Brad Pitt and Me: Armed Liberals

 Can you ban guns like lead paint, or is it a useless fight, like Prohibition and the War on Drugs? Noah Brand, liberal gun owner, on why he loves and owns guns.

Some folks were surprised to recently learn that Brad Pitt keeps a gun in the house, as some folks are inclined to believe that only toothless snake-handling redneck morons own guns, or that effete liberal sissy-boy wimps are all afraid of guns. (Please pick whichever stereotype you prefer; I strive to be inclusive.)

Me, I’m a big ol’ liberal, marched with Occupy Portland, writing a book on gender theory, planning to vote to legalize pot this November, and I’ve got a loaded 9mm in the desk I’m typing this on. I haven’t seen a contradiction there since I was sixteen.

As a lad, I was anti-gun in a basic sort of received-wisdom way, y’know, violence is bad, guns are instruments of violence, ergo guns are bad and we should make them illegal. Which makes sense, as far as it goes. My journey from gun opponent to gun owner came in two stages, as any real change of mind usually does: emotional and intellectual. Usually someone’s feelings change, and then they come to understand the logical arguments they’d previously rejected, like a parent who comes around on gay rights when their child comes out. Typically, I managed to get it in the wrong order.

I had the typical adolescent boy’s fascination with weaponry and the tools of violence. Remember the kid in high school with the knife collection and the martial arts movies? Yeah, that was me. But I kept a strong line between reality and fantasy, and I knew that in real life, violence was nothing to fuck around with, and guns were bad and should be illegal. Except that the more times I got in stupid gun-rights arguments online (and they were, and are, always stupid arguments), the more I began to realize that the things I was citing didn’t hold a lot of water, statistically. There simply wasn’t a reliable correlation between gun ownership and violence, OR between gun restrictions and violence.

Thing is, as liberals, we know that certain things just don’t respond to being banned. Abortion, for one. Booze. Drugs. Sex. Some things you can ban, like asbestos and lead paint, and they’ll actually go away. Other stuff, it’s best to keep it legal and maintain some sensible regulations. Conservatives are the idiots who think that you can ban weed and everyone will just quit toking up, right? We’re the practical folks who understand that there’s some things people aren’t gonna stop doing, legal or not, and who want people to be free to do stuff that doesn’t hurt anyone, right?

It felt really weird to have to move gun ownership into the category of “stuff that doesn’t hurt anyone”, but the more I fooled around with the data, the more I just couldn’t support other conclusions. Outside of a few lightning-strike acts of violence, legal gun ownership just didn’t map well to overall societal harm. As the saying goes, correlation doesn’t prove causation, but lack of correlation does prove lack of causation.

So, as I left my teen years, I was in the position of no longer wanting guns banned, but not wanting to own one myself. Kind of how I feel about ferrets, really. Then, as I left my first college and found myself shifting for myself in the dark paths of adulthood I, like so many others, found myself seduced by an irresistible temptation: the prose of Vladimir Nabokov.

There, snugly wrapped in a white woolen scarf, lay a pocket automatic: caliber .32, capacity of magazine 8 cartridges, length a little under one ninth of Lolita’s length, stock checked walnut, finish full blued.

My sin, my soul, my 1903 model .32.

That, from Lolita, is the sexiest description of a Colt 1903 hammerless automatic I’ve ever read, or ever will, and it made me realize that owning a gun might be not only possible, but useful. After all, life gets uncertain sometimes, even dangerous, particularly when you’re that age. In the novel, Humbert Humbert was grateful to have a gun when he found himself on an endless and directionless road trip with his 13-year-old daughter/lover, pursued by an ever-shifting phantom whose existence he could never be entirely sure of. Myself, I’ve made it to 35 without that scenario coming up, knock wood. But should something equivalently weird come to pass, it would be a great comfort to be packing a bit of heat. And when I was young, my life had a tendency to get a bit out-of-control weird.

Furthermore, after buying my first gun (an atrocious little .380, long since traded in on better armament), I discovered the great secret that so many of my fellow liberals never learn: shooting is a hell of a lot of fun. One of the friends I’ve introduced to it described it as “Like bowling, but louder.” One can work out a lot of stress and repressed homicidal fantasies on relatively blameless paper, it’s a fun exercise of dexterity, practice, and hand-eye coordination, and speaking just for myself, I really love the smell of gunsmoke.

The reason I keep a gun in my desk, though, isn’t that it’s fun and it isn’t that it’s aesthetically pleasing, though both those things are also true. I keep a gun handy because it makes me feel like I have a plan B. Plan A is, you know, civilization. People being generally courteous and decent and not violent and horrible. I am a huge fan of plan A, I actively work to keep it functioning well and where possible improving it, to make it a more robust and reliable plan A. (Perhaps the thing I hate most about gun culture is the number of guys one finds actively disparaging plan A because they have a boner for plan B.) And it’s worked really well so far, in that I’ve never been in a situation where I needed a gun for self-defense. So, yeah, go plan A. I’m just too much of a paranoid bastard to be comfortable without at least one backup plan, though.

