Handguns In America And The Rise Of The 'Concealed-Carry Lifestyle' "Something really profound has changed in the way that we use guns," journalist Evan Osnos says. He estimates that 13 million people are licensed to carry a concealed gun in America.
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Handguns In America And The Rise Of The 'Concealed-Carry Lifestyle'

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Handguns In America And The Rise Of The 'Concealed-Carry Lifestyle'

Handguns In America And The Rise Of The 'Concealed-Carry Lifestyle'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando has led to a new round of gun control proposals. Four of them were voted down in the Senate on Monday. Yesterday, Democrats in the House, trying to force a vote on gun control measures, staged a sit-in that continued into today. The fact is, in recent years, the response to mass shootings, terrorist attacks and talk of additional gun control have led to increased gun sales that have broken records. And although mass shootings get the most attention, last year's fatalities from mass shootings amounted to just 2 percent of all gun deaths in the U.S.

My guest, Evan Osnos, writes about the business and politics of selling guns and the growth of the concealed carry movement in an article in the current New Yorker. Osnos covers politics and foreign affairs for the magazine. As part of his research, he attended last month's annual NRA convention where he said the centerpiece was the endorsement of Donald Trump for president. Osnos describes Trump as the most fervently pro-gun nominee in presidential history. Osnos last joined us on FRESH AIR to discuss his article about how white nationalists are supporting Trump.

Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You quote someone in the article - and you seem to agree with this - as saying that the frontier - the new frontier of the Second Amendment is where you can carry and why. Can you expand on that?

EVAN OSNOS: You know, often I think when we talk about guns, we focus on the physical implement of what kind of gun somebody used, for instance, in the most recent shootings. So in the number of big high-profile massacres, the gun has been an AR-15, which is a military-style semi-automatic rifle. But in fact, what you find is that if you look at the deeper trend of what's going on in the politics and the law around guns, you find that the biggest change over the course of the last generation is the steady expansion of where people can use guns, how they can use them.

And the most important case - the case that really defined the way that guns are held and used in America, which was in 2008, it was called District of Columbia vs. Heller. In that case, the Supreme Court held that individuals have a right to self-defense in the home. But what they did not answer - and this is the question that looms really on the horizon - is how people can use guns outside the home. Are they in fact legally entitled to carry them to work, to the bank, to the daycare center? Can they have a gun with them when they go on campus as a student or as a professor? And state by state, the country has become, in some ways, more open to guns in everyday life. But the ultimate question of whether or not this is legal, whether it's constitutional, remains very much unanswered.

GROSS: So at this time when assault weapons are on everyone's mind because of the recent mass shootings, including the one in Orlando, why did you want to write about conceal carry?

OSNOS: Well, in some ways - you know, Terry, I've lived overseas for 11 years and I came back in 2013. And when I left, I was living in China most recently and my neighbor who was Chinese had never left the country. And I remember having a conversation with her. She said, where are you moving? And I said, I'm moving back to the U.S. And she said, ah, yes, the United States. It's a very prosperous country, but everybody has a gun.

And I remember thinking how funny that sounded. It was this kind of strange kaleidoscopic portrait of my country. It didn't map on to anything I recognized. And then when I got back to the U.S., I found of course it's - obviously that description is not accurate. But something fundamental had changed. And the fact was that for most of American history, gun owners themselves basically frowned on the idea of carrying guns in everyday life.

The head of the NRA in 1934 testified in Congress against what he described as the, quote, "promiscuous toting of guns." He said it has no place in everyday life. And Ronald Reagan, in fact, who was an icon in many ways of the American conservative movement that supports gun rights, he said in 1967 when he was governor of California that there is no reason, as he put it, why a person should be carrying a loaded gun down the street.

And yet, over the last 30 years, a deep change has happened in American law and in American habit where state by state places that once prohibited or strictly controlled the ability to carry a gun in everyday life have systematically relaxed those rules to the point that concealed carry as it's known is now legal in all 50 states. And there are now about 13 million people who are licensed to carry a concealed gun. And to put that in perspective, that's more than 12 times the number of police officers and detectives as there are in America.

