Concealed Carry Nation: Understanding Armed Citizens in 21st Century America


On July 20th of this year, James Holmes entered a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises through an exit door at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. He was dressed in tactical gear and carrying a shotgun, semi-automatic pistol, and a military style semi-automatic rifle. He proceeded to set off tear gas grenades and shoot into the audience, ultimately killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Less than three weeks later, white supremacist Wade Michael Page used a 9mm semi-automatic pistol he bought a week earlier to shoot worshipers at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek. Six of his victims died.

These stories can easily be integrated into the narrative of gun violence and the need for greater gun control that has been prominent in American society since the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy in the 1960s. Indeed, editorials calling for greater gun control in the wake of the Aurora shooting could be found in newspapers from California to New York. (“Tragedy Shows Need for Gun Control,” San Francisco Chronicle, 20 July 2012; “The Shootings in Colorado,” New York Times 21 July 2012). Similarly, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence released a statement: “This tragedy is another grim reminder that guns are the enablers of mass killers and that our nation pays an unacceptable price for our failure to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”[i]

But there is a second narrative that coexists with the first, one focused on personal protection through firearms. This view is as old as America itself (Cramer 2006), but in the past thirty years it has taken on new life as some have increasingly promoted the idea of the “armed citizen”: the right and duty of civilians to carry concealed firearms in public. In a post-Aurora “HandgunWorld Podcast” episode, host Bob Mayne suggested to his listeners that “a well-trained concealed carrier . . . might have been able to slow that guy down. Maybe fewer people would have been killed, don’t you think? . . . If you can put six rounds on him in short order, you are going to make him slow down.” For Mayne, the incident reinforced his belief in the motto, “I carry a gun because I can’t carry a cop.” Similarly, Tom Gresham, host of the nationally syndicated radio program “Gun Talk,” said to his listeners in the wake of the Sikh Temple shooting, “There is one question you have to ask yourself . . . The question is simply this: Why are you not carrying?”[ii]

Increasingly in American society, ordinary citizens are carrying firearms. As with the incidents at Virginia Tech and U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ event in Tucson, gun sales surge after mass shootings. The Denver Post reported that interest in gun purchases in Colorado increased by 43 percent in the immediate aftermath of the Batman shooting – 2,887 individuals cleared state background checks in the three days following the shooting, including 1,216 on the day after (Burnett 2012).[iii] To be sure, some will purchase a gun after a mass shooting because they fear gun control measures are imminent, but news stories strongly suggest that many buyers are motivated by a desire for personal protection. More difficult to track in the short run is applications for concealed weapons permits (CWPs), which would give the gun owner the legal right to carry their weapon in public. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that these too have risen since Aurora. The Denver Post story quoted Dion Studinski, who said of his concealed carry classes at Firing-Line gun store and range in Aurora, “We’ve definitely had an increase.” The Associated Press interviewedDick Rutan, owner of Gunners Den in Arvada, Colorado, who said requests for concealed weapon training certification “are off the hook.” Rutan added, “What they’re saying is: They want to have a chance. They want to have the ability to protect themselves and their families if they are in a situation like what happened in the movie theater.” The AP also reported that in Washington State’s King County requests for concealed pistol licenses doubled following the Aurora shooting over the same period the previous year (Associated Press 2012).

Laws regulating the concealed carrying of firearms by ordinary citizens are relatively recent in American history. After World War I, many states began requiring individuals to have CWPs, and gave various officials (police chiefs, judges) broad discretion in issuing such permits. This discretion meant CWPs were issued rarely and unevenly. Over the course of the 20th century, particularly in the last third, there was a shift toward state passage of “shall-issue” laws (Cramer and Kopel 1994). These laws require state or local authorities to issue a CWP to an applicant that meets the objective statutory criteria if no statutory reasons for denial exist (GAO 2012:5). As Grossman and Lee (2008:200) report, through 1979, only two states had “shall-issue” laws – Washington (1961) and Connecticut (1969). 12 more states passed such laws in the 1980s, followed by 16 states in the 1990s, and 7 states in the 2000s, most recently Wisconsin in 2012. Adding to these “shall-issue” states the 4 “no permit required” states (Alaska, Arizona, Vermont, Wyoming), in 41 of 50 states individuals either do not need or have a right to receive a CWP. Eight other states are classified as “may-issue”: issuing authorities can grant CWPs but have the right to apply discretion – e.g., determining the need or moral character of the applicant – in deciding to whom they issue permits.[iv] In only one state, Illinois (and the District of Columbia) is no concealed carry of a firearm allowed whatsoever (GAO 2012:73–74).

