You can shoot .38s for practice and .357s for social work.
— Internet Commenter

Some people call a .45 a slow moving train. If you get hit with a VW it is going to hurt and kill you, but if you get hit with a train, well, it is going to kill you and drag you down the tracks grinding you up. The .45 was designed for one purpose only, to kill human beings. So a .45 with cheap ammo from Walmart will do the job nicely when it comes to social work.
— Internet Commenter

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At some point while writing my last column, I pulled a gun on my neighbor.

I’m not proud of this. And luckily, the neighbor has no idea that it happened, but it’s been nagging at me even so.

She shouldn’t have been where she was, at the time that she was there, and that’s what triggered the automatic response to go for the gun on my nightstand. The fact that I immediately turned from my writing desk to the nightstand, when the doorbell rang well past dinnertime after night had fallen, isn’t what bothers me. If anything, that only shows good discipline and decisive response. Ditto for the fluidity with which I opened the cylinder of my revolver and dropped a speedloader into it, depositing five .357 rounds with one twist of a button. Nor am I bothered by the fact that I had no other thoughts than I hope I won’t have to use this, except in this one sense: it’s an unforgivable shame, an obscenity, a tragedy beyond scale that this is how far we’ve fallen.

I yearn to live in a time and place where an unexpected evening visit could be a delightful surprise. Instead, I have this reality: a house on a dimly lit road at the far edge of town where city blends into country. It’s a road that, after May, can evoke an awesome simulacra of living in “the woods,” surrounded by trees in full bloom and wildlife munching on flowerbeds. But after October it becomes something much less inviting, thrown into deep darkness by late afternoon and trading warm summer seclusion for frozen winter isolation and endless shadows. And although our porch is well lit, my front door has no security peephole, just a decorative frosted-glass window that distorts any view of what’s beyond it. The only way to know who’s out there is to open the door.

When we first moved in, we had the usual missionaries and pollsters and petition drivers stopping by unannounced, and one afternoon we even had a cutlery salesman, stepping out of the past to sell us knives. No other town we’d lived in had been like this, and the regularity of these unwanted visits became annoying. I put an end to them by bolting a big yellow NO SOLICITING sign above the doorbell. A couple of activists with petitions rang anyway over the next few months, but always in daytime, and we’d just open the door and point to the sign.

But as our monthly crime map began to grow more colorful with the orange dots and purple squares of an increasing number of burglaries and home invasions in our community, we made a rule: daytime strangers were potential threats, and night-time strangers even more so. We would answer the door for no one who wasn’t expected.

That was the drill when our doorbell rang in the darkness a few weeks ago. With our dog out in the backyard for his evening business and unable to provide any deep-throated warnings, I turned from my desk to my nightstand, pulled the .357 from its holster and dropped in the speedloader, and calmly called downstairs, “Anyone expecting this?” My wife and our oldest son, who was staying with us between apartments, both answered in the negative. A minute later, the doorbell rang again. We’d know soon enough what the game was, and I went to the top of the stairs to see.

After another minute, through the narrow frosted window, I could see a distorted shape turning around on the porch. I went back to our bedroom to look out the upstairs window and watch as a female figure crossed our driveway to the road, turned and followed a leafless hedge, then walked up our neighbor’s driveway and entered the house.

“It was our neighbor,” I called down. “The wife.”

“Oh jeez,” my wife said.

“I had a gun ready.”

“Oh, jeez!

“Should we go over and see what she wanted?”

But I already knew the answer. We’d gone over there one night not long ago, after dark, to deliver a package that a mail carrier accidently left on our porch, and we could see through their narrow frosted window that the husband and wife were just standing in the kitchen, unmoving, while we rang the doorbell and knocked.

“We’ll only scare her,” my wife said, and there it was: a standoff of mutual fear.

Maybe we would see her in the morning if we all left for work at the same time. We could ask then what she wanted. But what if she hadn’t wanted anything? What if she had needed? It had to have been something out of the ordinary, special enough to send this fairly reclusive woman, whose name we didn’t know after four years of living next door to her and her family, over to our house in the darkness. Was a child sick? Was her husband threatening her?

But those were silly questions. Her car was in the driveway and the hospital ER wasn’t very far away. Sick child problem resolved. As for a threatening husband, well, hadn’t she gone back into the house? That wouldn’t have made any sense either.