So something really profound has changed in the way that we use guns as Americans, the way that people regard the presence of guns, either hidden or open in the course of our most sort of ordinary interactions with each other. And that was the thing I wanted to understand, was how did this happen that it became so easy to be licensed to carry a gun in ordinary life? And then also what does that do? What are the effects on our interactions as citizens, our interactions among ourselves and our - ultimately our interaction with politics and with the business of guns?

GROSS: Well, you know, in terms of how conceal carry has been promoted both legislatively and to consumers is, like, you need this for self-defense. It's dangerous out there. And you open your article in The New Yorker with a story of what can go wrong with conceal and carry. And it's the story of what happened outside of a bar in Philadelphia where a third-year law student shot a Villanova grad outside the bar. Would you briefly tell the story of what happened?

OSNOS: Yeah, the story took place in January of 2010. And in its own way, the particulars are completely ordinary up to a certain point. This was - there were two guys and their friends who had just left the bars after 2 o'clock in the morning. And one of them, whose name was Gerald Ung, was - had worked as an IT consultant for Freddie Mac. He was now studying law. And he got into an argument with another group of guys. On the other side was a guy named Eddie DiDonato - who had played lacrosse at Villanova - was now working for an insurance company.

And it was such an ordinary interaction, such a sort of routine argument that neither side could later even really pinpoint what started it. Somebody may have kicked in the direction of the other group and so on. But over the course of the next 60 seconds, as this argument moved down the block, it took a very strange turn. And at one point, Gerald Ung pulled out of his pocket a .380 caliber semiautomatic pistol and pointed it at Eddie DiDonato and pulled the trigger.

And he couldn't even really remember how many times he pulled the trigger. He'd never done this before. He'd never even fired that gun. And he hit him six times in the lung, in the liver, in the spine and the hand and the shoulder. And Eddie DiDonato collapsed. And Gerald Ung called 911 and said, I've shot somebody. And on the tape you can hear - you can hear Eddie DiDonato saying, please don't let me die. And you can hear Gerald Ung saying, why did you make me shoot you?

And when the police arrived and they arrested Gerald Ung, the first words that he said was I have a permit, and he did. He had a concealed-carry permit for about 18 months. And he had gotten it because he said he was afraid of street crime. He was afraid of getting mugged. And his solution to that fear was to get a gun. And then he started carrying this gun everywhere. He would put it in his backpack, put it in the - in his pocket. He would take it out when he went out at night to bars, for instance, as he did on this night.

And so that case, in its own way, was so interesting to me because 20 or 30 years ago, that interaction between Gerald Ung and Eddie DiDonato on the sidewalk outside of a bar in Philadelphia would've ended in a way that neither side probably would have even remembered. Each side would've gone home and told their buddies about how they prevailed. And yet, instead, it became this catastrophic moment, really, that altered the lives of both of these men. Gerald Ung ended up going to trial on attempted murder charges, and he was acquitted.

And when he was acquitted, it was celebrated in the - on the pro-gun blogs. They said, this is a victory for all of us - all of us, they meant, in the concealed carry movement. But Gerald Ung, you know, when the verdict was announced, there was no illusion that this was a happy moment for him. He clasped his hands in prayer and said, basically, get me out of this courtroom. And he's never said another word in public since then.

GROSS: And the person he shot has permanent damage. He survived. It...

OSNOS: Eddie DiDonato was...

GROSS: Yeah.

OSNOS: Exactly, Eddie DiDonato was very severely injured. He re-learned how to walk. He had 14 surgeries. His intestines were permanently injured. And, you know, in many ways - I've spoken to him recently. And he's still bewildered by how this ordinary evening ended the way it did.

You know, I should say that from my perspective, what was so puzzling about that case and perhaps what made it intriguing was the idea that having a gun - simply introducing a gun into ordinary life changes the kind of chemistry of our interactions - the arguments, the slights, the frustrations, the fears, the ways that we look upon and perceive ourselves as being at risk. And it changes it in some very, very powerful ways.

GROSS: Do you think that this is a typical story in any way of people who carry guns and of the consequences that they don't expect?

OSNOS: Well, certainly most people if you ask them why they carry a gun for self-defense, they'll say upfront - and I heard this over and over again. I interviewed dozens of people this spring about it. They'll say, I hope I never have to fire it. And I think that's very sincere. A lot of people really - they will describe it, for instance, as a - they'll compare it to an insurance policy. They'll say, I want to have this gun, but I certainly never want to have to kill anybody.

And yet, in its own way, having a gun alters things. I'll give you an example. One of the things that became clear at the trial was that Gerald Ung had made a catastrophic mistake which is that he had believed that one of the guys on the other side was carrying a gun, too, because that guy kept hiking up his pants, you know, during this little argument which took place in all of 70 seconds, the entire interaction. That guy just sort of kept, you know, reaching down to his belt just to hike up his pants. And Gerald Ung thought, well, he must have a gun.

And the - this is not uncommon. In fact, there's a study that shows that people, when they start carrying a gun, if they have one in their possession, they tend to overestimate how often other people are carrying guns as well.

GROSS: My impression is that when you took a gun class, you were basically told by the instructor to assume that a lot of other people are carrying guns.

OSNOS: Yeah, this is the - one of the really complicated pieces of the - what's known as the gun carry revolution or the concealed carry movement. And that's the fact that in order to justify its existence, it has to remind people - it has to persuade people, in effect, that the world is a dangerous place for them. And so if you are somebody who's considering buying a gun or you've become part of this phenomenon of carrying a gun in daily life you are constantly being reminded of ways in which you could encounter a threat.

So, for instance, a gun instructor will tell you about home invasions or muggers or druggies. Or these days, often you'll be told did you see the news about that recent mass shooting? What would you have done if you'd been in that situation? Perhaps you would have been able to protect yourself. And yet, at the same time, very often that statement is followed by an almost reflexive assertion of the idea that God forbid we ever have to use our guns. And what I found was that it - an atmosphere of heightened anxiety.

One of the most famous writers on self-defense, one of the people who really sort of started this movement of using guns as self-defense in everyday life is a guy named Jeff Cooper. He wrote a book in the early '70s in which he said that people need to live in what he called condition yellow. And condition yellow - and this idea became enormously popular in the gun community - was that you never allow your defenses down. You are constantly thinking about who might harm you and how and how you will use your gun if you have one to get out of that situation.

So in a sense, the act of carrying a gun and becoming part of this universe of ideas introduces you to a level of risk you probably didn't really even know about before. And then the essential question becomes is that level of risk accurate? Is it fair? Is it warranted? And, ultimately, is it safe for you and for the people around you?

GROSS: Well, you went to an NRA convention last month. And I want to talk with you about that. But first, we have to take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. We're talking about his article in the current New Yorker called "Making A Killing: The Business And Politics Of Selling Guns." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He's written a new article in The New Yorker called "Making A Killing: The Business And Politics Of Selling Guns." And he writes about politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker.

So you went to the NRA national convention last month. Let's talk about how conceal carry was marketed there. You went to the U.S. Concealed Carry Association's exhibit, which you describe as very large, and it promotes what they call the concealed carry lifestyle. So what is the lifestyle, and what are some of the ways this association promotes it?

OSNOS: Well, the concealed carry lifestyle really describes what has become the main event in the business of guns. I mean, the truth is today that 4 out of every 5 guns that are sold by Smith & Wesson, for instance, which is the largest U.S. gun maker, are handguns. And they're - and they're small handguns that are designed for concealed carry. So very often, you know, even though we talk about AR-15 rifles, for instance, which are very common in these mass shootings, really most of the business of guns that are transacted every day are really about handguns. And, in fact, most of the damage that's done by guns every year are by handguns. Rifles account for only about 3 percent of the gun deaths every year in America.

So the concealed carry lifestyle refers to a set of products and a set of ideas around the decision to carry a gun everywhere you go. And that means that if you're the U.S. Concealed Carry Association, which is this business based in Wisconsin that really sort of presents itself as a membership organization, something that is designed to look out for your interests and to provide, you know, sort of answers to your questions. It's also very much a vendor. And what they do is they sell a kind of insurance that you can use in the event that you shoot somebody. So if that happens, for instance, then they'll subsidize your legal fees. They'll help you post bail. They'll provide legal advice about how you can respond - how you can assert your right to self-defense.

