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Conceal and Carry Review

Unafraid of the Tough Questions, Conceal and Carry Tackles Gun Violence from an Unexpected Perspective

By: Sierra Yamanaka


Chris Koval in the one-man play Conceal and Carry

As Conceal and Carry opens, the audience is greeted with an all too familiar sight, that of a man behind his desk at home. In this COVID-19 era, the webcam and the ability to film have become an instrumental part of delivering theatre. One need not look further than the success of Hamilton on Disney+. 

As the play begins though, you almost forget that you’re watching a Zoom-like recording, and are captured by the delivery of Chris Koval’s words. A one-man play, Conceal and Carry depicts the narrator as a passenger in a car riding with his friend Rob, whose son was killed in a school shooting in Connecticut. Though never mentioned specifically, the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT is certainly implied. Or as actor Lee Osorio, who was featured in another production of Conceal and Carry, put it during an NPR interview, “it could have been any state and we would have known which school shooting he was referring to.” 

On December 14th, 2012, a gunman killed his own mother before killing 26 others at Sandy Hook Elementary, including 20 children between the ages of 5 and 6. It is presumed that one of those children was Rob’s son, as the theme of protection is explored in this play, written by Sean Christopher Lewis. The two men are driving at night to a gun manufacturing plant where Rob intends to get revenge for not being able to protect his son in his classroom. At Rob’s request, his son’s name is never mentioned in the play. 

There are many indications of deep trauma that Rob has experienced and is continuing to experience, trauma that any parent who loses a child would experience. As Dr. Joanne Cacciatore has discussed, losing a grandparent can be difficult, but there isn’t the level of trauma that comes with a sudden and unexpected loss of someone young, especially as young as 5 or 6, and especially in a horrifically violent manor. Our narrator tells us of the persistent nightmares that Rob is having, and of the conspiracy theories that are being sent to him. All of these things are retraumatizing. And it isn’t just Rob who is experiencing this grief. We learn of “a dad who sleeps with his son’s socks”, “a mom who can’t step foot outside of her living room” because it is too difficult to pass by her daughter’s room. As a result, the narrator’s son, Eamon plays an outsized role in the play. Rob likes to look at pictures of Eamon, and talk to him on the phone. Based on these behaviors, it is apparent how much Rob misses his own son. We as an audience are not aware of how much time has passed since the shooting, but given the height of the emotions, it seems likely that it was not very long ago. 

Through vivid storytelling, we see that the narrator is not immune from his own examples of gun harm. He describes in great detail the fear that he felt as a child sleeping in the bedroom above where a Remington was kept by the backdoor. How he cried when the gun fell over and he thought he was going to die. He says maybe this is the moment he became a liberal. 

An improperly stored gun is only one example of a variety of ways that an individual can experience gun harm. Everything from hearing gunshots in your neighborhood at night, to fearing entering a public space because a shooting might occur, impacts a person’s life. This concept has helped me explore my own experiences of gun harm. When I was in high school, my Congresswoman was shot in the head along with 18 others at a “Congress on Your Corner” event in a grocery store parking lot. I knew two of the people who were shot that day, both were members of my church, and I would come to know many of the others who were there. Hearing of Columbine and Virginia Tech, it always seemed like it was a possibility that it could happen to me. Elementary school kids weren’t even safe. Perhaps this is what made me liberal too. 

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Gun harm, gun culture and masculinity are intertwined and inseparable. When he was 16, the narrator’s friend Steve finds a gun at a camp under a rock by the tennis court. The two boys leave the gun there and go to get Steve’s older friend, presumably he would know what to do in this situation. The narrator repeatedly refers to Steve as being “soft”, even though he is describing his own fear that he felt. Brandi Miller writes, “Men are taught that they are to be strong and put together, never the victim (specifically of trauma), and exist without showing or feeling emotions.” In Steve’s case, there is a deep fear of feeling weak, perpetuated in part by the culture of the football team that he plays on. Miller continues, “Toxic masculinity teaches men to be machines, unmoved by their feelings and experiences, this doesn’t mean those things don’t exist or dictate how men experience the world, it simply encourages problematic expressions of repression, typically violence and domination.” Here, Steve is afraid, as he should be at finding a gun, but doesn’t feel allowed to express those feelings because of the ways society expects him to perform his masculinity. And when his friend arrives and sees that the gun is gone, his friend responds with violence of his own. If we are to assume that Rob’s son was killed at Sandy Hook, then we know that the gunman had his own issues with masculinity, killing his mother in an act of domestic violence before going to the school. 

