How gun culture has changed
As an avid hunter and devoted gun enthusiast, I’m rarely out of reach of a firearm, said David Joy. But I don’t see any need for assault weapons designed for mass human slaughter.
Two weeks before Christmas, I had a 9 mm pistol concealed in my waistband and a rifle with two 30-round magazines in the passenger seat beside me. I was driving down from the mountains to meet a fellow I didn’t know at a Cracker Barrel off I-40 in the North Carolina foothills. He wanted to buy a Kel-Tec Sub-2000, and I had one for sale. Other than that, I didn’t know him from Adam except for a few Facebook messages.
We were both members of a Facebook group where people post pictures of firearms and buyers private-message to ask questions and make offers—sometimes cash, sometimes trade. I needed money to pay a buddy for an old ’70s model Lark teardrop trailer, and that rifle wasn’t doing anything but taking up space in the safe.
What I was doing was perfectly legal. In North Carolina, long-gun transfers by private sellers require no background checks. Likewise, it’s perfectly legal to sell a handgun privately so long as the buyer has a purchase permit or a concealed-carry license. But as I headed up the exit to the restaurant where we’d agreed to meet, I felt uneasy. I was within the law, but it didn’t feel as if I should have been.
He was backed into a space parallel to the dumpster, a black Ford F-250 with a covered bed, just as he’d described on Facebook Messenger. As I pulled in, he stepped out. He smiled, and I nodded.
“You can just leave it in the seat so we don’t make anybody nervous,” he said as I rolled down my window. There were families in rocking chairs in front of the restaurant. Customers were walking to their cars to get back on the road.
I climbed out of my truck so he could look the rifle over while I counted the money he’d left on his seat. He was about my age, somewhere in his early to mid-30s, white guy with a thick beard. He spoke with a heavy Southern accent not much different from my own. Said he built houses for a living, and that was about all the small talk between us. He liked the rifle. I needed the cash. We shook hands, and off we went.
There is rarely a moment when I’m not within reach of a firearm. When I lie down at night, there is an old single-shot New England Firearms Pardner leaned against the headboard, a loaded Smith & Wesson M&P Shield pistol on the nightstand. When I sit on the couch to work on an essay or a novel, there is a CZ 75 pistol on the coffee table. When I go to town for groceries, one of those two pistols is concealed inside my waistband.
Where I live in the mountains of North Carolina, I am not alone. With fewer than a dozen guns in the safe, I wouldn’t even be considered a gun nut. Most of my friends have concealed-carry licenses and pistols on their person. If there are 10 of us in a room, there are most likely 10 loaded firearms, probably more, with a few of us keeping backups in ankle holsters. Rarely do we mention what we carry. We don’t touch the guns. They are unseen and unspoken of, but always there.
I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t around guns. When I was a kid, there was a gun rack hanging on the wall in the living room. My father kept a single-shot .410 and an old bolt-action .22, small-game guns, though he didn’t hunt anymore. I can remember the first time my father taught me to shoot a rifle, how he had me sit on the concrete driveway and use my knee for a rest, aiming for a cardboard target in a honeysuckle thicket across the road. I think I was 8 or 9. I pulled the stock in too high on my shoulder and craned my neck awkwardly to line up the iron sights. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew the rules: Always assume a firearm is loaded. Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. Know your target and what’s beyond it.
I come from a country people whose culture was destroyed by bulldozers and buildings. My father’s family settled in and around Charlotte in the late 1700s. As a child, I would ride around with my grandmother in her light blue Oldsmobile. Where Winn-Dixies and Food Lions stood, she remembered fields where she worked tobacco and picked cotton. I grew up in a tiny holdout spot of country where I ran through a pasture of chest-high field grass to fish a farm pond most evenings, where just a mile down the road my uncle still kept a kennel of hounds to run rabbit each fall.
Guns were often a bridge between father and son. But my dad didn’t keep a .38 Special on the bedside nightstand like my best friend’s father down the street. I never walked into the house and found him cleaning and oiling a dozen pistols at the kitchen table the way I did with my next-door neighbor’s dad. For my family, guns had always been a means of putting food on the table. My father never owned a handgun. He kept nothing for home defense.
As soon as I arrived in Jackson County, I knew I’d never leave. A hundred and fifty miles west of where I grew up, I found a community that reminded me of my grandmother, where folks still kept big gardens and canned the vegetables they grew. They still filled the freezer with meat taken by rod and rifle—trout and turkey, dove and rabbit, deer, bear, anything in season.
I keep a close-knit group of friends here, most of whom are at least 20 years my senior. Our generational difference is erased by a shared passion for wilderness and time spent in the field with gun in hand. This past Christmas, one of the men I hunt with, a man we call Son in Law, handed down a Model 94 Winchester to his grandson. The grandson would be the fourth generation to hunt with that rifle. A few weeks later, the boy took that .30-30 lever action into the field and killed his first deer with it—the same as his uncle, his grandfather and great-grandfather. Those types of things are rare now, even in places like Appalachia.
I’m the youngest member of my hunting camp—me 34, everyone else in their mid-to-late 60s, a few on up past 70. Among these men, there are centuries of experience gathered around the campfire each night. After more than 40 seasons in the same woods, they’ve come to know the land intimately.
