Placeholder Image

Culture

How Handguns Became the Good Guy’s Gun of Choice

As violent crime rates drop, fear, savvy marketing, and NRA-backed laws have given pistols an extreme makeover.

Massad Ayoob wants American gun owners to learn to shoot like him: with deadly aim and flinty confidence. Since the late 1970s, the 68-year-old self-defense expert has established himself as perhaps the preeminent authority on using handguns for protection, crisscrossing the country to lead intensive courses that can run as long as 40 hours over four days. Ayoob, the Bob Ross of the gun world (minus the ample cheer and voluminous hair), says he teaches students not just marksmanship, but how to quickly decide when to use lethal force, and what to expect if they do.

Students taking a class are required to bring a check for $400 to $900 — depending on its level — a handgun, three magazines, and at least 500 rounds of ammunition.

Ayoob says he has noticed a change in who is signing up for his courses. In the early 1980s, when handguns were most often associated with criminal acts, he and a handful of other self-defense instructors mostly catered to a small group of die-hard owners. “The only people who even knew we existed were gun people,” he says. “They already knew how to use a gun.”

Now, Ayoob says, his students are “ordinary citizens from all walks of life.” They’re doctors, lawyers, and small business owners, many of whom who have had little experience holding a gun, much less shooting one. Ayoob describes some of his customers who’ve taken classes in the last ten years as “people who are really new” to gun ownership.

The shifting demographics of Ayoob’s students, who have evolved from experienced shooters to novices handling a firearm for the first time, are representative of broader shifts in the American gun-owning population.

There are approximately 10 million more gun owners in the U.S. than there were two decades ago, and many of those who are purchasing weapons are choosing handguns, a sweeping new survey of American gun ownership by researchers at Harvard and Northeastern universities concludes.

The findings show that a majority of the approximately 70 million firearms added to the civilian arsenal in the last two decades — which now amounts to an estimated 265 million firearms — are handguns. According to the survey, handguns account for 42 percent of the civilian stock, up from 33 percent in 1994, when the last survey of comparable scope and methodology was conducted.

The surging popularity of handguns, a category that includes pistols and revolvers, has coincided with a rising interest in gun ownership for the purpose of self-defense.

Sixty-three percent of respondents cited self-defense against other people as one of the primary reasons for owning a gun. In 1994, less than half of respondents cited protection as the principal reason for gun ownership. That defensive mindset is especially pronounced in some regions of the country: Almost three-quarters of Southern gun owners said they own their firearms for self-protection.

The Trace and The Guardian obtained a summary of the survey’s results, which will be published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2017.

Long guns — rifles and shotguns — have experienced a significant decline in relative popularity, from 66 percent of civilian firearms in 1994 to 53 percent last year.

“The sense one gets from the survey is the overall quality of gun ownership has changed significantly over the last 25 years,” says Deb Azrael, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the study’s lead authors.

The survey paints a demographic picture of Americans who only own handguns. Like most gun owners, they are mostly white men, 30 or older, who finished high school, and perhaps some college, and have an annual income of $60,000 to $100,000. But it is not a monolithic group: Compared with other gun owners, those who own only handguns are more likely to be female, be a member of a racial minority, and more likely to live in an urban or suburban area. They are also slightly more likely than other kinds of gun owners to have grown up without firearms in the home.

The rise of the handgun as the quintessential American firearm, and the embrace of self-defense as the American gun owner’s prerogative, are all the more striking because they occurred at a time when violent crime has fallen to historic lows. Never have Americans wanted to protect themselves from each other more, even as they have less reason to fear one another — in most communities — than at any time in the last half century.

Homicide numbers reached an all-time peak in 1991, when there were an astounding 24,700 murders, and the rate stayed high through 1994 — around nine homicides per 100,000 people each of those years. Pistol manufacturing soared: There were more than 2 million made in both 1993 and 1994. When the homicide rate fell in the second half of the decade and through the millennium, production cratered, dropping to about 600,000 in 2001. In April of that year, the editor in chief of American Handgunner magazine told the Associated Press that the handgun business was “a dying industry.”

But his industry was on the verge of a spectacular sales boom. In 2006, for the first year in a decade, production cracked 1 million pistols.

Sales have since become completely untethered from crime stats. There were 4.4 million pistols made in the U.S. in 2013, shattering previous records. Production has dipped somewhat since then, but remains high, with more than 3.6 million pistols produced in 2014, the last year for which data is available.

Amid the surge, violent crime rates continued to fall. The homicide rate in 2014 was lower than it had been since 1963.

For many gun buyers, it’s not routine street crime they’re worried about — it’s the possibility of being caught in one of the extraordinary acts of mass violence that seem increasingly frequent, and are covered extensively and in graphic detail by the media.