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Later on, Rob and the narrator are pulled over in a seemingly routine traffic stop. We of course see it from the narrator’s perspective, that he’s nervous and anxious about the situation.  This moment is such a brief interaction in the play, you almost wouldn’t even give it a second thought. Because they are white, they don’t even feel the need to disclose they have a gun in the car. The officer allows them to go on their way without further questioning, the vehicle being examined, or any incident at all. You can’t help but think of the death of Philando Castile, who was shot seven times by an officer at a traffic stop after alerting him to the presence of a weapon in the vehicle, one he was carrying legally. Castile attempted to do the right thing by letting the officer know about it, and ended up losing his life. While race is not explicitly discussed in Conceal and Carry, the narrator provides many instances of the white privilege he has.

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Like most high-visibility mass shooting incidents, gun sales spiked after the Sandy Hook massacre. According to the Washington Post, “Gun dealers requested nearly 5,150 background checks on purchasers in Virginia eight days after the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, Conn. — the largest number ever in a single day, Virginia State Police said.” A local gun owner cited Obama and a possible gun ban as his reason for being there. After these public shooting events, a combination of fear that gun laws will be enacted, and feeling the need to protect yourself arises. Rob felt powerless to protect his son, so his response is to arm himself now, explicitly stating that he is doing so to prove to his child that he did something. The pressure that he felt to buy a gun is a direct result of the larger gun culture that exists in America. 

“I had been scared of it my whole life. And now I controlled it.” Our narrator describes that his love affair with guns began after working on a project in graduate school in which they visit a gun range and he fires one for the first time. For him, it is all about the power that it gives him. The same power that helped fuel the National Rifle Association for decades. While these issues are complex, the author of Conceal and Carry, Sean Christopher Lewis, so concisely breaks down this history into a way that is easily digestible for the audience. He provides an incredible amount of context for the evolution of the NRA in just a few short lines, highlighting the efforts of Harlon Carter in particular. Carter would go on to formulate the lobbying arm of the NRA, tripling the group’s membership to over 3 million people and increasing the budget to over $66 million. But their success in the last few decades wouldn’t be the end of the story. 

The Overton Window can be described as the range of policies that are considered politically “acceptable” in a debate of ideas. This is where most politicians will keep their views on a particular issue, not wanting to be too “radical” or outside of the mainstream. Policies like universal background checks are considered to be widely popular and fall squarely inside of the Overton Window. This is why you will often hear the common refrain, “no one wants to take your guns away, but…” It’s a signal that whatever they’re about to propose is still within the acceptability window, implying that taking your guns away would be a bridge too far. That’s why it was so jarring when at the September 2019 Democratic debate, Rep. Beto O’Rourke spouted, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” It was a sign of how the conversation around gun safety is evolving, and very rapidly at that. 

No one knows this better than Gabby Giffords, who has taken enormous strides toward progress on this issue through her organization Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence. Because of her leadership on policy, and the grassroots power of Shannon Watts and Moms Demand Action, candidates started to run on the issue of gun safety, giving voters something to vote for not just against. The result has been a number of laws passed at the state level, HR 8, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, passing the US House of Representatives and Joe Biden running on the most progressive platform on guns in history. Like Conceal and Carry, Giffords Courage allows for more nuanced conversations around the issue of guns, and has worked hard to find gun-sense candidates like veterans and law enforcement officers who can be a voice that gun owners trust. 

Conceal and Carry provides an opportunity to have a conversation around the topic of guns that wouldn’t otherwise be shared, and creates space for a more nuanced discussion. That is the power of art. Guns are an incredibly polarizing issue in American society. You either are a gun-loving conservative or you’re a gun-hating liberal, with no room for narratives in between. Conceal and Carry offers a different perspective, that you can hate the violence that has happened by firearm, that you can be afraid of the power that guns have, that you can recognize the larger forces that have created the gun culture we’re living in, and still like the way that it feels to fire a gun. 

When we talk about interventions in gun violence, we can talk about policies, we can talk about the ways that art can help shift the conversation. But ultimately what worked as an intervention in Rob’s case was a physical one by the narrator. As soon as Rob puts the gun down to talk to Eamon on the phone, the narrator grabs the gun and takes off running. “In that moment, I know that the gun is not a symbol. It is not a character. It is not power. Or ‘precious’. It is one thing. A means of firing a bullet into another person. That’s all.” It’s a powerful summary of all that the narrator has been working through throughout the play. Rob catches up to him and tackles him and gets the gun back. But that moment is enough of a disruption to his thoughts to stop him from wanting to go through with whatever it was he was planning to do that night. 

Ultimately in the moment, all of the hypotheticals don’t matter anymore, nor the hashing out of reused talking points. Guns can change or end a life in an instant, and Conceal and Carry wants to provoke you to think hard about their place in our society and possibly the place in your home. 


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