A grandma with a pistol in her purse

When Kate (not her real name) goes to a movie, she wonders what the people next to her would think if they knew she had a loaded gun in her purse.

The .38 caliber revolver lives next to her breath mints and Kleenex in a separate, hidden, tear-away Velcro pouch in her black handbag. It goes everywhere with her. If she ever needs it (she hasn't yet), she says she'll plunge her hand in and shoot her attacker right through the purse.

They'll never even know she had it.

At first, Kate may sound militant, a hardened and armed woman who isn't afraid to fire off a few rounds in the air to scare away intruders.

That couldn't be further from the truth.

This sweet-voiced, middle-aged woman, who helps keep the books for her husband's real-estate business, has changed her attitude toward guns as she's gotten older. She never felt threatened growing up on California's Monterey Peninsula; her family never even locked their house or car.

But when she moved to Oregon in 1991, her sense of safety started to evolve. She often traveled alone at night while her husband worked late. The possibility of a carjacking frightened her. So, five years ago, after a little prompting from a friend who carried a gun, Kate was persuaded to apply for a concealed-weapon permit.

"I always had a gun at home, loaded, [so] if someone came in, I would definitely shoot them," she says matter-of-factly. "I would have no qualms about shooting them if they were in my house and I felt threatened. Obviously, I wouldn't choose to do this, because I don't believe in killing people, but I do believe in protecting yourself."

She has considered other forms of self-defense. But a Rottweiler isn't her style, and karate, she says, doesn't seem as effective as a gun.

"I think I'm sort of too old to do martial arts, and I really don't want to let anybody get that close," she says. "If you want to know the truth, I'd rather end it sooner than later. Then you just pray the person doesn't get the gun away from you and shoot you with it. It is a big concern.

"Things have gotten more dangerous," she says. "People are more bold than they used to be. Just generally, society itself is going to you-know-what in a handbasket."

The white-hot debate between concealed-weapons advocates and gun-control proponents doesn't influence her. Kate believes that Oregon's law of thorough background checks weeds out irresponsible people.

"It's a huge responsibility," she says. "[Carrying the gun] freaked me out for a while." But even if it means carefully hiding her purse every time she gets home and being extra careful when her grandchildren are around, it's worth it.

Patrick Langan, a statistician for the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Study, found that defending against rape, robbery, or assault, guns help 65 percent of the time and make things worse about 9 percent of the time.

Still, there is much debate about the numbers, with various sides of the gun-control debate disputing the others' claims.

Only seven states strictly prohibit carrying concealed weapons: Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The ease of obtaining a concealed-weapon permit varies in all other states. Only in Vermont can residents carry a concealed weapon without a license or a permit.

Regardless of the debate, Kate still thinks she needs a gun for self-protection, even though she lives in a house equipped with an alarm and has a gun locker full of loaded pistols. All this despite the fact that she lives in a populated and safe housing development.

With all these guns, could she be going overboard?

"You don't know when you'll need it," she says. "Hopefully, I'll never need it. But that's not a reason not to carry it."

Even her friends, who would never think of carrying a gun, appreciate Kate's decision, she says.

"Most of my friends know that I carry a gun. I'll be with somebody, and they'll feel a little bit funny ... and they'll say, 'Do you have your...' and they won't say it. [They'll say] 'Do you have your protection?' And I'll say, yeah, and they'll go, 'Oh good.'

"I was talking to my husband about this," Kate continues. "I said, so what if I'm in the bank, and it gets robbed. What do I do? Where's my responsibility? 'Your responsibility is only to protect yourself,' he said." Protecting other people isn't her job. But, she adds, "Not that you wouldn't help somebody if you could."

Her husband offered a final warning: "... You need to be really careful that you don't try to be John Wayne, because you'll get killed."

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