I opened the cylinder of my gun, ejected the rounds and dropped them back into the speedloader, clipped them into place with a twist of the knob, and put the gun back into its nightstand holster.

All of this had been so… natural. Where had it come from?

If I were actually the brain-addled “libtard” that gun zealots portray anyone like me as being, I’d have lost sleep over it. At the very least I would still be wrestling with great existential questions of our culture’s steady slide into barbarism. But those questions are buried under a thick layer of ice, formed by immersion into gun culture and years of “compassionate conservatism” oozing from the TV and computer screens, bullshit morality from an endless parade of amoral asshats who want the Bible forced into schools so that children can memorize its directive to “give to those who ask of you, and do not turn away from those who want to borrow from you,” then grow up to become legislators who eviscerate every form of social assistance. The ice is so thick that I can’t feel the accompanying pangs of loss and sorrow that should be essential parts of the questions.

“Social work,” in fact, is the term that gun zealots use to describe the mildly unfortunate but totally necessary shooting of people. And I suppose that, in a way, carrying a concealed weapon is a form of social work—if it’s done right.

Forget all the loonies who, trembling in fear masked as fury, tuck revolvers under their armpits and semi-autos into their waistbands and little palm-sized .380s into pocket holsters, giving themselves hard-ons over the prospect that today might finally be the day when they’re justifiably provoked into pulling out one of those death machines. These, I genuinely believe, are the overly vocal few, the nuts so marginalized that they get all of the media attention because those at the center are too quiet about the responsibility they’ve chosen to take upon themselves.

For that latter group, “social work” means carrying an instrument of war discreetly into the most cherished settings of peace—a family restaurant, a public park, a holiday parade, a camping trip—while also carrying the presence of mind to think much like a peace officer. Constant awareness of the surrounding landscape. Never letting a stranger get too close to the concealed weapon. Always leaving enough space for a clean draw and a clean shot. Knowing that drawing means a commitment to likely shooting, not just brandishing. And never, ever actively wishing for either a draw or a shot to become necessary.

Given all of that, carrying a loaded gun in public could possibly be the most social of all activities. It makes you aware of everyone around you in a way that nothing else will.

I am not suggesting that there’s some kind of altruism in packing hidden heat. That would be ludicrous. The only thing that can honestly be said about carrying concealed is that it’s tragic. Good people carry because bad people carry, and bad people will never go away.

The gun problem in America isn’t about guns, but rather about Americans. In the United States, we express the distinction with the most inane platitude ever uttered: Guns don’t kill people; people do. But other countries have addressed it more intelligently. Countries that don’t incarcerate recreational drug users or paint abortion providers as murderers. Countries that don’t have a political party screaming “Nazi! Hitler! Socialist!” through TV cameras provided by billionaire businessmen posing as defenders of free speech while peddling barely veiled hate speech. Countries where capitalism isn’t a god, corporations aren’t people, money isn’t speech, misreading the Constitution isn’t a fundamentalist religion, and class warfare isn’t encouraged by those pretending to condemn it, with a constant litany of condemnations serving as the encouragement.

My wife and I, as I said in an earlier column, got our concealed-carry permits because we wanted to do something new. If you read that, you already know about our unexpected introduction to a local gun range, but I forgot to add what followed a year or so later when my company newsletter arrived in the mail and mentioned, on its back page, that concealed-carry classes were starting soon at the local junior college, and would be free for employees and their families. There was no other context, nothing about a rise in thefts or late-night attacks in a dangerous parking lot (our parking lot is very well-lit, actually). Just a free class. And this is what I said to my wife, ever the practical person: “It probably would save a lot of money if we owned our own handguns and stopped renting them, and we could transport them without any hassle going back and forth to the range.”

It wasn’t a smokescreen. Practical was the key word. Concealed-carry licenses would be tickets to economy and efficiency, nothing more.

Maybe we were rationalizing irrationally, maybe not. But neither of us had ever said, “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if we could carry our range rentals legally, everywhere we go?” The idea of obtaining concealed-carry permits fell out of the sky just as the idea of starting regular range shooting had, and it held the same appeal: we hadn’t done it before. We would learn something we didn’t know, see a part of American life we hadn’t seen.

It would be fun. It would get us out of the house. It would put us around other people, maybe make some new friends, and encourage us to be social—maybe even what they used to call neighborly.