If you ask gun-rights activists why Americans appear to be buying so many more firearms than was the case five years ago, they will usually give a sociological explanation or a political one. But when they explain why they themselves first bought a gun, they tend to describe something more personal. Often they will tell a story of a confrontation with violence and a specific terror that it left behind. One former national-board member of the NRA told me that he bought his first gun in the sixties in North Carolina, where he was working for a federal anti-poverty program, after he found himself chased down a nighttime road by hooded Klansmen. Another gun activist, a theology professor, told me about threats leveled against the institution and the compulsion he felt afterward to protect his students and fellow teachers. In one recent ad for Glock, an armed goon walks into a diner in order to rob it only to find the place filled with off-duty cops, each of them packing a concealed pistol. “Somebody picked the wrong diner,” the man behind the counter says, so full of confidence he is nearly sneering. When gun owners talk about mastering a firearm for the first time, this is often the tone they end on, the new gun changing the balance of their confrontation with violence and restoring their conviction. The gun becomes a prophylaxis against fear.
Violent encounters like these have a nightmarish power, and memories of them are hard to erase. Emanuel Kapelsohn, one of the most influential gun trainers in the country and a member of the advisory board of the Armed Citizens Legal Defense Network, described to me the events of one evening in 1966, when he was 14, at home with his mother, sister, and the sister’s infant child. He walked into his living room and discovered a man halfway through the window, breaking in. Somehow he remembered the shotgun his father had left on top of the family’s china cabinet and grabbed for it, leveling it at the intruder. The man jumped back out through the window. It took the police 55 minutes to arrive—Kapelsohn sitting on the couch clutching the weapon to his chest, the rest of his family huddled around him, “completely terrified.” Kapelsohn went on to study at Yale and then Harvard Law, then worked as a corporate lawyer in New York. He is not someone who, in Barack Obama’s words, “clings to guns and religion” as salves for his marginalization; he lives far from a marginalized life. But the memory of that attack stayed with him, and eventually he left his law job and the city and remade his life around self-defense and guns. “I’m sure,” Kapelsohn told me recently, launching into the story of his adolescent encounter, “that this shaped me.”
America’s relationship with guns has long been fixed in place by an architecture of partisan resentments, but since the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, there has been some movement. Public support for new gun-control measures tends to swell in the first few days after a highly publicized shooting and then very swiftly ebb; this time, unexpectedly, that support has lasted. At the same time, a second reaction has registered in the news: People are buying more assault rifles and handguns than they ever have. AR-15s—the main weapon that Adam Lanza used at Sandy Hook Elementary School—are particularly popular. “Right now, if you own one,” a leading firearms instructor told me a couple of weeks after Newtown, “it’s quadrupled in value.”
In both their purchases and their political response, gun owners have seemed to double down. In early January, I noticed a twenty-year-old news photo being passed approvingly around certain gun-rights Twitter feeds. The image showed five Korean-American men crouching on the roof of a Los Angeles building, wearing martial-arts headbands, rifles leaning against the parapet. The conservative magazine Human Events ran an article explaining the importance of this incident and titled it: “When ‘Assault Weapons’ Saved Koreatown.”
In the midst of the 1992 rioting after the Rodney King verdict, the store owners of Koreatown, finding their property threatened, turned to small armed groups of men like this one. A group of elite Korean marine veterans had put out a call on a Korean-language radio station, the Los Angeles Times later reported, for “volunteer security guards” to help protect stores and homes. Some came with “shotguns and automatic weapons.” “It’s just like war,” one shopkeeper told the reporter. Another man said he and a small security force had fired 500 rounds in all, some to ward off looters. “Where are the police? Where are the soldiers?” a man named John Chu asked. “We have no choice but to defend ourselves.” Episodes like the L.A. riots, Human Events argued, “can occur anywhere.” Not so long ago, was the message, and not so far away.