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

A marksman sights in on a target during a class for an Illinois concealed carry permit in February 2014.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
A marksman sights in on a target during a class for an Illinois concealed carry permit in February 2014.

The mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando has led to a revival of the debate over assault weapons, but journalist Evan Osnos says the real growth in gun ownership is from small, concealed handguns.

"Something really profound has changed in the way that we use guns," Osnos tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Concealed carry, as it's known, is now legal in all 50 states."

Osnos, who writes about the evolution of concealed carry in the current issue ofThe New Yorker, estimates that there are about 13 million people who are licensed to carry a concealed gun in the United States — more than 12 times the number of police officers and detectives in America.

He says that gun manufacturers market a "concealed-carry lifestyle," which uses fear to sell guns.

"If you are somebody who is 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," he says.

The concealed-carry movement is central to the gun-rights platform of organizations like the National Rifle Association, Osnos adds.

"The idea that you should be allowed, legally and constitutionally, to carry a gun almost anywhere ... is actually sort of the heart of what the gun rights movement believes is the future," he says.

Interview Highlights

On how the way we use guns has changed

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 "promiscuous toting of guns." He said it has no place in everyday life.

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."

... in order to justify its existence, [the concealed-carry movement] has to remind people, it has to persuade people, in effect, that the world is a dangerous place for them.

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 is now legal in all 50 states. ... So something really profound has changed in the way that we use guns in America.

On taking a gun class and being told to assume that others are armed

This is one of the really complicated pieces of 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.

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 had been in that situation? Perhaps you would've 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 "But God forbid we ever have to use our guns." And what I've found was that it's an atmosphere of heightened anxiety.

On the marketing of a "concealed-carry lifestyle"

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 ... the U.S. Concealed Carry Association, which is this business based in Wisconsin that really sort of presents itself as a membership organization designed to look out for your interests and provide 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.

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. What you find is that in a sense, 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.

On a gun-ownership statistic that he finds revealing

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. That's not something that you hear about very often when you go out to purchase a gun.

On the original approach of a lawsuit brought by Sandy Hook parents

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 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 and Arms Act. It's unique, really, in the history of American capitalism. What it does is it protects gun companies against any kind of lawsuit that tries to get civil damages because the gun was misused or used in a crime.

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. ... 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?

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