Three million Americans - a record number - are packing hidden heat under laws passed during the past 12 years.
Thirty-one states allow citizens to carry concealed firearms if they have a permit, and as many as 15 more states could pass concealed-weapons laws this fall.
What's the effect of this been on crime rates in the United States?
That's where the real debate begins.
As more than a dozen state legislatures stand poised to take up their own concealed-weapons statutes, advocates claim that putting firearms into the hands of law-abiding citizens reduces the nation's risk of violent crime.
Opponents argue that freeing citizens to carry their own guns just puts more firearms, and more danger, onto America's streets.
Neutral analysts say there is no solid evidence that concealed-weapons laws have made much difference - for either side. In fact, neither side can point to a convincing study to prove its case.
"The most significant evidence is that there has been no effort to overturn the laws," says Bill Powers, National Rifle Association spokesman.
"What we are saying is there is a more effective way to reduce crime," says Nancy Hwa, Handgun Control Inc. spokeswoman.
The current concealed-carry trend can be traced back 12 years to passage of Florida's program. Almost 20 states followed suit in the wake of Republican gains in Congress in 1994.
As a result, a majority of states today are so-called "shall issue" states where authorities must issue a permit to citizens unless good reason exists not to.
"The real net effect on the crime rate and overall behavior is not going to be that much," says Robert Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control."
A 1995 University of Maryland study linked concealed weapons with higher murder rates, but it came out before the wave of concealed-carry laws. It was criticized for its limited scope, examining a handful of counties in only three states.
The most comprehensive study to date, "More Guns, Less Crime," examines the nation as a whole. But it, too, has been attacked for its claim: that passage of lenient concealed laws creates a drop in violent crime.
"The size of that drop increases over time as more permits are issued," says John Lott Jr., who published the study last year. "The kinds of people who go through the criminal background check and undergo the training aren't the kinds of people who commit the crimes."
Antigun activists complain that no reliable data exists linking concealed weapons to crime because the gun lobby has been successful in hiding it. In virtually all the 31 states where the law exists, clauses preclude disclosure of information about the permit holder, they claim.
While the full impact of permits remains unclear, experts say the fact that chaos hasn't followed relaxation of gun laws is due to several factors. Only a small number of people want to carry a hidden gun in the first place.
"You aren't going to see a dramatic rise in people who are going to run out in large numbers and carry guns in their daily lives," Mr. Spitzer says.
Oklahoma may be a case in point. Since enacting its concealed-weapons law in 1996, fewer than expected have applied for permits. Of the 31,472 applications submitted so far, 30,406 permits have been issued. Of those issued, 62 have been revoked and 38 have been withdrawn. The average age for an applicant is 50 and most are white.
"There was concern here initially that more officers would be killed or more officers would be drawing on people who didn't announce right away that they were carrying," says Kym Koch at the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. "We haven't seen that."
Still, a lack of standardized training troubles some. Roughly 25 percent of states require up to five hours of training. Others require 10 or more. Alaska requires its permit holders to undergo 12 hours and Arizona mandates 16 hours of instruction with a periodic refresher course.
Another trend in the concealed-carry process is an effort to bolster statutes on the books. "You'll see existing states trying to strengthen their shall-issue laws," says Joe Sudbay, who directs the state legislation program at Handgun Control Inc.
Montana, for example, recently debated easing restrictions on places where guns are banned.
The continued trend to soften firearm laws stands in contrast to buy-back programs in cities.
Washington police are still glowing from their recent success in buying back 2,306 guns from around the city. New York and Tampa, Fla., are the latest to consider buy-back programs.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society