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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More recently, two US Supreme Court decisions – District of Columbia v. Heller (in 2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (in 2010) – have buttressed the constitutional right of Americans to own weapons for self-defense.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures American Gun Culture
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While all this was going on, pro-gun laws were gathering momentum in statehouses. In 1987, Florida passed the nation's first "shall-issue" concealed-carry weapons law. It meant that the state was required to issue a permit to anyone who wanted to carry a concealed gun in public places, provided the applicant met a set of requirements.
These vary from state to state but include such things as paying a license fee, taking a safety training class or exam, submitting to fingerprinting, and having a criminal-free record. Today all but 10 states have shall-issue carry laws, four of which (Alaska, Arizona, Vermont, Wyoming) require no permit at all to harbor a hidden weapon.
Other laws passed in various states range from an expansion of the "castle doctrine" – broadening the right to use a gun to defend your home to include your front yard, boat, or workplace – to returning gun rights to nonviolent felons.
Even President Obama, long considered by the NRA as an enemy of the Second Amendment, has acquiesced on the issue. He signed legislation in 2009 – which admittedly was part of a compromise budget bill – that for the first time allowed people to carry concealed guns in national parks. It coincided with concerns about crime in the nation's premier outdoor playgrounds.
Not all laws, of course, have been so gun-friendly. Mayor Bloomberg, for one, is trying to make it harder for people to buy weapons at gun shows, which he says contribute to violent crime in America's cities. Other urban areas, including Washington, D.C., and Chicago, have tried to skirt the recent Supreme Court rulings by essentially banning guns in other ways, such as through zoning or onerous licensing laws.
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Behind the proliferation of less-restrictive laws – and guns themselves – looms a question as old as the flintlock: Does having more weapons in people's hands make society more, or less, safe?
Partisans on both sides marshal their numbers. Gun critics have long been concerned that concealed carry laws will lead to more routine disputes being settled with a bullet, especially if the weapons end up on the wrong hips.
IN PICTURES: American Gun Culture
In December, The New York Times examined how many concealed-weapon permit holders in North Carolina had committed past crimes. Out of 260,000 licensees, it found that roughly 2,600 had committed at least a nontraffic-related misdemeanor, and 200 had committed felonies; 10 of those were manslaughter or murder convictions.