A.J. Somerset is the author of Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun.
First, a confession: I don’t care what Emma Gonzalez said. Neither the speeches nor the slogans nor even the wittiest of protest signs matter. What matters is the scale of the March for Our Lives in Washington, and in 800 other cities across the United States and around the world. Whatever the numbers – and crowd-size estimates are notoriously unreliable – the crush on Pennsylvania Avenue represents a seismic shift in American gun politics. The ground has shifted under our feet.
The March for Our Lives invites comparison to another historic moment, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It is a sobering comparison. Much has changed since 1963 – Barack Obama stands for that – but a half-century after the March on Washington, we must still be reminded that black lives matter. History, if we pause to consider it, sobers the giddiness of our moment. Change is slow.
Nowhere is change slower than on guns. Yet American gun laws do change. Within the short lifetimes of the Parkland massacre victims, the number of states that will not issue a concealed handgun permit has fallen from seven to zero. Carrying a concealed handgun ceased to be politically contentious; instead, the fight moved on to open carry, and to “constitutional carry” – the crack-brained notion that any lawful gun owner should be able to carry a concealed handgun without a permit, as the founders intended. Constitutional carry became the law in 13 states. The assault weapons ban expired, and Congress declined to renew it. Stand-Your-Ground laws, the handgun carrier’s Stay-Out-of-Jail-Free card, expanded in turn.
A nation gripped by incoherent unease has increasingly turned to the gun. The General Social Survey, an ongoing opinion survey conducted since 1972 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, asks Americans if they feel unsafe walking at night near their homes; since 2001, the answer has increasingly been yes. Yet crime has steadily fallen. That Americans are increasingly afraid is probably a consequence of another historic moment – the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 – creating a general sense of fear.
But at one time, carrying a concealed handgun was repugnant. The first states to ban concealed carry were Kentucky and Louisiana, in 1813. By 1907, most states had banned carrying a concealed handgun. To secretly go armed, in the 19th century, was considered unmanly, and evidence of violent intent.
It took a century, but this changed.
The internet fever-dream of Australian-style gun-control laws in the United States, of overnight bans and widespread confiscation, will not come true. Change will take decades, and it will be driven by a generation of kids who grew up in a nation that had lost its mind in collective fear and distrust.
Metal detectors and armed guards have spread from the gang-ridden inner-city school of drug-war stereotype to the suburbs. Adults who parrot Ben Franklin’s warning not to abandon liberty for security demand that children carry transparent backpacks and submit to arbitrary searches. The futile “duck and cover“ of a past generation finds its analogue in lockdown drills; a police officer stalks the halls with a starter’s pistol for increased realism. In fact, the threat is remote, but security theatre in schools and the daily news tells Generation Lockdown otherwise. The duck-and-cover generation didn’t open the newspaper to read of occasional nuclear strikes on American cities.
We did not arrive suddenly at this point. The expiry of the assault-weapons ban in 2004 ushered in the age of the AR-15. The bump stock and the Las Vegas massacre are its macabre reductio ad absurdum. Gun culture has sealed its own fate. The Sandy Hook massacre midwifed Moms Demand Action, which made guns a women’s issue; the election of Donald Trump gave us the Women’s March. The students have, for now, eclipsed their parents, but energized women are the organizational bedrock on which the student movement for gun control was built. These kids will not accept metal detectors, clear backpacks and hardened schools for their own children. The number of Americans swelling the streets on Saturday tells what the future will bring.