your horn!” Every so often a driver would, and the kid followed up with a loud wail. He was so constant with this, he started drawing harsh looks from others, some of whom probably wondered if he was drunk.

I’ve encountered people like him before, and I knew he would probably keep the act going throughout the parade. Possibly he was retarded, but more likely just a sociopath who likes to make a show of himself while annoying others. Almost daring them to challenge his display. Machismo at its finest.

A few of us bystanders looked around as if unsure whether to ask the cops to shush him up. But the cops were too far away. So I imagined what would happen if I stepped up to the situation, walked over, and told him to shut up directly?

Unless I intimidated him from the get-go, he’d probably relish knowing that he’d gotten on somebody’s nerves. (Unlike masculinity, macho requires an enabler.) And if he mouthed off to me, what would I do then? You can’t make a citizen’s arrest for profanity.

And if he did turn out to be drunk, or otherwise impaired, and decided to react physically, I would have to make a life-and-death decision: fisticuffs could quickly become a fight to the death when he discovered my gun.

That bumper sticker we´ve all seen—“An armed citizenry is a peaceful citizenry”—only hints at this little-known fact about carrying a deadly weapon: An armed citizen knows he cannot get involved in a situation likely to escalate without putting himself and others at significant risk.

So, I chose to ignore him. Pretty much everyone did. And they also ignored the father watching an Independence Day parade with his family, armed like a cop on his day off.

 

To that evening’s fireworks show along the river, I chose not to carry at all. Reason: I knew I’d be sitting a lot, and the .45 is simply too large for comfort when reclining. I saw only one other open-carrier. His tactical pants and black shirt looked a bit … countercultural. Which brings me to the point of all this.

Someday, open carry may be acceptable in, and even reassuring to, the public. It’ll be viewed the way I’ve come to see it: a visible sign that someone near me may be willing and able to take responsibility for ensuring the safety of himself and others, if called on. Also, I know that an open-carrier is not a felon. That cannot be said about any other adult one might run across.

But open carry will only be acceptable when it’s associated with otherwise normal-looking individuals. Open-carry makes a statement, and the bearer is part of it. If he looks benign, his weapon will be seen as integral to that. This means no military rifles, camouflage wear, black cargo pants, etc. Again, we’ve all been conditioned by TV and movies to believe that a gun’s appearance always precedes violence.

Activists agitating for change by carrying (legal) long guns openly at various places of business must know they are already going to get attention. I think such demonstrations, if necessary, should aim for the best possible impression. A starched shirt and “dad jeans,” for example, would take much of the edge off, and make the point while adjusting common misperceptions.

 

On venturing into Utah, I discovered the open-carry laws there were just as liberated as Idaho’s … but nobody open-carries, at least not in the greater Salt Lake City area.

And suddenly I didn’t feel so inclined to wear a gun.

Being the only one open-carrying in public feels much like being the only couple on the dance floor. You can feel everyone watching you, even if they aren’t.

It also made me question my rationale for carrying at all. Utah has a very low violent-crime rate, and in the areas I frequent, sudden violence seems as likely to break out as a conga line.

So why pack a gun?

I carry concealed for the same reason I carry life insurance. Nobody notices, and I feel safer and more responsible for myself and my family.

Every man has responsibilities. That’s what carrying a weapon has to do with sex, gender, relationships, and masculinity.

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