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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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While many people automatically assume the expansion of gun rights is linked to the power of the National Rifle Association (NRA) – which does remain a magnum political force in Washington and across much of the country – others say it is the effectiveness of smaller, and often more uncompromising, groups like Valone's that are shifting the debate. Many of them are run by just a handful of committed activists who spread their frequently tart messages through pamphlets, blogs, and massive e-mail lists.

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It was Valone's group, for instance, that largely wrote the state's recently passed park carry law and a more general concealed weapons statute before that. When a bill mandating stricter storage for guns at home was introduced in the state legislature in 2001, Grass Roots North Carolina helped defeat it by branding the measure as "the rapist protection act."

Currently, the group is pushing to expand the concealed carry law so people can bring guns into restaurants. It is also in court trying to thwart the ability of authorities to suspend concealed-carry permits during declared emergencies. The lawsuit stems from an incident a few years ago in King, N.C., where a looming snowstorm sparked a temporary weapons ban out of concern that people in the middle of a crisis may be too quick to solve problems with the barrel of a gun.

Similarly, in 2010, Gov. Bev Perdue (D) prohibited carrying guns in public in anticipation of the arrival of hurricane Earl, which coincided with hunting season. Grass Roots North Carolina argues she turned 11,000 dove hunters into criminals.

"People like to explain all of this away as the gun lobby doing its work, but it's really peasants with pitchforks," says Valone. "We were the tea party before the tea party was cool."

While Valone and other gun rights advocates talk of an army of "peaceable citizens," a term coined by Sam Adams, critics see this as a romanticized view of an armed populace – and a dangerous one. They believe Americans should be able to solve problems without resorting to a cocked pistol.

"You go from self-defense to political freedom. And every step along the way you get to expand gun rights, you have a victory for political freedom. That's a heady equation," says Ms. Burbick, who studies culture and politics at Washington State University in Pullman. "It's simple, it's straightforward, but nobody seems to be able to test if it's accurate. So instead of funding town parks at a level where you can manage the environment and the people in the environment, you come up with this very shortsighted but direct solution, which is carry a gun."

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Actually, it isn't necessarily a simple or direct solution. In Garner, you almost need a surveyor's transit to be able to figure out where you can and can't go with a weapon. Once the state law allowing carrying a concealed gun was passed, local officials began carving out places where they didn't want people bringing pistols.

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