When Tom Marciniak curls onto his bed each night, he knows exactly where to turn if something startles him awake. All he has to do is roll over. A Heckler & Koch P30 pistol, loaded with fat .40 bullets, awaits at the end of his outreached fingertips, perched on the bottom shelf of the nightstand. The hammer is already cocked back and the safety is off, meaning the gun will fire a live round if he pulls the trigger. A Viridian X5L light and laser combo sits attached to the front of the handgun, under the barrel. The laser is dialed in to be accurate at seven feet.
“Seven feet was a respectable distance within a certain deviation of accuracy. I wouldn’t expect myself to try to take a shot at somebody from more than, I don’t know, maybe 15 feet or so,” the 28-year-old tells me. “And if they’re close enough, I don’t want to even have to worry about even looking down the sights. I just want to put a dot and pull the trigger.”
Marciniak learned how to shoot from his mother’s fiancé when he was 12 years old, but it wasn’t until a decade later that he decided he needed to keep a gun on his nightstand. He was living on the north side of Phoenix, in a neighborhood he considers “not great,” and where he once heard an escalating argument right outside of his door. “These dudes were yelling at each other, screaming that they’re going to kill the other guy, and I hear another voice yell, ‘He’s got a gun,’” Marciniak recalls. “I hear a bunch of footsteps, the railings are all shaking on the third floor from it, and I hear screaming.”
Instead of gunshots, Marciniak heard a car speed off, jumping a curb in the process. He stood by the door, breathing hard. “I was kind of panicking because I was worried for people’s safety. If someone needed to be saved or protected in any way, well, I had no idea where my gun was. It wasn’t loaded. And from that moment on, I had a mentality of better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it,” he explains.
The incident also pushed his mind toward other aspects of self-defense. Marciniak says he wasn’t scared of a home invasion, but rather of the sensation that he was underprepared. “After that one experience, you notice how an adrenaline rush makes your hands shake. It was also pretty dark, like 10 or 11 at night. That’s why I did some research and got the laser-light combo,” he says.
He’s moved since then, and now lives with his girlfriend in a comfortably secure neighborhood, with 4K security cameras on his home’s eaves and courteous neighbors on both sides. But the P30 still stays where it’s always been, on the bottom shelf of the nightstand, out of sight to most passersby. It’s become a habit, Marciniak says. Indeed, sleeping with a weapon at arm’s reach is among the most common habits that Americans have, at least relative to the rest of the developed world.
There is, roughly speaking, one gun for every American, a figure that leads all nations per a Swiss-led survey and a 2012 congressional report. In fact, Americans own roughly half of the 650 million civilian-owned guns in global circulation, according to a 2007 study, and gun sales continue to surge in the U.S. today. No type of gun is more popular than the handgun, which has been immortalized through American culture from John Wayne to John Wick. And with the handgun has come the trope of the “Pillow Pistol” — the ultimate line of defense during one’s ultimate state of vulnerability.
The internet is a trove of stories of people who claim to sleep with a gun nearby, and several informal surveys (including this extensive one from ConcealedCarry.com) suggest that a large proportion of gun owners choose to keep it loaded and out at night, rather than secured in a locked gun case. This is a sketchy choice by most traditional gun-safety commandments, and even the National Rifle Association’s modern guidelines encourage the use of a secure storage device while noting that a firearm should remain unloaded “until ready to use.”
But those who choose to keep their guns close as they slumber express confidence that their methods prepare them for danger better. “The best way to describe it would be like a toolbox. If you needed to tighten up the hinge on a door, you should know exactly where your tool box is and know all your tools are in there,” Marciniak says. “That’s how I see a firearm. I don’t even really look at it or think about it otherwise.”
Sometimes, too, the weapon of choice is a bit bigger than a pistol. I was surprised to find out that an old friend of mine, who still lives in my hometown of Honolulu, stashes an AR-15 next to the bed in a case without a lock. “To be honest, my fianceé and I moved into a condo recently, so it’s a lot less likely that I’d ever have to use it,” Sean Bahar, 28, tells me. “We live on the 24th floor. Who would come all the way to the 24th floor to break in my door, of all doors?”
That sounds, at first glance, like a great reason to keep the rifle in a gun safe, disassembled and useless. But Bahar explains how he grew up in a house where his father, a former member of the Sri Lankan military, kept a 12-gauge shotgun by the bed. Bahar wasn’t taught to hold a gun and fear it as a small child like I was — instead, his education happened more though intuition than instruction. “It was just like my mom has a vacuum cleaner in her closet, and my dad keeps a gun next to the bed, I dunno,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to mess with the gun any more than I’d want to play with the vacuum.”
Perhaps that’s why, even as he explains to me how the 5.56 ammo used by an AR-15 would be far too overpowering for a condo defense (“The bullets would rip into the walls, toward my neighbors”), Bahar also doubles down on the be-ready sensation that Marciniak describes. “You know, it’s stupid, but it’s like that meme So you’re telling me there’s a chance?” he says. “I know I can reach down, grab my rifle, load it and cock it in probably six seconds. If I’m half asleep, it might take a while longer. The supposedly really responsible gun owners would keep a rifle broken down in a safe, but that’s at least a minute to assemble. So it doesn’t feel like a good place to keep one.”