I don’t like violence, I don’t like solving problems with violence, and I am enormously encouraged and pleased by the continuing global decline in violence. I’m just not ready to take the option entirely off the table, because life is uncertain and I make a habit of publicly pissing off groups with a penchant for violence. Hence, I am an armed liberal.


Read more about Guns on The Good Life.

Image of guy and a girl pointing two guns courtesy of Shutterstock

About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is a writer and editor, and quite possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.


  1. Kurt,
    Do you support insurance? It’s not something you purchase after you need it. Neither are guns, they are insurance against a bad day.

  2. With regard to Plan A (civilization) and Plan B (shooting first, asking questions later), I have two points:

    1). You’re spot on in your observation that there are some people (I’m tempted to make a 46% joke here) who have a boner for Plan B.

    2). I’m a fan of Plan A, too, and I like having a Plan B.

    The problem is: there a 9 billion people in the world. Without fossil fuels, we have the capacity to feed about 1/8th of that.

    So: if Plan A fails, 8 out of 9 people are gonna die, full stop. Some will die quickly (gunshot), some will die slowly (starvation, dehydration). And if Plan A fails, the well-behaved people around us will be distinctly less well-behaved.

    The problem is, I can’t exactly justify my existence over anyone else’s. I’m most likely not the fittest (I am neither a natural winner nor a survivor), nor do I have any belief that my life has value over anyone else’s.

    So, personally? If Plan A fails, I’d like a gun around for just one purpose: putting a bullet through my own brainstem.

  3. The gun is an extra choice for when someone has decided to take all of my other ones away. You can’t ever fully control another human, and one who has decided something is worth putting both our lives on the line and maybe not even to see me as a person? A choice I wouldn’t have otherwise, no matter how crummy.

    The problem with stats on guns for self-defense is that what few studies there are, are crappy. Ownership is an easy thing to measure and correlate; defensive situations in which someone fired and someone was kiled are doable; situations in which someone saw the gun and decided it wasn’t worth it? Not amenable to statistics.

  4. Regardless of details of rationale Noah, this is genuinely the first time I’ve read “Liberal” and “Gun Owner” together in the same descriptor.

    BTW: Sweet little Colt!

  5. What I don’t understand is how you used statistics to dismiss the arguments against ownership, but cite no statistics that support gun ownership for self defence (fun is a valid reason for gun ownership, but you’re clear that the loaded pistol in your desk is not there for fun). I don’t keep a loaded gun in my house for the same reason I don’t have a fall-out shelter in my basement; the likelihood of needing one to defend myself is infinitesimal, and the odds of successfully doing so are even smaller.

    • I understand what you’re saying, but you’re sorta playing it the “all or nothing” way. I don’t have a fallout shelter either, nor a year’s supply of food for the family. But I DO keep at least a week’s worth of food and water on hand at all times. All it takes is one good ice storm and we’re stuck here at least a week, and possibly without power (other than the generator to keep the fridge and freezer going). So yeah, I mostly prepare for what’s likely, but for me, I still include guns even though I know there’s very, very little chance of ever needing it.

      The odds of successfully defending oneself lies entirely with… yourself! Many people buy a gun, fire it a few times, throw it in a drawer (bad idea), or lock it in a case in the top of their closet (also bad) and never think about it again. So it’s no wonder than when they finally need it, they can’t get to it, or can’t/won’t use it effectively if they DO get to it. I shoot my pistol at least every 6 to 8 weeks. I keep it in a fingerprint recognition safe next to my bed. If I need it, it’s pretty much instantly accessible, and at the same time, unreachable by my kids, visitors, thieves (it’s bolted, not screwed, to a reinforced wall), etc. Four barking dogs ensure I’ll probably never need it, and if I do, I’ll have lots of warning to get it and get ready.

      I’ve had two family members successfully defend themselves with guns, both as civilians. Neither fired a shot. My father had to draw on a rioter when he was an MP, and luckily did not have to fire a shot, either. Yes, the odds are low of needing it, but frankly, in many places, the odds are getting a little worse all the time. People don’t just creep into your garage and grab a few things while you sleep. More and more often they’re coming into the house. And they’re coming in armed. A very large percentage of drivers will NEVER need their spare tire, yet they all carry one. My own Explorer was 13 years old before the spare was used the first time. Glad I had it when I needed it, though. I put about 300k miles on one jeep, and have nearly 200k on another, and neither has ever had the spare out. Will I quit carrying a spare? Of course not.

      Some people ask “what are you scared of?”, or say “it’s sad you’re so scared all the time”. They just don’t get it. I’m NOT scared. I’m prepared for the worst case scenario is all. Having a gun doesn’t make me act any differently or live any differently (other than feeling prepared for the worst). If I think a situation or a part of town is best dealt with by having a gun with me, I don’t go there. If a place or person is bad enough you think you need a gun, then you don’t need to be going there in the first place. A gun is for what you CAN’T anticipate, not what you CAN anticipate. The best solution to danger is to avoid it in the first place. Only cops or the military should go into dangerous environments on purpose.


  1. […] written before about being a left-leaning gun owner; it is fair to say that I like guns and support a right to own […]

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