And then, of course, they also sell training. So they'll sell - so, for instance, once I signed up, I was given a stream of videos about how a person might be attacked while going to their car in a parking garage and how they might use a gun to be able to defend themselves in that situation. And what you find is that in a sense sort of the deeper that you get into the world of the Concealed Carry Association or any of a number of businesses that have sprung up in order to take advantage of this opportunity that you can become almost completely surrounded by information that is terrifying, actually. And it's particularly, I think, noticeable in the age of social media where you can tailor and prune your information sources down to the point where you only receive what it is that you want to receive. And so after a few months of research, for instance, on this, my inbox every day was filled with solicitations from various vendors offering me new training or new types of guns or new types of holsters and also reminders of ways in which civilians, citizens every day are using their guns to defend themselves. And this - these stories have been - as you would imagine, they've been carefully curated and plucked. And what they don't give you, of course, is context. They don't give you a sense of how often these happen, how rare these events are. But you come away with the impression that happening - based on your inbox at least - all the time.

GROSS: So the more paranoia is - the more people are going to buy guns, the better for the industry.

OSNOS: Exactly. And I have to, you know, I want to say, if I can, that, you know, it's - I think, it's easy from far away to come away with a caricature of how it sounds and how it feels to people who are caught up in this. And yet I was also quite impressed and sort of moved actually by conversations with people who have chosen to carry concealed weapons almost in spite of themselves.

One guy in particular who I spoke to, who was a IT specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told me - he said, look, I don't know anything about ballistics. I don't know anything about guns. Growing up he'd never killed more than a ground hog or a deer. He said he was a self-described farm boy. And yet over the last few years, his friends - he lives in Kentucky - have become - have become armed in effect. More and more of them have started to carry concealed handguns. And he said I just found myself looking at the news, seeing news of mass shooting, seeing news of terrorist attacks and thinking to myself if I didn't protect my family I'd feel terrible. I couldn't live with myself. And so he's now started to carry a Glock 17 pistol.

And, you know, there was nothing aggressive about his bearing, about the way that he thought about it. But simply by bringing that gun into his house, he had fundamentally altered the risks to himself and to his family. And that's not something that anybody was telling him at the NRA convention. And what they weren't telling him was that actually statistically your chances of being killed in a mass shooting - the kind of thing that he was so deeply concerned about based on what he'd seen on the news - the chances of that are - are less than the chances of being hit by lightning. They're less than the chances of being - of contracting tuberculosis. But if you're surrounded by this kind of information, it is - it becomes almost impossible to ignore.

GROSS: I know while doing the research for the - for your article in The New Yorker, you examined a lot of statistics pertaining to guns. Can you tell us one or two of those statistics that you find especially revealing?

OSNOS: Well, one of the more remarkable statistics is that we very often focus - and right we should - on these terrible mass shootings, these high-profile events. But the truth is that in 2015, mass shootings - this was a terrible year, you know, this was a year in which we had San Bernadino and Planned Parenthood and you can go down the list of these names that we all remember - those mass shootings actually only accounted for 2 percent of the gun deaths in the United States. Most of the deaths every year from guns happen in ways you never read about in the newspaper. It's up close. It's an argument at a bar. It's a domestic abuse case that ends in a - in gunshots. But the simple fact is that by bringing a gun into your life, by bringing it into your home, you significantly raise the risk of suicide, of homicide, of accidental gun death. The chances of a homicide of some kind doubles. And that's not something that you hear about very often when you go out to purchase a gun.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos. He writes about the politics and business of selling guns in the current issue of The New Yorker. After a break, he'll tell us about the centerpiece of the NRA convention last month, the endorsement of Donald Trump. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Evan Osnos. His article about the business and politics of selling guns is in the current issue of The New Yorker. He covers politics and foreign affairs for the magazine. He last joined us on FRESH AIR to talk about his article about how white nationalists are supporting Donald Trump.

GROSS: As part of his research for his gun article, he attended the NRA's annual convention last month. The centerpiece of the NRA convention that you attended was the endorsement of Donald Trump, who you describe as the most fervently pro-gun nominee in presidential history. What gives him that distinction?

OSNOS: Well, he has called for a national right to concealed carry. So basically, almost like a driver's license, that if you're qualified in one state, then you're qualified to carry in every other state. He's also called intermittently, because he goes back and forth, for the end of gun-free zones in schools. But it's also worth pointing out - this is a recent posture for Donald Trump because historically, he published a book in which he argued for the federal ban on assault weapons. He criticized Republicans for toeing the NRA line, as he put it, back in 2000.