I killed my biggest deer to date on the 2nd of November from a tree one of those men sent me to. Fifteen feet up a hickory, I watched a tree line at the edge of a clear cut. I heard heavy footsteps and eased around the right side of the tree for a look, and there he stood. Just before the deer strolled behind a cedar sapling, I touched the trigger, and the .308 blew apart the morning. The buck stooped forward and sprinted, back legs driving him over tangled ground. He made it 40 yards before he crashed. From my stand, I could just make out the white of his stomach through the brush. I watched his ribs rise with each breath, that breathing slowing, slowing, then gone.
A few days later, I was driving back home from hunting camp in McCormick, S.C., with the head of that eight-point buck in a cooler in the truck bed, the rest of the deer hanging to age at the processor. On a long straightaway, I passed a state trooper driving in the opposite direction. In the rearview, I saw him slam on the brakes and make a U-turn in the middle of the road, blue lights flashing. I was running just under 60 in a 55 and didn’t think there was any way he was pulling me over.
The 9 mm I always carry was loaded and concealed on my side. Until that moment I’d never been pulled over while carrying a concealed weapon. I knew the protocol. I knew what I was legally obligated to say. But I was nervous as hell as the trooper stepped out of his cruiser and approached the side of my truck. He was a young black man with braces on his teeth. He looked to be in his early 20s, had kind eyes, and was built like a linebacker. He asked for my license and registration, and I told him I needed to inform him that I had a concealed-carry license and that there was a weapon on my person. He asked where the gun was located, and I told him roughly 4 o’clock. He asked if I could get to my wallet, and I told him the pistol was pretty close to my back pocket. There was a moment of hesitation when he considered what to do next. Then he told me to move slowly as I took my wallet from my pocket.
When the trooper had my license and registration, he went to his cruiser. In a few minutes, he came back to the window and issued me a warning for speeding. I asked if there was anything I could’ve done differently to make him more comfortable when he first approached the truck. The trooper told me what I’d said was fine. He smiled and told me: “But this is South Carolina. Most every car I pull over has a gun.”
As I headed toward the mountains, all I could think about was Philando Castile, the young African-American man who had a permit to carry and was shot to death in his car in front of his girlfriend and her young daughter by a Minnesota policeman after notifying the officer that he had a weapon. All I could think about was how things might have been different if the situation was reversed and that young black state trooper with braces had been behind the wheel, a white trooper cautiously approaching the car. It was impossible not to recognize how gun culture reeks of privilege.
Last summer I drove back to Charlotte to visit my father for his birthday. While I was there, I went into a Cabela’s store in Fort Mill, S.C., to buy him a new depth finder for his fishing boat. After I found what I was looking for, I headed across the store to see if there were any good deals on ammo.
There were floor displays of AR-15s, and probably a hundred or more other rifles and shotguns for anyone to walk up and hold. I watched a kid about 8 or 9 pick up one of those ARs and shoulder it to the center of his chest. He held the gun awkwardly, cocked his head hard to the side, squeezed one eye closed to aim, and dry-fired the weapon. I watched two men, presumably his father and grandfather, smile and laugh, then break out their cellphones to snap a few pictures.
Maybe it’s how I was raised and the types of firearms my family kept, but the idea of owning a rifle designed for engaging human targets out to 600 meters just never interested me. I keep a Savage 10 in .308 to hunt whitetail and hogs. I have a CZ 920 that’s absolute hell on a dove field. Then there are the weapons I keep for defense—the shotgun by the bed, the pistols—firearms whose sole purpose would be to take a human life if I were left with no other choice.
My friends see no difference between the guns I own and their ARs. One or two of them rationalize assault weapons the same way I justify what sits by my bed. When I ask if those rifles are really the best option for home defense, they joke about the minute hand of the doomsday clock inching closer to midnight. They post Instagram photos of Sig Sauer MCXs and tactical vests loaded with extra magazines, their bug-out bags by the door as they wait for the end of the world.
But a majority defend their ARs the same way I defend the guns I use for plinking and hunting. They say they own them because they’re fun at the range and affordable to shoot. They use the rifles for punching paper, a few for shooting coyotes. Every weekend they fire hundreds of rounds from custom rifles they’ve spent thousands of dollars building. They add bump stocks and Echo Triggers to increase rates of fire and step as close to Title II of the federal Gun Control Act as legally possible.
None of them sees a connection between the weapons they own and the shootings at Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Aurora, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland. They see mug shots of James Holmes, Omar Mateen, Stephen Paddock, Nikolas Cruz—“crazier than a shithouse rat,” they say. “If it hadn’t been that rifle, he’d have done it with something else.” They fear that what starts as an assault-weapons ban will snowball into an attack on everything in the safe.
I don’t believe that politicians are going to ban ordinary guns or overturn the Second Amendment, but I understand their reasoning because I understand what’s at stake. I think about that boy picking up that AR in Cabela’s, and I’m torn between the culture I grew up with and how that culture has devolved. There are changes I know must come. And there is an unrelenting fear of what could be lost.
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Reprinted with permission.