Last week, I met friends in London and returned home just before midnight. My walk back from the train station was through a dimly lit park. It’s not a high-crime area but I was thinking whether I would feel safer if I carried a gun.
The reason for this bizarre thought was that on the train I read a newspaper article about Texas, where legislators passed a bill allowing Texans to carry handguns without a permit. What was it about Texas, I wondered, that made being able to hide a handgun under your coat seem like a good idea?
For now, Texans require a handgun licence, undergo weapons training and submit to background checks. Those with criminal convictions may be disqualified. But Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, says he will sign the new bill into law. The new rules are known as "constitutional carry". The name comes from the second amendment to the US constitution that gives Americans the constitutional "right to bear arms".
For years, gun control groups have argued for tighter interpretations of the second amendment, querying why Americans have the “right” to military-grade weapons, including assault rifles. The precise legal position differs from state to state, but Texas has already some of the loosest rules anywhere.
It’s normal to see rifles carried openly and gun racks in cars, and to be invited by friends or acquaintances to go to a shooting range or to head out to a field or forest for target practice. I once spent a few hours with a Texas family “plinking” for cans, shooting tin cans with a variety of firearms. It was innocent fun.
The geography of America means that in remote areas gun ownership can seem a necessity. I have friends with a cabin in the White Mountains of Arizona, on the border with New Mexico. If I lived there, or in the great vastness of parts of Texas, kilometres from any town or law enforcement and emergency services, I can see why gun ownership might seem necessary. My Arizona friends’ cabin is 65 kilometres from the nearest small town. Local people are self-reliant, law abiding and used to protecting themselves.
But there is clearly a difference between having a rifle or shotgun for hunting or protection in the wide open countryside and having a hidden handgun in a Texas city such as Houston or Dallas. Handguns are easy to conceal and therefore potentially even more dangerous than having a rifle. On a Texas firing range I was once instructed on the virtues of a Glock 17, a handgun which, as the name suggests, may contain 17 bullets. Some handgun extensions mean they can be loaded with twice as much firepower.
But why would I want – or need – a handgun walking home alone in the dark in England? I wouldn’t. So why would someone in Houston or San Antonio feel the need to have a hidden gun? The only possible answer is fear – fear of crime, fear of some predator, fear of becoming a victim.
And that is America’s gun paradox: the more guns are available, the more fear increases, and cannot decrease.
I have been told innumerable times in Texas and elsewhere that if law abiding people are prevented from owning guns, then only criminals will have them. The result is America’s civilian arms race, with terrible consequences. More guns mean more fear not less.
Imagine, for example, you are a Texas police officer. You see someone driving erratically, stop the car and question the driver, but you know that driver may – legally – be carrying a hidden handgun. How frightened would you be? Would fear mean you would draw your own weapon? Would fear make the car driver reach for his or her own handgun, too? Does this mutual fear explain – but not condone – some of the horrific examples of police violence? I believe it might. Nervous cops are likely to be trigger-happy cops.
The American west has always been wild, but nowadays some gun owners have – literally – stockpiles of weapons in their home arsenals. The new Texas law means those stockpiles will grow, and so will the numbers of mass shootings that Americans routinely condemn and yet take for granted. Two mass shootings in Texas killed 30 people in August 2019. A high school shooting in 2018 claimed 10 lives, and in 2017 another 27 Texans were killed at a church shooting.
The repeated slogan of American gun enthusiasts that they need more weapons because otherwise only criminals will have them, is not just hollow. It is deadly. It’s not a reason. It’s an excuse.
Even walking through a dark park in England at midnight I am cautious and alert, but not fearful. The chance of meeting someone with a gun in England is almost zero. Owning a gun for protection in a big European city is not normal behaviour. The fact that it has become normalised in the US is an acceptance of the normalisation of gun violence, mass shootings, and ultimately the normalisation of fear.
Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and UK columnist for The National