So - but he's really been forgiven by the gun movement. And I went to gun shows this spring in which you would often see T-shirts that say, Trump's army or waterboarding instructor because Trump, after all, has said that he would reintroduce waterboarding into American national security strategy. So in a way, he has shown himself to be a more fervent defender of gun rights than any Republican nominee, certainly, than we've ever had before.

GROSS: So after the shooting at Pulse, the club in Orlando - Donald Trump said if some of those wonderful people had guns strapped right here, right to their waist or right to their ankle, and this son of a B comes out and starts shooting, and one of the people in the room happened to have a gun and goes boom, boom - you know what? - that would have been a beautiful, beautiful sight, folks. And then the NRA - the head of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, basically tried to step back from that and said that he didn't believe that guns belonged in nightclubs.

And then Trump said, when I said that if in the Orlando club you had people with guns, I was obviously talking about additional guards or employees. (Laughter) And then the NRA also said, in response to what Wayne LaPierre originally said about not having guns in nightclubs, that it's OK to fire - to carry firearms in restaurants that serve alcohol, but if you do that, you shouldn't drink. So can you talk a little bit about this back and forth between Trump and himself and the NRA and itself and Trump and the NRA?

OSNOS: Yeah, Trump, in many ways, when he made the comments wishing that somebody in the Pulse nightclub had been armed and had been able to shoot back - he was actually very much in line with the central motto of the NRA these days, which is, as they say over and over, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. And that maxim, which after all is sort of the underlying principle that supports the business of concealed carry, supports the industry because it is telling people that really, they have a personal responsibility and almost a social responsibility to carry a gun.

You know, that idea is - you now hear it all over the place in the gun community. And it didn't exist. I mean, it really wasn't a common idea 30 or 40 years ago. This is new. We've had guns in America for hundreds of years, but this is a recent phenomenon. But what - in some ways, what Donald Trump did was that he forced this inherent contradiction out into public view in his own way.

You know, Trump took an idea that had been almost deliberately abstract in the NRA's terms when they say a good guy and a bad guy, and he made it more literal than the NRA could bear because the truth is the idea of people going into bars and nightclubs around the country and opening fire at the first suspicion of a risk is an idea so preposterous - so ludicrous actually, in the words of the NRA itself - that they couldn't really with a straight face support it.

And so they had to figure out a way how to pull it back. But in some ways, I was amazed. I mean, Donald Trump is - let me put it this way - you know, the more time I spent looking at concealed carry and also coincidentally looking at the candidacy of Donald Trump, I was amazed at how much they have in common with each other. Donald Trump, after all, is a concealed carry permit holder. He has a license in the state of New York.

It's not clear how much he's ever carried a gun, but his values and his moral outlook are in so many ways reflective of condition yellow - to use the term that goes back to the origins of the gun self-defense movement. You know, he believes that there are enemies everywhere. He is constantly telling Americans that they must be alert to the risk of, quote, "Mexican rapists" or of immigrants from abroad. He is, after all, calling for a ban on Muslims coming into the United States. And so he has fit, like hand-to-glove, really, into this environment of gun ownership.

And I - you know, I think, when we try to understand the origins of Donald Trump's popularity and also the popularity of the concealed carry phenomenon, there's strangely some things in common. The truth is that both of these communities are populated mostly by men - older white men. And in both of these communities, when you talk to people - and I've - for stories I've had reason to do both, you hear people talk about this immense sense of insecurity, both physical insecurity, from the idea of a mass shooting, but also more broadly, I mean, an economic insecurity, the idea that the professions and the businesses that they used to have have fallen away or certainly fallen off the pace of American life. And also, political insecurity - they feel as if their voice is no longer represented by mainstream politicians.

And so in some ways, the instinct that drives a person to say, well, I feel as if I am losing power and one of the ways in which I can fortify myself is by buying a gun is actually not all that far away from the instinct that says, I have been disappointed over and over again by our political leadership and by my economic opportunities, and so I might actually put my faith in this person who is so far outside of the bounds of ordinary traditional political life.

