Catholics, Chesterton and Concealed Carry

One of GK Chesterton’s central themes was the necessity of gratitude. Here’s a characteristic passage.

All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I neither create nor expect: a strong plain daylight on stiff upstanding wood: it is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

We live in a world not of our own making. The things around us are independent of us. But they’re not absolutely independent. They, like us, are entirely dependent on God. They are the Lord’s doing, and they are marvelous in our eyes.

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Or they should be. This is a difficult attitude to keep up. Being grateful isn’t all that hard for us when we’re in normal circumstance (not suffering from hunger, or cold, or physical pain, or…) provided we take the trouble to be aware of the things around us. But how many of us really take that trouble? How often do we even bother to really look at any of the people or things that surround us? Smart phones and other distractions keep our attention. (Yes, even a smart phone can be a thing that we view with appreciation! But I’m not talking about viewing it with appreciation, I’m talking about looking through it at some unedifying facebook post or some ugly news story or some urgent email or what have you.) But this isn’t the ideal.

(In artistic representations) The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. […] The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.

Whether this is an entirely defensible take on the differences between Christian and Buddist art, or on the differences between Christianity and Buddhism, isn’t the point here. Chesterton’s point is, again, this strong emphasis on looking outward. Nor is it to say that we modern Western Catholics tend to emulate the Buddhist saint more than the Christian one. I don’t think we’re busy meditating on emptiness as the Buddhist sage is. Rather, we’re just distracted, thinking about any of a thousand things, a few of which may merit to be thought about. We’re neither kind of saint. But of course we’re called to be the Christian saint—eyes staring with a frantic intentness outward, for all our mental doors should open outwards into a world we have not made.

This is difficult. One of my favorite passages in The Lord of the Rings occurs when the Fellowship is preparing to leave Rivendell. Elrond says “no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will.” Gimli protests, and says (in part), “sworn word may strengthen quaking heart.” Yes, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Nonetheless, there are some ways to strengthen the flesh!

What might such ways be, when it comes to looking outward, in order that we might look with appreciation?

I’d like to suggest what will at first seem a highly counterintuitive method. I’d like to suggest carrying a gun. I’m not saying I’ve taken this step myself. I’m saying I’ve given the matter a great deal of thought, though, and come to see that the issue is quite different than it might at first seem.

Start with some basics, since many readers may be entirely unfamiliar with the contemporary gun culture, or the lore of concealed carry. One of the central figures in the modern gun world is the late LTC Jeff Cooper. If you ever spend any time around gun people, you’ll hear Cooper mentioned reverently pretty often. (It’s like spending time around certain Catholics, who never tire of talking about people like Tolkien or Chesterton. It may be a bit annoying, but you get used to it eventually.)

Cooper is the source of the famous four rules of gun safety (All guns are always loaded. Never let the muzzle cover anything you are not willing to destroy. Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target. Identify your target and what is behind it), the scout rifle concept, the “modern technique of the handgun” and various other things. But the concept that concerns me here is the Cooper Color Code.

Cooper identifies four states of mind, and assigns them each a color. In Condition White, you are “unaware and unprepared.” Imagine walking down the street, ear buds in, looking as you walk at nothing in particular, thinking about the things you need to do when you get to work, and so forth. Imagine a rapist following you. You’re entirely unaware of what’s happening around you—and that means you’re entirely unaware of the rapist. When the conditions become suitable for him to attack, he does, and you are caught completely off guard.

Condition Yellow is a condition of “relaxed alertness.” You are aware of your surroundings, including “watching your six,” as they say. That is, you’re not just walking down the street, you are cognizant of what’s happening around you, including whether there’s anyone out there who seems inappropriately interested in you.

In Condition Orange, you have identified a specific threat. You notice, for example, that there is a man behind you who appears to be looking at you rather intently and following you. Needless to say, on a public sidewalk, someone may be “following you” altogether innocently. And he may be looking intently at you because you’re trailing toilet paper on your foot or because you remind him of his Great Aunt Sue. In other words, he may not in fact be a threat at all. But he may be. And you are aware of him, and aware of him as a potential threat.

Condition Red would obtain if this potential threat reveals himself as someone who presents you with an imminent and otherwise unavoidable threat of death or grave bodily harm (to include sexual assault). Under such a threat, lethal force is fully legitimate. (Not just in Catholic moral teaching, but also in American law.)