As concealed carry laws have been liberalized, the number of CWP holders has grown. In response to a Congressional request for information about concealed weapon permitting in the states, the GAO issued a report in July 2012 which found that “there were at least 8 million active permits to carry concealed handguns in the United States as of December 31, 2011” (GAO 2012:1). This amounts to at least 3.5 percent of the eligible U.S. population (adults who are legally allowed to possess guns). The portion of individual state populations with a CWP varies, but shall-issue states like Georgia (600,000 permits, 11.5%), Iowa (243,000 permits, 10.9%), and South Dakota (62,000 permits, 10.6%) have the highest rates in the country. It would surely surprise many to know that one out of every ten adult citizens in these states is potentially legally armed in public, not to mention 3 to 4 out of every 100 Americans overall.[v] There is some truth to the claim that America is becoming a concealed carry nation.

Social scientists have sought to understand the reality of guns in America primarily through closed-ended surveys. According to the 1994 National Survey of the Private Ownership of Firearms, 46 percent of gun owners – 41 percent for males and 67 percent for females – cited self-protection as the primary reason for ownership. The figures rise to 63 percent among those who own a handgun (57% for males, 84% for females), and to 74 percent for those who own only handguns (Cook and Ludwig 1996:38–39). Why exactly these individuals feel the need for self-protection is not clearly established in the literature. The dominant approach attributes the need to fear of crime, perceived risk, and experience of victimization, but as Kleck et al. (2011:313) note, “Studies assessing the effect of fear/risk and criminal victimization on gun ownership have obtained wildly varying results.” They attribute this to methodological problems – in measuring gun ownership and establishing causal order using cross-sectional data – that can be partially overcome through better surveys and more sophisticated statistical analyses, though closed-ended surveys will always fall short of understanding the subjective motivations, emotions, and decision-making processes that are related to affective fear, cognitive risk assessment, victimization experience, and gun ownership choices.

Actually carrying a firearm is related to ownership, though carrying entails a level of seriousness beyond keeping a gun in one’s home for personal protection. Using data from the 1993 National Self-Defense Survey, Kleck and Gertz (1998) found 3.8 percent of respondents reported carrying a gun on their person (distinct from in their vehicle) – slightly more than 7 million carriers. These individuals also reported carrying firearms 138 days per year, on average, which suggests almost 2.7 million individuals carrying guns on their person on an average day (Kleck and Gertz 1998:208). The characteristics of individuals who are consistently found to be more likely to carry firearms are Southerners and Westerners, African Americans, and men, along with individuals who have experienced or fear victimization (Felson and Pare 2010; Kleck and Gertz 1998). Unfortunately, these figures do not distinguish between those who carry legally versus illegally, or those who carry with defensive intent versus criminal intent. And theoretical explanations for why these categories of individuals are more likely to carry also remain rudimentary.

Surveys tell us a little bit about a lot of people. This is their strength and weakness. In trying to understand the motivations and decision-making process of individuals who acquire guns and carry them, we need to get below the surface gloss provided by these statistics. A few scholars have begun to approach the issue more qualitatively. Perhaps most significantly, in Language of the Gun, Bernard Harcourt (2006) gives voice to teenagers who have carried firearms. He gets into the meaning, symbolism, and emotion of carrying guns for them. Unfortunately, his findings are restricted to a certain class of teenagers: incarcerated repeat offenders. By contrast, anthropologist Abigail Kohn (2004) gives her attention to individuals who legally and enthusiastically own guns. But her exploration of “America’s gun cultures” is similarly limited, based largely on an analysis of members of the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) in the San Francisco Bay Area. In other words, she examines a fringe group in a fringe area of the gun culture. In the recent Flea Market Jesus, Arthur Farnsley (2012) follows a similar path as a participant observer in the annual gathering of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association (NMLRA) in Friendship, Indiana. Studying what Fine (1979) calls “idiocultures” – the local cultures that emerge from and guide the social interactions of concrete groups like the NMLRA and SASS is an important sociological enterprise, and the tradeoff between specificity and generalizability is inherent in this line of work. But it is nonetheless possible to study particular social groups that are closer to the heart of America’s gun culture than teen offenders, cowboy action shoots, and muzzle loaders.

As these gaps in the scholarly literature suggest, the culture and practice of legal concealed carrying still begs for greater understanding. Indeed, the National Institutes of Justice Firearms Topical Working Group, meeting in 2011, highlighted some areas in which further research is needed:

Studies of defensive gun use to date have focused primarily on estimating the number of times guns are used to prevent crimes. The NRC report identified the limitations of these approaches and established what appears to be today a reasonable estimate of the range of the number of times guns are used to prevent crimes. The next step in this research area should focus on the process of defensive gun use. This would be an effort to move beyond an estimation of extent to an understanding of the decision process that occurs during a potential crime in which a potential victim uses a gun to deter the criminal. The same kinds of studies should be undertaken in the topical area of right-to-carry. While the debate continues on the impact of right-to-carry laws on crime, almost no information is available on when and where individuals who have been granted the right to carry a weapon actually use the weapon to deter crime. Nor have there been detailed cost/benefit analyses of the actual use of guns for defensive purposes. Getting into the “black box” of defensive gun use will allow us to move beyond debates about te extent of defensive gun use to an understanding of when and how it happens. (National Institute of Justice 2011)

The research I am proposing to conduct also tried to enlighten the “black box” of defensive gun use by asking and answering several related questions that are logically prior to those the NIJ Working Group pose:

  • How and why do new gun owners decide to purchase a gun in the first place?
  • What motivates people to seek to legally carry firearms in public for purposes of self-defense?
  • What do people learn about their legal and moral obligations when carrying a concealed weapon in their required CCW classes, and elsewhere?
  • What training do people avail themselves of beyond what is required once they decide to carry concealed?