GROSS: Something, I think, that ties in with what you're saying is the video that was shown right before Trump was introduced at the NRA convention. And the narrator of the video talked about political elites and billionaires and went on to say, the thought of average people owning firearms makes them, the billionaires, uncomfortable. They don't like how the men and women who build their offices, vacation homes and luxury cars, who mop their floors, clean their clothes and serve their dinner, have access to the same level of protection as their armed security guards.

So two things about that narration - one is that Trump describes himself as a billionaire, so I don't know where he fits (laughter) into that narrative. This was supposed to be introducing him, and yet it's anti-billionaire. But also, this seems to fit into the larger narrative of class anxiety that you're talking about because it says, like, those people who don't want you to have guns, it's because they're billionaires and they don't want you, the people who mop their floors, to have guns.

OSNOS: Well, this is a response to a very specific change that's happened too in the politics of guns, which is that over the course of the last three or four years, some very prominent people have become associated with the gun-control movement. So, for instance, Mayor Bloomberg in New York has said that he will spend millions of dollars to try to prevent gun violence. And he has created organizations and has really been driving a change to try to step up the level of organization on the gun control side. At the same time, you've found that people who previously had no interest in the gun issue have taken an issue.

So, for instance, Kim Kardashian now tweets fairly regularly about the need for background checks and for gun control. She - also the NBA has done a series of public service announcements about the need for better regulation of guns. And in response, the NRA has had to come up with a message that explains why these people - people who you might have a few years ago not thought much about if you're a gun owner or didn't sort of perceive as an opponent - maybe you even liked Kim Kardashian - you now need to see them as an enemy because as that message put it, this is about one stratum of American life trying to, as they put it, disarm another stratum of American life.

And it's just driving this wedge, this very deep wedge, between the political, economic and cultural elites and the gun owners. And this is - you know, you almost have to give him credit. I think, you know, Donald Trump, after all, of course, holds himself out as the iconic American billionaire. And yet, at the same time, he puts himself in opposition to elites in America. He says, I'm not like them. I'm different. And, I think, from the very beginning, we have struggled to try to understand why it is that working-class Americans put their hopes in somebody like Donald Trump, who in many ways, has almost nothing in common with them.

But I think, it's because he is, in so many ways, doing kind of gleeful violence to American political norms. He really just - in everything he does, he says that the things that make you feel ashamed and the things that make you feel dumb and the things that make you feel put upon - all of those things can be rejected, and I will fix them. And so people almost forgive the fact that he's a billionaire because he says to them, I will change this.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Evan Osnos. He covers politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. His latest piece in The New Yorker is called "Making A Killing: The Business And Politics Of Selling Guns." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. We're talking about his article in the current New Yorker called "Making A Killing: The Business And Politics Of Selling Guns." The NRA very much advocates the loosening of gun restrictions, promotion of concealed carry. They oppose passing gun control legislation. You trace that form of NRA activism to 1977 when conservative activists wrested control from NRA leaders - NRA leaders who had in the past focused on rifle training and recreation. So what changed in 1977?

OSNOS: It was a response to the broader political developments of the time. You know, you remember, after all, this was a time in which the Republican Party was reorienting itself. Richard Nixon had been the law-and-order candidate. In some ways, he sort of crystallized the anxieties of a generation that had grown up in America and now looked around and looked at a more diverse country and felt as if they were losing ground. And they were afraid in many ways. I mean, there was an uptick in crime in the United States. And in many ways, the change in the NRA mirrored very closely the change that was going on in the Republican Party.

And what had happened was that the NRA, which had traditionally focused on training and on sportsmanship really, realized that its future was not in target practice. Its future was in becoming the vessel for a new kind of political movement, and that was the gun rights movement.

And in 1977, a new generation of leadership took over the NRA and pivoted the organization away from sports and the outdoors and said no, no, this is about protecting the rights of Americans who are being deprived, being deprived of their rights to carry a gun.

So then from 1977, the NRA became as we now know today one of the most effective lobbying organizations in the United States. And they went state by state and changed the laws in ways that would allow people to carry guns, carry concealed guns, in ways that they never had been allowed to before.

And it went from - two decades ago, for instance, it was illegal or strictly controlled in more than 20 states. And today, largely through the NRA's activism and lobbying, it's now legal in all 50 states. And the reason why concealed carry is important is because it is - it is actually sort of the heart of what the gun rights movement believes is the future. And that is the idea that you should be allowed legally and constitutionally to carry a gun almost anywhere.