You are not caught off guard by the attack, and consequently, you have a much better chance of defending yourself. (This is true even if you don’t carry a gun!)

Thus, the Cooper Color Code.

So, how is this Color Code thing compatible with the Gospel? Isn’t it saying, more or less, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet”? That’s not quite the spirit encouraged by Our Lord!

But no, that’s not the right way to think of the Color Code at all. The point of the Code is simply to be aware of your surroundings so that you can react appropriately to the world as you find it. In some (thankfully quite rare) circumstances, you might have to react by way of fighting for your life. But for the most part, your appropriate reaction, as we discussed at the outset, should be one of gratitude.

Although when I started writing this article, I thought I might be saying something original here, I have since found that I am not. Another major figure in the gun culture, Massad Ayoob, has made a very similar point.

When discussing this topic I hear people say indignantly, “I don’t want to live in a world where I have to constantly be looking and listening for danger! I want to enjoy my life!” My answer is always, “These things are not incompatible.” Condition Yellow doesn’t make you paranoid; Condition Yellow makes you a “people watcher.” When you stay alert to your surroundings, you see the beauty around you.

I don’t know if Ayoob is a Christian, or whether he’d like my extension of this idea to the realm of the Chestertonian. But the extension is natural.

We’re called to be alert to our surroundings. We’re called to take notice of them. We’re called to be grateful to God for them. To wander through life in Condition White is to be an abject failure at that calling. I do not say that the only way to avoid such abject failure is to switch over to Condition Yellow—that is, to a state which involves an element of personal security and implies a readiness to fight if necessary.

Again, going through life in Condition Yellow isn’t the only way to avoid going through life in Condition White. But it is a way to avoid it. More, it’s a legitimate way to avoid it, especially if you’re a family man (or woman), who has a grave obligation to protect your family, and by extension, to protect yourself. So people like me should take this stuff fairly seriously. If I’m obliged to protect my family, and myself, is there not some fairly serious obligation to be ready to defend them if necessary? And if being in Condition White is the avoidance of such readiness, then am I not failing in my vocation as a husband and father if I characteristically wander through life in that state?

Here’s how this connects to concealed carry. You absolutely do not need to carry a gun to be in Condition Yellow. In other words, I’m not suggesting in any way that a Catholic father who doesn’t carry a gun is failing to meet his fatherly obligations! He may be failing to meet them if he’s constantly in Condition White, but you don’t need a gun to be in Condition Yellow. But suppose you want to remain in Condition Yellow, and yet find you have something of a difficult time of it. Well, in such a case, it may be that “sworn word may strengthen quaking heart.” Or, translated to this specific issue, it may be that carrying a deadly weapon may remind you of your obligation to be ready to defend yourself and your family, and may hence help you to remain in Condition Yellow. Which is, to remain aware of the world around you and consequently be grateful.

It’s far from a foolproof plan. You can lose your mindfulness of the fact that you’re carrying a gun, just as you can lose your mindfulness of anything else. But carrying a gun is pretty likely to make things real to you in a deep and immediate way. The firearm is a physical object, a really present material thing that imposes itself bodily on you. As bodily beings, having such a physical reminder on us is a good idea. Not quite gun as sacramental, of course, but not far off structurally.

No doubt, there are people too airheaded or too hotheaded or too boneheaded to responsibly carry a gun. For many reasons, people need to subject themselves to deeply honest scrutiny before they decide to carry a deadly weapon. A gun is no toy, and if you’re inclined to treat it like one, you shouldn’t have one. And if you’re the sort of person who carries a gun because you really hope that someday you’ll get to use it, you shouldn’t have one either.

But for a responsible person, wishing to remain grateful for the world, but occasionally finding it difficult to be so—I humbly suggest arming yourself. The side benefit to this is that you may be able to protect yourself or someone else who needs it—and you may be obligated to do that, as well. You might even be able to help the police! As Chesterton once put it, “don’t let us leave everything to the police; that is so dreadfully modern.”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a painting by Goya of Monk Pedro De Zaldivia shooting the bandit Maragato (1806).


  • Patrick Toner

    Patrick Toner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University. He writes about analytic metaphysics and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas … and Norman Rockwell. He earned his Masters in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. Dr. Toner blogs at Lift Up Thine Eyes.

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