Addressing these questions will allow me to explore the complex decision-making that goes into the choice of a new shooter to acquire a gun, to seek a license to carry it, and then to exercise that license by actually carrying. This exploration necessarily entails putting these decisions in the broader context of the gun culture that shapes and enables these decisions.


Associated Press. 2012. “Gun sales surging in wake of ‘Dark Knight Rises’ shooting.” New York Post. Retrieved October 3, 2012 (

Burnett, Sara. 2012. “Aurora theater shooting: Gun sales up since tragedy.” Denver Post, July 25 Retrieved October 6, 2012 (

Cook, Philip J., and Jens Ludwig. 1996. Guns in America: Results of a comprehensive national survey on firearms ownership and use. Washington, DC: Police Foundation.

Cramer, Clayton E. 2006. Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How And Why Guns Became As American As Apple Pie. Thomas Nelson Inc.

Cramer, Clayton E., and David B. Kopel. 1994. “Shall Issue: The New Wave of Concealed Handgun Permit Laws.” Tenn. L. Rev. 62:679–757. Retrieved October 2, 2012.

Farnsley, Arthur E. 2012. Flea Market Jesus. Cascade Books.

Felson, Richard B., and Paul-Philippe Pare. 2010. “Gun Cultures or Honor Cultures? Explaining Regional and Race Differences in Weapon Carrying.” Social Forces 88(3):1357–1378.

Fine, Gary Alan. 1979. “Small Groups and Culture Creation: The Idioculture of Little League Baseball Teams.” American Sociological Review 44(5):733–745.

GAO. 2012. Gun Control: States’ Laws and Requirements for Concealed Carry Permits Vary across the Nation. United States Government Accountability Office Retrieved October 4, 2012 (

Grossman, Richard S., and Stephen A. Lee. 2008. “May Issue versus Shall Issue: Explaining the Pattern of Concealed-Carry Handgun laws, 1960-2001.” Contemporary Economic Policy 26(2):198–206. Retrieved October 3, 2012.

Harcourt, Bernard E. 2006. Language of the Gun: Youth, Crime, and Public Policy. University Of Chicago Press.

Kleck, G., and M. Gertz. 1998. “Carrying guns for protection: results from the National Self-Defense Survey.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 35(2):193–224. Retrieved October 2, 2012.

Kleck, G., T. Kovandzic, M. Saber, and W. Hauser. 2011. “The effect of perceived risk and victimization on plans to purchase a gun for self-protection.” Journal of Criminal Justice 39(4):312–319. Retrieved October 1, 2012.

Kohn, Abigail A. 2004. Shooters: Myths and Realities of America’s Gun Cultures. Oxford University Press, USA.

National Institute of Justice. 2011. “Firearms Topical Working Group Meeting Summary 2011.” National Institute of Justice. Retrieved October 5, 2012 (


[i] Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, “We Don’t Want Sympathy From The President Or Other Elected Officials; We Invite Americans To Join Our Campaign To Hold Politicians Accountable To Act,” 20 July 2012,, Retrieved 3 October 2012.

[ii] Bob Mayne, HandgunWorld Podcast, Episode 190, 28 July 2012; Tom Gresham, GunTalk, 5 August 2012.

[iii] This number is not equivalent to actual gun sales because not everyone who clears a background check will end up purchasing a firearm, and some who do will purchase more than one gun.

[iv] “May-issue” states as of 2012 are Alabama, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York. The distinction between “shall-issue” and “may-issue” is significant. For example, Hawaii is a may-issue state but reported to the GAO that there were no active concealed carry permits in the state at the end of 2011. California and Maryland do issue some permits, but the restrictiveness of the process there results in just 35,000 permits in California (0.1% of adults over 20 years of age) and 12,000 permits in Maryland (0.3%). This contrasts sharply with shall-issue states like Georgia (600,000 permits, 11.5%), Iowa (243,000 permits, 10.9%), and South Dakota (62,000 permits, 10.6%).

[v] Obviously, not everyone who holds a CWP carries a firearm in public, and even in states with liberal carry laws there are many restrictions on carrying. In Florida, for example, among the restricted locations listed in Section 790.06 (12) of the Florida Statutes are: police stations, jails, courthouses, polling places, government meetings, elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, sporting events (not related to firearms), any establishment dispensing alcohol, and airports.


Published by David Yamane

Sociologist at Wake Forest U, student of gun culture, tennis player, racket stringer (MRT), whisk(e)y drinker, bow-tie wearer, father, husband. Not necessarily in that order.

One thought on “Concealed Carry Nation: Understanding Armed Citizens in 21st Century America

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: