If you want a capsule – a vision, really – of the cosmic incoherence of the American gun movement, the appearance last month of an 11-year-old girl before the Idaho state legislature is tough to beat. Bailey Nielsen accompanied her grandfather, Charles Nielsen, to a hearing on concealed carry in the state.
Wearing a puffy grey winter coat, skinny pants and black boots, she dressed her age. Hanging from her left shoulder, its black muzzle descending just past her right knee and pointed at the floor, was an AR-15. Because in the quest to normalize gunslinging into every aspect of American society, no actor is too young, and no performance too absurd.
The National Rifle Association has a clear line on guns: You need a gun to ward off violent chaos as the world comes undone. There’s nothing subtle about NRA propaganda, which simply refuses to acknowledge the huge decline in violent crime in recent decades, including in cities (such as New York) with strict gun regulations. The NRA’s apocalyptic message is routinely demagogic and typically unhinged. But at least it’s internally consistent.
Complicating its line, however, are the musings of an army of freelance gun advocates, Charles Nielsen apparently among them. Explaining the patently antisocial action of chaperoning his armed granddaughter to the statehouse, Nielsen offered his own semi-automatic philosophy.
“Bailey is carrying a loaded AR-15,” he testified. “People live in fear, terrified of that which they do not understand. She’s been shooting since she was 5 years old. She got her first deer with this weapon at 9. She carries it responsibly. She knows how not to put her finger on the trigger. We live in fear in a society that is fed fear on a daily basis.”
There’s no reason to doubt Nielsen’s word. Bailey may well be a skilled and safety-conscious hunter who carries her weapon responsibly at all times, trained well by her grandfather. (She may, in fact, be far more competent than many adult gun owners in the state, which allows residents 18 and older to carry a concealed handgun without a permit or training.) But how does her precociousness make it any less foolish for a child to lug around an AR-15 in the state capitol or on the city streets that surround it? What is the point?
Open carry is strictly performance art. It has no social utility. It spreads anxiety and fear for obvious reasons, in service of the fringe rituals and religion of gun culture.
Remarkably, however, Nielsen wasn’t at the capitol to make a point about open carry. He was there to support a bill to enable concealed carry in Idaho by residents of other states. “When they come to Idaho, they should be able to carry concealed, because they carry responsibly,” he said. “They’re law-abiding citizens. It’s the criminal we have to worry about.”
Of course Nielsen – and the local police forces of Idaho – have no way to tell law-abiding citizens from criminals. Such is the circular logic that is the gun movement’s perpetually spinning hamster wheel. Everyone is law-abiding and should pack a pistol, or carry an AR-15, right up until the point at which they use the gun to commit a crime. They are then retroactively designated criminals, and their armed presence is identified as the very reason that everyone needs to be armed.
I hope Bailey grows up to be as fine a hunter or markswoman as she wants to be. But I also hope she one day recognizes that the gun movement is a dangerous factory of nonsense.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.