Happiness Is a Worn Gun

My concealed weapon and me.

  1. In the 1943 noir thriller The Fallen Sparrow, John Garfield asks the police inspector whether his permit to carry a gun is still valid.

    “Good for a year,” the cop says wearily. “Why did you want to carry a gun?”

    “To shoot people with, sweetheart!” Garfield snarls, as the cop’s face falls comically.

    I think about the ambivalence of that line every time I strap on my .38—mixing the brutality of shooting people with that wise-guy sweetheart. It’s so endearingly American.

    Garfield’s were the days when people who wanted a concealed-weapon permit had to convince the police to issue one. Merchants in rough neighborhoods, bodyguards to the rich, and the well connected could usually manage it. The rest went unarmed, or carried illegally. That’s how it was for generations: if you wanted permission to carry a gun, you had to have a good reason.

    Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.

    Good thing or bad? Most people can answer that question instinctively, depending on how they think about a whole matrix of bigger questions, from the role of government to the moral obligations we have to one anoth...

Originally published in Harper's, August 2010