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Cover Story

Gun nation: Inside America's gun-carry culture

Why Americans now carry handguns in so many public places, from parks to college campuses. Is it making the country safer or more dangerous? 

By Staff writer / March 11, 2012

This is the cover story in the Mar. 12 weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor.

Ann Hermes staff photo

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garner, n.c.

Leaning against a scrub pine as preschoolers scurry about at his feet, Shane Gazda, father of 3-year-old twins, recalls a conundrum he faced earlier that morning: whether to take his Smith & Wesson .40 caliber handgun to a Groundhog Day celebration in this town's White Deer Park.

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After all, what was once against the law in North Carolina – carrying a concealed gun in a town park, square, or greenway – is now, as of Dec. 1, 2011, very much allowed. To Mr. Gazda, who likes to shoot targets in his backyard, an event as innocent as paying homage to a rodent could turn dangerous if the wrong person shows up.

"Part of it is being ready for cataclysm every day," says Gazda, a hospital maintenance engineer. "And to be honest, I started carrying precisely to protect not just myself, but my family, and anyone around me who needs help."

In the end, Gazda left the gun at home. But his internal debate is emblematic of one a growing number of Americans are having almost daily. Thirty years after a powerful gun-control movement swept the country, Americans are embracing the idea of owning and carrying firearms with a zeal rarely seen since the days of muskets and militias.

A combination of favorable court rulings, grass-roots activism, traditional fears of crime, and modern anxieties about government has led to what may be a tipping point on an issue that just a few years ago was one of America's most contentious. Gun rights have now expanded to the point where the fundamental question seems not to be "should we be able to carry guns," but instead is "where can't we carry them?"

The answer: not very many places.

The new North Carolina statute, in fact, is one of hundreds of new gun-friendly laws enacted by states and localities in the past few years alone. Mississippi lawmakers, for instance, recently voted to allow gun owners who take an extra safety class to carry hidden weapons on college campuses and in courthouses. Ohio has granted people with permits the right to bring concealed weapons into restaurants, bars, and sports arenas. A 2010 Indiana law stipulates that private business owners let employees keep guns in their cars when parked on company property. And New Hampshire, along with several other states, has removed restrictions on bearing arms in the ultimate politically symbolic place – the State House.

In 2009, three times as many pro-gun laws were passed in the United States as antigun measures – a trend that experts say has only accelerated since then. Fully 40 states now mandate that anyone who asks for a concealed-carry permit and meets the qualifications must be issued one. One result: The number of concealed-weapon license holders in the US has gone from a few hundred thousand 10 years ago to more than 6 million today. In some parts of Tennessee, 1 out of every 11 people on the street is either carrying a weapon or has a license to do so.

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