These feelings remain hard to shake for many gun owners, seemingly regardless of where they live. And they persist even in the face of data that suggest the odds of using a weapon in self-defense, especially in a home invasion, are exceedingly small. A 2010 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that only 0.004 percent of burglaries end in a homicide. A 2012 review by the Los Angeles Times found that a tiny number of the 300 million guns in circulation in the U.S. were successfully used for general self-defense. And a 2018 study by Harvard University criticized a number of self-defense claims popularized by the NRA and pro-Second Amendment groups, concluding that “victims using a gun were no less likely to be injured after taking protective action than victims using other forms of protective action” and that “few criminals are shot by decent law-abiding citizens.”
Maybe such data points just don’t register in the face of growing fear about violence in our communities. Larry Hyatt, a lifelong gun enthusiast and owner of Hyatt Guns in Charlotte, North Carolina (billed as the largest gun shop in America), believes that the surge in gun sales over the past two decades has been completely fueled by a desire for self-defense. “Back 50 years ago, the buyers were 98 percent younger men. Today, it’s senior citizens. It’s the man who feels like he can’t protect him or his wife, because he can’t run or fight,” Hyatt says. “Another huge demographic is female, because girls are in much different jobs now, out at night, traveling, living alone. then you have the working poor, people who live in poor neighborhoods, who live next door to crime and feel like they have the least police protection of anyone. So we see primarily African-American women buying these handguns.”
Yet Hyatt is also candid about his concerns that these purchases may be motivated by some distorted views. “The news media, every day, comes on the TV and shows you robberies, home invasions, rapes, murders and gangs. Thirty, forty times a day, and there’s 500 channels for it now,” he says. “I think people do have some bigger fear than they need to about crime. All these horrible things that people think about… I think that’s had a lot to do with people keeping a gun at arm’s reach.”
The disparity is clear: Even as violent crimes around the U.S. have plummeted since the 1990s, the percentage of gun owners who cite “protection” as their priority reason for toting a gun ballooned from 26 percent in 1999 to 67 percent in 2017, per the Pew Research Center. It doesn’t help that the self-defense we witness on TV consists of such riveting tales of survival, told as if the victim had no recourse other than a gun (even when the home invader claims they didn’t know anyone was home, and only had plans to steal).
It also doesn’t help that the NRA has taken a front-row seat in retelling these tales. The nation’s biggest pro-gun org has become a massive political and cultural force over the last two decades, going particularly viral in recent years for inflammatory comments on the need to self-defend, whether that’s against run-of-the-mill muggers or, er, “radical” leftism. Manufacturers and brands have followed suit, often taking up similarly aggressive language (as with a Wisconsin company that markets “GEAR FOR YOUR DAILY GUNFIGHT”).
Hyatt himself isn’t immune to this feeling, and he keeps his pistol in a gun safe next to the bed, albeit locked with a code. At 71, with decades of experience handling guns on a daily basis, the assurance of having his favorite tool nearby still has real value. “It makes me sleep a little better, and it does give me comfort. It gives me comfort to have some life insurance, too, in case something happened to me!” he exclaims in his deep Carolina twang.
What becomes clear when I speak to people who keep a firearm near them at night is that doing so is often a habit ingrained from a young age, even if they didn’t begin shooting until later in life. Some of them also choose to eschew a gun in favor of a less powerful tool, like the “creepy-looking” military-grade knife favored by Morgan Mandriota, a 26-year-old writer in New York. Mandriota grew up with a father who owned guns and kept one on the nightstand, and remembers being conscious of it even before she began shooting alongside him. “I’ve always admired it in a weird way because I know that if anything were to happen, he’d be ready to go. I never felt like handling the gun as a little kid, so it wasn’t a problem, but he pretty much told me that ‘this is for us,’ the family. It was made clear that this is where the gun will be if I never need it,” she says.
When she turned 12, her dad gifted her a solid wood baseball bat to keep by her bed (“All my friends would make fun of me for it,” Mandriota admits with a laugh). Her parents offered her pepper spray and a blaring personal alarm a few years after that. And when she moved into a basement apartment in Long Island, her dad gifted her the big knife that sits on her nightstand today. He delivered the same spiel as when he gave her the bat: God forbid you ever need to use it, but… Mandriota also trains in Brazilian jiu-jitsu these days, which fits into a holistic view of self-defense that began with the bat. “I guess I’ve always felt a sense of comfort having weapons nearby. A peace of mind, really,” she says.
There are two general motivations for the phenomenon of people sleeping better with a weapon nearby, says Andrew Smiler, a therapist based in North Carolina, who has extensively researched masculinity issues. Some men still feel seduced by the idea of keeping a gun ready at arm’s reach because of the cultural influence of an older, more wild form of masculinity. “The type we see in 1950s Westerns, where the law is intended to help but an independent man is ready at all times, with a clear sense of personal honor that relates to defending the home and your loved ones,” he says.