GROSS: Well, the other thing about concealed carry is that it opens up a new market in a way. Concealed carry relies on very small guns and guns that you say had been dismissed in the past because they were so small but now they're really in demand because of concealed carry.

OSNOS: Yeah, this was a huge opportunity for the gun industry. Historically, after all, most guns were bought for hunting. You would buy a shotgun or a long gun rifle. And then because of all of the new opportunities to carry a concealed gun, the gun industry saw an enormous new opportunity to sell things. And, you know, hunting was on the decline.

And from the late 1970s to today, the number of households in America that have a hunter has dropped by half. And so the gun industry was actually in a - they had something of a problem. They had to figure out, well, where is this new demand going to come from? And so they began to promote a different kind of gun. They said, look, in all of these states, you can now carry a concealed weapon.

OSNOS: And so here are what's known as - they called them true pocket guns, or guns designed for maximum concealability. And they were very small. In many cases, these are guns that people used to make fun of in the past. They called them mouse calibers 'cause they were so small. But all of a sudden, because of innovations in ammunition and innovations in gun technology, these very small guns were now very lethal and you could use them in self-defense. And in fact most of the revenue that's generated by a gun company is generated by the sale of these very small compact or subcompact handguns that actually, you probably don't even know are around you if you go to the bank or you go to the food court at the mall. Chances are not insignificant that somebody there has a gun hidden in their in their bag or in their holster.

GROSS: So when we talk about concealed carry, what sets concealed carry apart from other now legal rights to own and carry guns?

OSNOS: Well, the concealed carry refers specifically to the right to be able to have a gun on your person invisible to the public while you're outside of the house. And the reason why that matters is that historically, perhaps ironically, most states already allowed people to carry a gun openly out in the open. And that's because police departments traditionally, I mean a hundred years ago, if somebody had a gun, they wanted to be able to see it. And so the thing they were worried about was actually a gun that was concealed. And so it took an effort by the NRA and others to try to create these new laws that would allow people to carry guns in a way that's hidden.

And I should say, you know, there is a there is a very small movement for what's called open carry, which is the idea that you, you know, carry a rifle out in the open as you go into Starbucks or have a gun on your hip as you go to the bank. But actually, a lot of gun owners really don't support that because they think it's counterproductive. It alienates moderates. It alienates people who might otherwise agree with them. So really, there's a much larger movement behind the idea that what they really want is for the opportunity to carry a gun that other people don't know about.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Evan Osnos. He has an article in the current New Yorker called "Making A Killing: The Business And Politics Of Selling Guns." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Evan Osnos. He writes for The New Yorker. His current article is called "Making A Killing: The Business And Politics Of Selling Guns." He covers politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. So you recount a very interesting story in terms of the pressure on the gun industry preventing them from taking certain precautionary steps with guns, like safety measures with smart guns. In 2000, Clinton and the then Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo made a deal with Smith and Wesson to develop a smart gun and to take steps to prevent dealers from selling to criminals. But when the deal went public, the NRA denounced Smith and Wesson as the first gun maker to run up the white flag of surrender. And then all hell broke loose for Smith and Wesson. What happened?

OSNOS: Well, almost overnight, there was a boycott that took hold against their products. And online on a lot of the gun blogs people were saying you shouldn't buy Smith and Wesson products. You should ignore them. And it had a - it had a pretty dramatic effect. The company had to shut down a couple of factories. Their sales plummeted, and their stock price began to drop. And it dropped, in fact, so fast that within a couple of years the company had been sold for a fraction of its value. And the CEO of the company at the time, Ed Schultz, was fired and he was threatened physically. He received a number of calls, people saying that they would - that they would harm him for having signed a deal with the Clinton administration that would introduce smart guns and other kinds of safety devices.

GROSS: So in 10 months, the Smith and Wesson stock lost 95 percent of its value. So that's a remarkable plummet. So what message do you think this sent to the larger gun industry about manufacturing smart guns or endorsing safety measures?

OSNOS: The message was indelible and quite explicit, which is that you must never make a deal with the government that will impose what they regard as mandatory features, mandatory safety features, things that are absolutely required because, as the gun organizations will say, that is the first step to much more stringent regulation and perhaps to taking guns away. And in fact, the message is - this is not subtle. Today, the current CEO of Smith and Wesson, named James Debney, has said in an interview we will really never forget that message, he says. That almost took down the company, as he puts it, and we will never make that mistake again.