Most discussion of so-called “panic buying” after mass shootings like Sandy Hook focuses on rifles like the AR-15. But manufacturing data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives shows that handguns, and semiautomatic pistols in particular, have become the backbone of the American gun industry in this period. In 2014, the last year for which ATF manufacturing data is available, 40 percent of all guns made in America were pistols, more than any other class of firearm. Thirty years ago, pistols only accounted for 20 percent of firearm production.

Americans are reacting to these horrors in a legal landscape that looks very different from the early 1990s: Owing in part to lobbying by the National Rifle Association, many states have made it easier to obtain a gun, and to carry one in public. Firearms manufacturers and retailers are also capitalizing on this confluence of motivation and opportunity by marketing guns more aggressively for the explicit purpose of self-protection.

For some buyers, handgun ownership is a way to express identity and agency in a world that is rapidly changing — for the worse, as many of them see it. Constant vigilance and readiness — feeling prepared to act heroically when faced with the worst imaginable situation — are powerful motivations, says Robert Spitzer, a political scientist who has written numerous books on gun politics.

“The gun is a literal expression of power in the most direct, Hobbesian sense,” Spitzer says. “The only barrier between you and chaos is the gun you hold in your hand.”

NRA leader Wayne LaPierre talks about good guys with guns. The key to the modern handgun business is the belief that the gun makes its owner the good guy, empowering him with the ability to fight off evil-doers, protect his family, and even be a hero.

In the flesh, the new self-defense gun owner looks like Jeffrey Hewitt, a 29-year-old construction worker from rural Harrison, Tennessee. Hewitt is married with a 5-year-old son and another child on the way. In July, he bought his first firearm, a CZ P-09 pistol, from a local pawn shop. It’s a semiautomatic and came with a 19-round magazine.

Hewitt’s never been a hunter, and he’s no gun-rights partisan. “I’m a Democrat,” he says. “I don’t think your normal everyday citizen needs military weapons to defend themselves.” Nor does he have much fear of muggers, car jackers, or home invaders. In his small town of 8,000 people, “we don’t have to worry about crime.”

My choice to carry a gun is a reaction to the moral fabric of society around me. There’s been a shift at the most basic level, a moral shift.”

Anthony Battaglia

Founder, Louisiana Concealed Carry Association

But Hewitt does feel anxious that the world around him is getting more dangerous. He found last summer’s rampage shooting at two military facilities in nearby Chattanooga especially unnerving. “With terrorism and people shooting cops,” he says, “it puts a lot more pressure on you if you don’t have a gun.”

Fatherhood intensifies that pressure. “You have a duty to protect your family, protect your home,” he explains.

Hewitt says shooting is becoming an integral part of his life. He often talks about guns with his friends and coworkers. Instead of golfing on his weekends off, the way he used to, he’ll now go to a friend’s property to shoot. Hewitt is thinking about buying his second firearm — maybe his third and fourth, too.

“I told my brother getting a gun is kinda like getting a tattoo,” he says. “Getting one makes you want to get another one.”

Last year, Anthony Battaglia founded the Louisiana Concealed Carry Association.

A former Navy sailor and small business owner from outside Baton Rouge, Battaglia carries a handgun with him everywhere he goes.

On July 17, a Sunday, Battaglia and his wife went to their church to witness the baptism of a friend’s son. They arrived to find the building on lockdown. A short drive away, a Missouri man had ambushed Baton Rouge police officers, killing three. “The pastor’s wife greeted us at the door and asked, do you have your gun?” Battaglia did — he serves as part of his church’s volunteer security detail. “Death was going on while we were celebrating life in Christ,” he says.

Battaglia believes carrying a gun is an extension of his Christian faith, and obeys the Sixth Commandment. He feels “Thou shalt not kill” is attached to the preservation of life. “To defend life and take action to actually do that,” he says.

“My choice to carry a gun is a reaction to the moral fabric of society around me,” he explains. “There’s been a shift at the most basic level, a moral shift.”

When Massad Ayoob was starting his career teaching people how to use handguns to defend themselves, he had to overcome some marketing challenges. In 1981, it was hard to think about handguns without bringing to mind John Hinckley, Jr., who seriously wounded President Ronald Reagan with one of six rounds fired from a .22-caliber revolver. Mainstream politicians with national ambitions, including Ted Kennedy, were proposing banning handgun ownership altogether.

The year Reagan was shot, it was illegal to carry concealed handguns in 19 states, including Texas, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

Those laws have since been remade. Today, all 50 states allow concealed carry to some degree, though a few make it difficult to obtain a permit. Thirty-two states have shall-issue standards, which means local authorities must issue a conceal carry permit to any qualified applicant. Ten states do not require a permit to carry a concealed weapon at all.

