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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? 

(Page 6 of 8)

In White Deer Park, for instance, permit holders are allowed to carry concealed weapons in almost all areas, with the exception of a little nature center and the playground, which is marked by a (somewhat) clearly defined bed of mulch. Elsewhere across Garner, the town council has decreed gyms, ball fields, and other public zones off limits to gun carriers, most marked by signs and all delineated, in painstaking detail, in a municipal ordinance.

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Other cities across North Carolina, including Raleigh and Winston-Salem, have exempted areas in more general language – banning guns from all playgrounds and sports facilities, for instance – which Valone's group is planning to challenge.

This patchwork of firearm-carry and firearm-free zones is a metaphor for where gun laws have evolved in many states – from a concerted move by opponents to keep them out of people's hands as a matter of principle to the view that, OK, you can carry them, including in public, just not in these specific areas. It's a long way from where much of the country was 40 years ago.

Back in the 1960s and '70s, a formidable gun control movement formed out of concern about urban crime. Widespread riots and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and, later, the wounding of President Reagan added to concerns about the prevalence of guns. Other high-profile shootings, including the killing of five children in Stockton, Calif., in 1989 and the slaying of four federal agents during a siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993, focused attention on assault weapons in particular.

A bevy of national laws followed – restrictions on mail-order rifle sales in 1968, the outlawing of "cop killer" bullets in 1984, the establishment of "drug-free school zones" in 1990 that included stiff penalties for anyone carrying guns in those areas, an assault weapons ban in 1994. By most accounts, the assault weapons ban, which tellingly expired in 2004, marked the end of the gun control arc.

The urban unrest and assassinations of the '60s and '70s "inspired a magical thinking where guns symbolized evil, and to ban guns was to ban evil," says Mr. Reynolds of the University of Tennessee. "But as those psychological traumas receded, replaced by a fresh batch of psychological traumas, we kind of fell back into the normal and ... traditional."

The pro-gun movement has been expanding ever since, aided in part by favorable legal rulings and writings. In 1989, Mr. Levinson, the Texas law professor, wrote a notable essay in the Yale Law Review in which he suggested that citizen participation in government might extend to the Second Amendment.

Levinson looked specifically at whether "ordinary citizens [should] participate in the process of law enforcement and defense of liberty rather than rely on professionalized peacekeepers, whether we call them standing armies or police." Gun rights activists consider it a hinge moment in the gun debate, since it marked one of the first such dissections of the Second Amendment by a liberal legal scholar.


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