GROSS: But it seems like smart guns are starting to catch on in a more high tech way. There's I think one or two prototypes in the works. And so that - I dont know exactly how it works, so forgive me for not - for being vague here, but it sounds more high tech than, like, a mechanical safety device. But that, it seems, would open up a whole new market. So maybe the gun industry would endorse it because of that reason because it would open a new market.

OSNOS: Well, I think there is a generation of entrepreneurs in the gun industry now who are very, very carefully introducing that idea. I spent time with one named Jonathan Mossberg who actually comes out of a very famous gun family. They produce the Mossberg shotgun, one of the most profitable, successful shotguns ever made. But Jonathan Mossberg, who's no longer with the company, has decided that actually the future of this market is to make a safe shotgun, something that couldn't be fired by anybody except its official owner, by the person who bought that gun or who has control.

And what it means is that you put a ring on your finger and then you can shoot this gun. If you don't have that ring, you can't shoot it, so a child, for instance, or a thief, somebody who made off with a gun in a burglary. But I think it's - you know, one thing that may be worth saying, Terry, is there are two reasons why the gun world is suspicious of smart guns. One's mechanical and one's political. The mechanical reason is that they say, well, we're afraid that those guns won't work in a pinch. So, you know, if I need this gun, if somebody breaks into my house one night, I need it. And I can't afford to have the batteries go dead or I can't afford a mechanical failure.

Or there's another slightly more paranoid version of that, which is that they say - and the NRA has said this - that they think that a smart gun could be used by the government to disable guns, so, for instance, to be able to turn off guns remotely. Obviously, the government says that's ludicrous. There's no way that they would do that. And they don't even have the capability.

And then there's a political reason. And the political reason is that if in fact the gun companies begin to cooperate with the government's request and pressure to create a smart, safer gun, well, that that will eventually drive out non-safe guns. And so that is - become really the essential political football here and it's an idea that you see constantly on gun blogs. And it's promoted by the NRA, the idea that if we allow and accept a new smart gun, well, then it's just a matter of time until all of the guns that you already have are going to be banned.

I have to point out it's worth saying nowhere in the gun control movement, nowhere in the government's own discussion of gun - of guns and smart guns is there any talk about getting rid of the 310 million non-smart guns that are out there in United States. But it's become a very powerful idea.

GROSS: There's a gun case in Connecticut right now that you think is very important. What is that case?

OSNOS: That case has been brought by parents of students who were killed at Sandy Hook and by one of the survivors. And that case focuses on the marketing of guns. They've sued Remington Arms, which made the gun that was used in that massacre. And what they've said is that that gun was marketed to civilians in a way that violates fair trade practices because they say that's a military weapon. It belongs, as they put it in their case, on the streets of Fallujah, not in Connecticut.

This is a - kind of an original approach because what they're doing is going really at the heart of the vulnerability of the gun movement. The gun industry is protected by a law that was passed in 2005 called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. It's unique, really, in the history of American capitalism. And what it does is it protects gun companies against any kind of lawsuit that seeks to seek - that tries to get civil damages because the gun was misused or used in a crime.

And what this lawsuit has been able to do - a lot of people thought it was going to be thrown out before it got this far. But it has figured out a way to get its way into the courts and getting around the edges of this law known as PLCAA. And it runs the possibility that it will force Remington Arms to open up its archives in the course of discovery and to open, for the lawyers and ultimately then for the public, a look into how they make the decisions to market to who they market to, how do they choose to call a military-style weapon suitable for civilian life, how do they, for instance, coordinate with video game makers, if that's what they do. How do they market their products on the internet?

All of these issues which have become - which have been sort of largely hidden. I mean, the gun industry is enormously secretive. It's very hard to write about. And then what this case does is it raises the possibility of a look inside an industry that is very hard to see from the outside.

GROSS: Well, Evan Osnos, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

OSNOS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Evan Osnos - his article about the politics and business of selling guns is in the current issue of The New Yorker.

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GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Tony Hale who plays Gary on HBO's "Veep" and our interview about how fish have feelings too, check out our podcast. You'll find those and other interviews. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.

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