Court challenges have also upended handgun bans, including, most notably, District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that individuals have a constitutional right to own firearms for self-defense. The landmark 2008 case struck down Washington, D.C.’s prohibition on handgun ownership.

As guns were permitted in more public places, and the traditional hunting market withered, the firearms industry capitalized on a golden opportunity. In 2005, Smith & Wesson CEO Mike Golden told the trade journal Shooting Industry that he would lead an aggressive new marketing campaign that would be “loud and visible” as it tried to expand its handgun sales.

As part of this new tack, the company hired Tom Taylor, a vice president of marketing who had experience at massive consumer brands like Coca-Cola and Frito Lay. Taylor, who did not respond to a request for comment, led high-profile marketing efforts at Smith & Wesson, including sponsorship of a NASCAR racing team. Sales soared.

Smith & Wesson’s competitors must have wanted a similarly high-octane marketing approach. Taylor was repeatedly poached for his marketing expertise, moving on to executive positions at several other large gun companies, including Remington, Mossberg, and Sig Sauer.

Many of these companies have introduced new handgun models designed for easy concealment. These aren’t like the snub-nosed revolvers of old that a gumshoe might keep in his ankle holster. Shooting Industry noted that the 2009 SHOT Show, the industry’s largest convention, was dominated by .380-caliber pistols, which can be smaller than a grown man’s palm. They’re often marketed as guns to carry as one goes about a daily routine, stored in a purse, or a holster concealed under a waistband, accessible at a moment’s notice.

Consumers may be especially receptive to products marketed as ways to keep safe from the sudden terror of an active shooter, says William Burns of the Decision Research Institute, a group that studies how people evaluate risk.

“Human-made disasters that are on purpose, like terrorism,” are more likely to spur people to action than “human-made disasters that are accidental,” like the epidemic of lung cancer caused by tobacco, he says. But while the impulse driving handgun buyers makes sense to Burns, he says the fact that it leads people to take up arms is something new.

He’s speaking from personal experience: He was at the scene of a mass shooting at the University of Iowa in 1991. “I had to go grab my two PhD students. We went behind locked doors until the all-clear sign was issued,” Burns remembers.

The shooter stalked the campus and killed four people before taking his own life. It was a day of pure “fear and terror,” Burns says. Recalling his mindset after that, he says, “I don’t think anybody, at the time, thought the right reaction was to start carrying guns to protect ourselves.”

In August, Massad Ayoob’s tour took him to Bridgeville, Delaware, a small community of corn and soy farms, scattered tract homes, and car dealerships all pushed up against the four lanes of U.S. Route 13. The town sits an hour south and a world away from the Acela corridor that swings through Wilmington, the state’s largest city.

After a two day drive from Florida with his girlfriend, Ayoob got dinner with a representative of the local shooting club. They met at an old-fashioned comfort food restaurant whose air conditioning was out of commission. Before the next day’s course on the rules of engagement for armed civilians, Ayoob restored himself with a plate of meatloaf.

He wore a multi-pocketed khaki utility vest. His salt and pepper goatee framed an almost frowning mouth, which only broke into a smile once during the meal, to make a half-joke. His slate grey hair and olive complexion looked weathered, sun-cured. He has a deep voice with a gravitas that sounds cultivated.

Ayoob’s father and grandfather owned a jewelry store, and kept handguns to ward off burglars. Armed self defense was “part of my family’s values,” he said.

Now, Ayoob believes, it’s becoming a part of American values. “Throughout the late 20th century, people began taking responsibility for themselves,” he said. “Back when I was born, in 1948, nobody but physicians knew how to resuscitate a dying person. Nobody but a soldier knew how to control a hemorrhage.”

Americans think about themselves differently these days, he argued. “Today, if you don’t know basic life support” — he raised his bushy eyebrows — “really, you’re a grownup and you don’t know CPR? You don’t know how to clear an airway?”

“The gun is an extension of that,” he said.

As he chewed through his meal, Ayoob grew even more grave. Shocking reports of events like the June attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, “put you in the mindset of those people in the Pulse bathroom, seeing that gun come up over the toilet stall,” he said. “People think about that and they say, ‘Not me.’” Ayoob slammed the table for emphasis. “‘Not mine.’” He slammed it again.

Ayoob’s dinner companion, local gun club member Dave Crout, concurred.

“I want to be somebody who can help,” Crout said. “I want to be somebody who won’t sacrifice easily.”

Additional reporting by Kate Masters.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Jeffrey Hewitt lives in Clinton, Tennessee, a town of approximately 3,000 residents. Mr. Hewitt in fact lives in Harrison, which has a population of roughly 8,000. 

[Photo illustration by Joel Arbaje]