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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? 

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Gazda bought his first gun five years ago when he got his concealed-carry permit but admits buying several more when Barack Obama was elected president, out of concern that the administration would try to limit gun rights.

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He points out that the general decline in the violent crime rate doesn't mean the country isn't dangerous. One day when he left the gun behind, he was accosted, he says, by a convenience store owner who refused to let his two children use the bathroom. "I felt threatened, and since then I always take it with me on trips with the family," he says.

Fear for personal safety is a major reason many people want to be able to own and carry a gun. Some see themselves as a sort of self-appointed family constable.

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"There's a kind of Second Amendment reconstructionism going on which has to do with Western individuality, freedom from coercion ... moving about and not having to explain your business to people," says Brian Anse Patrick, a University of Toledo professor and author of "Rise of the Anti-Media," which documents the gun rights movement's underground presses. "They may not think Washington is their friend, and they're certain that bureaucrats are working against their right to own guns. But it has less to do with resisting government authority and more about family: 'I want to be able to defend myself, I want the right to travel and refrain from fear, and this little .38 special here helps me achieve that.' "

Yet a little defiance of government authority is mixed in there as well. "The Democratic Party in many ways overinvested in symbolic legislation on gun control, which explains the backlash from hunters or people who have a legitimate reason to feel unsafe and want a gun by their bedside," says Sanford Levinson, a University of Texas constitutional law professor and expert on the Second Amendment. "But the more important thing is what the Republican Party has done over 25 years, which is to really delegitimize national government and make people feel that the national government is not merely incompetent, but also likely to be antagonistic and maybe even tyrannical."

The 9/11 attacks reinforced the view among many Americans that dark forces lurk in society that people need to defend themselves against. While the overall violent crime rate is down, a recent poll by Rasmussen Reports showed that 72 percent of Americans feel that local crime will increase in the near term. Some experts say this generalized anxiety is reflected in the popularity of movies and TV shows about zombies and similar topics. The grim mood hasn't gone unnoticed by ammo manufacturers, one of which is trying to capitalize on the zeitgeist by selling a line of Zombie Max cartridges and shells.

Paul Valone is another reason America is more heavily armed today. One day in 1994, Mr. Valone, an airline pilot, was watching lawmakers on C-SPAN press their case for an assault weapons ban in Congress. Outraged, he called around to various gun rights groups to find out what he could do. Frustrated with their response, he eventually launched his own group, Grass Roots North Carolina, which has evolved into a potent lobbying force in the state.

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