RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And here at home, many Americans are joining a pistol-packing revolution. Nearly 13 million Americans have permits to carry concealed handguns. That's triple the number just nine years ago. Even that figure is low because not every state reports. The increase reflects a change in many state laws. It also reflects a change in attitudes. A Gallup poll says that for the first time, most Americans think handguns carried by law-abiding citizens make the country safer, not more dangerous. NPR's John Burnett has the first of two reports on armed America.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: To get some insight into the rapidly growing culture of carrying handguns, I started up by signing up for the training.
MICHAEL CARGILL: All right, my name is Michael Cargill, the owner of Central Texas Gun Works. I want to welcome you guys here this morning. On the back there, we have some breakfast tacos. You want to go ahead and dig in. Get yourself a breakfast taco. We got bacon and egg...
BURNETT: About 40 people, mostly white guys, sit in a classroom. If you're not a felon, a fugitive, a tax deadbeat or have a drug or alcohol conviction, pretty much anybody can get their permit to carry a handgun in Texas. I guess I thought the class was going to be a sort of initiation into the tribe of covert gunslingers, but I was wrong.
CARGILL: Don't pull that gun out until you're ready to use it.
BURNETT: And if I thought we'd learn how to be the good guy with a gun who stops a bad guy with a gun, I was wrong again. Michael Cargill intones, it's true in Texas that you can use deadly force against someone stealing your car stereo or vandalizing your home at night. But if you do, expect the police to arrest you and the victim's family to sue you.
CARGILL: The easiest thing in the world for me to do is teach you how to shoot and kill someone. That's very simple. The hardest thing in the world for me to do is teach you how not to pull that gun out.
BURNETT: Once the five-hour class is over, everybody takes a written exam and passes. Then we head to the range for the fun part.
CARGILL: Shooters, pick up your handgun with your firing hand. Let's make them hot.
BURNETT: The state of Texas requires a firearm competency test, 50 rounds at a human-shaped silhouette target. You have to score at least 70 percent.
CARGILL: Two shots, two shots, ready, fire.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
CARGILL: Three shots, three shots, ready.
BURNETT: Though I'd never picked up a handgun in my life, I did fine and got my certificate of completion.
CARGILL: Here you go, sir.
BURNETT: Appreciate it.
CARGILL: Hey, thank you very much, sir.
CARGILL: You be safe out there, outstanding.
BURNETT: My question is, why are so many Americans choosing to weaponize themselves at a time when the FBI tells us violent crime and property crime have been falling dramatically for two decades? In search of handgun permit holders to interview, I drive out to the Texas Firearms Festival. It's an outdoor gun extravaganza held near Austin, where firearms fanciers get to shoot everything they see. In order are festival producer Robert Farago, high school counselor Janna Delany and petrochemical foreman David Rodriguez.
ROBERT FARAGO: If you're in Paris and you see people coming with AKs into your rock concert, that sucks. But it sucks worse if you're unarmed. I'm not saying that being armed is going to save your life, but at least you have an effective tool to mount some kind of defense.
JANNA DELANY: I think it's more just for me personally to give myself a little bit of peace of mind, somebody trying to carjack me or, you know, hold me up at a gas station or stopped at a red light or something.
DAVID RODRIGUEZ: My handgun I have is a Glock 9 mm. Everywhere I go, I like to try to keep it, you know, the movies, restaurants.
BURNETT: One thing's certain. Carrying a loaded weapon, being prepared at a moment's notice to use deadly force, changes how people perceive their environment. Of the 20 handgun carriers I interviewed over several months, most of them said they're more aware of how people look and how they act. Sam Blackburn is a diesel mechanic in Georgetown, Texas. He wear an NRA cap and carries a 9 mm Smith and Wesson.
SAM BLACKBURN: So I paid attention to the different people, weird people, maybe stereotype people.
BURNETT: What are you looking for?
BLACKBURN: Gangbanger-looking guys, maybe guys that are - look like they're up to no good or somebody who may think they're a Muslim extremist or something like that.
BURNETT: Carrying a 2-pound steel appliance around like a cellphone doesn't just change the way a person thinks. It changes the way they move.
DOUG MILLER: When it's new, it's a little bit like that Christmas feeling, I mean, because it's exciting. I mean, I won't lie to you. I mean, there is some visceral response that you get carrying a firearm.
BURNETT: Big piece of metal on your belt.
BURNETT: Doug Miller was in my concealed handgun class. He owns a small IT company in Austin and teaches Israeli self-defense classes on the side. We meet at a pub.
MILLER: But after about 30 seconds, it becomes a, is this going to become comfortable when I sit down? It's really sort of digging into my hip because my car has upholstered seats. That's not really that comfortable.
BURNETT: I wonder if women think about handguns differently. A Girl And A Gun is a women's shooting league that started in Central Texas and has now gone national. The director, Robyn Sandoval, and a half-dozen members meet me at a barbecue joint in Cedar Park. Sandoval says for her, carrying a handgun has become an extension of motherhood, a way to protect her children.
ROBYN SANDOVAL: Family situational awareness is a big deal. When we go to a restaurant, my 9-year-old, who looks suspicious? What are people doing? What's an anomaly? Let's point out people in their cars. Let's point out what's going on. We make a game of it of who can find somebody in their car just sitting there.
BURNETT: The gun girls talk about their firearms differently than men do. Guys speak of them as tools. These women talk about them like pets. Sandoval is joined by schoolteacher Bettylane Chambliss.
SANDOVAL: We name our guns. They have names. I have Francesca, Dolly, Gracie. And we talk about them like, you know, I'm taking Gracie to the mall with us.
BETTYLANE CHAMBLISS: (Unintelligible).
BURNETT: You nickname your guns.
CHAMBLISS: Yes, well, yeah, that we call them by a name.
BURNETT: Tell me yours. Tell me yours.
CHAMBLISS: OK, my small one is my Baby. And my dad will say, do you have your gun with you? And I went, oh, yeah, I got Baby with me. I'm fine.
BURNETT: Despite the pet names, there is nothing casual about getting a license to carry a pistol. A gun in the home, the owner may have it primarily for hunting or target shooting. A concealed gun out in public, it goes with the explicit understanding that the owner may need to kill someone they feel threatened by. My instructor had this to say, you pull that gun out, your life is going to change. He's right. This afternoon on All Things Considered, we'll meet three citizens who pulled the trigger. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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