Other men and women, meanwhile, approach the need for a weapon from a place of victimization — or rather, ensuring that they’re never victimized in the future. “I’ve also worked with guys who were bullied as teens, or who were sexually victimized as teens, and who have moved to a place of gun ownership. For them, it was much more explicitly about never going through that again,” Smiler notes.
These two pieces form a worldview in which the lethal capability a person holds, whether a knife, a pistol or a shotgun, is a direct link to their self-reliance and ability to manage the world around them. Toni Nocita, a 30-year-old woman in L.A., once got so nervous of the helicopter searchlights flashing into her backyard that she decided to sleep with her 9-millimeter Smith and Wesson under the pillow, loaded with the safety on. “There was this sliding glass door that led straight into the backyard, real easy to break into, and I’m not going to lie, I was scared,” she says.
Nocita grew up with a familiarity thanks to her father, a lifelong NRA member who usually carried a pistol in a fanny pack that was “always within his range,” she tells me. Like Mandriota, having a weapon helped quell the emotions of learning to live alone for the first time after college. “As a woman, especially as a woman, I felt it was the only way to protect myself should someone bigger and stronger enter my home,” she says. “That the gun was my only form of defense.”
None of the gun owners I spoke with explicitly stated that their decision to keep a weapon nearby as they slept was a result of fear. Instead, they used the language of a hedged bet: “Just in case.” To Smiler, this suggests that some people could be stoking a low-grade anxiety about the world’s dangers by having a visual reminder on their nightstand. “For me, as a therapist and as a treating professional, this always gets into the question of, what really fits the situation? How much immediate threat is there? What are your other options for self-defense? Does that loaded weapon, on some levels, really represent something else? I mean, in essence, is it some kind of security blanket?” he ponders out loud.
The unspoken factor here seems to be whether a victim actually has proficiency in the gun or not, so I reach out to “John,” a shooting instructor from a well-respected school based in L.A., who asked to remain anonymous in order to be more candid. I ask him what he considers best practices for someone who keeps their gun next to them at night, and he notes that experience is everything. “It depends on your level of competence, and doing the same thing each and every time. You don’t want to have the magazine loaded sometimes, and unloaded other times. Same with whether the safety is engaged,” he says. “You want to keep it in the same condition, and check it frequently.”
Ninety-nine percent of the people who have a firearm at home aren’t going to end up using it in a defense situation, John adds. “And the fact is, many of the people who think they’re going to use it don’t have the proper experience and training to do so,” he says. “That’s a shame, but it’s a fact. You don’t have to get training to buy a pistol, but you have to get a license to drive a car. The small percentage of firearm owners who use it in self-defense, well, their training is likely more than inadequate.”
Inadequate training can not just be a danger when it comes time to defend yourself — an overaggressive mindset can also lead people to recklessly shoot innocent strangers. So it was in the killing of 19-year-old Renisha McBride in 2013, when a man awoke to her knocking on the front door, grabbed his shotgun and then blasted her after opening the door in a surprise attack. Last year, the shooting of 14-year-old Brennan Walker, also came as a result of a man rushing to the front door with a shotgun (and allegedly “firing a warning shot” that happened to hit the boy in the back). This year, 19-year-old Omarian Banks was shot and killed from the second floor after knocking on the wrong address in Atlanta.
The shooters in these cases claimed they were worried about break-ins or theft because of such attempts in the recent past. The easy availability of a gun also begets other kinds of violence; research suggests that the presence of a gun escalate the odds of fatal domestic violence by up to 500 percent, and experts note that a majority of guns used in crimes are simply stolen from cars and homes because they’re unsecured.
It’s also worth noting that Marciniak and other average gun owners I spoke to do not concealed-carry their firearms. Marciniak tells me that carrying a gun literally everywhere reinforces the wet dream of looking for trouble, rather than emphasizing it as a last measure. He’s comfortable advocating for more stringent gun laws, and has no plans to hoard firearms (his second piece, stored away in a case, is an AKM rifle). But the habit of having a deadly weapon within reach remains ingrained. Marciniak explains that when he travels, including to visit his girlfriend’s family home, he brings his P30 pistol with him, even though that home has a “big, complicated security system.” “I don’t keep it right at my side, but within a few feet from the bed, because I’m used to it. I do it anywhere that I stay for longer than a few days,” he says. “My mother-in-law, if you will, is pretty neurotic, and she was excited when I first told her about the gun, as if the fact there’s another firearm in the house qualifies as more safety.”
All across the country, it hardly seems to matter that, as Harvard researcher David Hemenway put it, “the average person … has basically no chance in their lifetime ever to use a gun in self-defense.” Those who sleep with a gun are confident that, within the confines of their home, they’re unquestionably the good guy with a gun. And for millions of Americans, there’s no blanket better than the security offered by gleaming lead chambered into a bolt.