By Kate Pickert / Los Angeles
September 18, 2014

On the afternoon of July 24, Psychiatrist Lee Silverman found himself crouching behind a chair in his office as bullets whizzed by his head. A colleague at Mercy Health System in Darby, Pa., lay dead several feet away, shot in the head. And now Richard Plotts, a 49-year-old patient with a .32-caliber revolver in his hand, had turned the gun on Silverman, according to police.

In between being shot in the thumb and grazed on the face by a bullet, Silverman reached into his pocket and retrieved a loaded semiautomatic handgun. He shot Plotts several times before two other hospital employees wrestled the patient to the ground. Authorities later said Plotts was carrying 39 additional bullets and may have planned to kill others.

Mercy Health has a no-gun policy that Silverman violated when he brought his loaded firearm to work. But Silverman has a concealed-weapon permit, which gave him the right to be armed in public. For gun-rights activists, the episode proves that everyone is safer when ordinary citizens are armed. After the 2012 shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children and six adults dead, Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, said the incident served as a call for more guns in public spaces, not fewer. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said.

For many Americans, that logic made sense. According to the federal General Accounting Office, there were at least 8 million active concealed-weapon permits in the U.S. in 2011. State-level statistics indicate the number has risen by at least 1 million in the years since.

At the same time, gun-rights advocates have been busy in statehouses and courthouses removing restrictions on who can carry guns and where they can go with them. In 1987, fewer than 10 states made it easy to get a concealed-weapon permit, and some outlawed them altogether. Today, all 50 states allow residents to carry hidden firearms in public, and fewer than 10 have tight restrictions on the books.

And the trend appears to be accelerating: In South Carolina, where conceal-and-carry permits more than doubled from 2011 to 2013, residents won the right in February to bring loaded weapons into bars and restaurants. In Idaho, lawmakers made it legal in March to pack heat on college campuses. A Georgia measure that took effect in July is so permissive that it’s known by gun-control advocates as the “guns everywhere” law, permitting, at least in theory, weapons in bars, churches and parts of airports and government buildings unless prohibited by local ordinances or business owners. On Sept. 10, the Missouri state legislature cleared the way for a law that allows concealed-permit holders to carry their guns openly throughout the state. The law also lowers the minimum age to get a concealed permit from 21 to 19. On the day of the Mercy shooting, a federal judge added Washington, D.C., to the list of places where it’s legal to carry a pistol in public, overturning the city’s prohibition as unconstitutional. (The decision has been stayed pending appeal.)

This Is the Law of the Land

In 19th century America, carrying a gun in public was common, but it was almost always done openly. Concealing a weapon was considered underhanded. In the 1920s and ’30s, some states actively barred citizens from carrying concealed weapons without a license, leaving local authorities to decide who should be allowed to carry. But after the U.S. violent-crime rate more than tripled from 1960 to 1980, pressure mounted for states to make it easier for the general public to carry hidden firearms.

After a concerted lobbying campaign by gun activists, Florida enacted a law in 1987 allowing nearly any law-abiding adult to get a concealed-carry permit, sparking a national movement to widen access. Today, some 1.3 million Floridians are licensed to carry, up from about 330,000 in 2004, and most other states have followed suit legislatively or by court order.

In some places, local law-enforcement officials are trying to halt this momentum with little success. In the face of vocal opposition from Chicago’s police superintendent, Illinois in 2013 became the last state to pass a law permitting concealed carry after a federal court ruled a state ban unconstitutional. According to the state police, which began issuing permits in January, 88,995 Illinois residents have already applied.

Orange County, California, has seen some 7,500 residents apply for permits since February, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a state law that had allowed county sheriffs and chiefs of police to decide who should be allowed to carry concealed weapons. Before the ruling, most applicants in the state’s urban counties were denied permission to carry, while rural counties were more lenient. Orange County tended to fall in the middle, issuing permits to those who could prove they had good cause to believe their personal safety was under particular threat. Judges and bail bondsmen often made the cut, while ordinary citizens often did not.

The decision in the California case, Edward Peruta v. County of San Diego, is being challenged by California’s attorney general, and legal experts say it could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court this year or next as a final test of whether states and local authorities have a constitutional right to exercise discretion over concealed-carry permits. “If the Peruta decision stands, it will make it harder for law enforcement in urban areas to limit the number of guns on the street,” says Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and author of the book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. “It would take geography out of it.”

The ruling has led to a permitting patchwork in California, where sheriffs in some counties have refused to clear the way for more concealed-weapon permits. “Until there’s a more definitive decision our policy will remain the same,” says Ross Murkarimi, the sheriff of San Francisco County. Murkarimi has not issued a single concealed-weapon permit during his two years in office. In Los Angeles County, the sheriff’s department oversees fewer than 300 active permits.

But in Orange County, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has been more responsive, striking the “good cause” policy from the books and opening access to permits for almost any law-abiding adult. The stance is a turnaround for Hutchens, who had worked to restrict concealed-weapon permits and even revoked some issued by her predecessor after taking office in 2008. “I don’t buy into the theory that a place is necessarily safer because more people have concealed-weapons permits,” says Hutchens. “But that is the law of the land to date, and we should start to follow that.”

The lack of geographic uniformity when it comes to concealed-carry laws is why Shaneen Allen, a Philadelphia mother of two, is facing possible prison time. Allen got a handgun and a concealed-weapon permit in her home state of Pennsylvania after she said she was robbed twice in a year. She had her gun less than a week when she was pulled over for a traffic violation in New Jersey, which does not honor gun licenses from other states. Allen was charged with unlawful possession of a handgun; she pleaded not guilty and could face trial in October, although the matter is now under review by the local prosecutor. The case has galvanized gun-rights activists who say strict concealed-weapon laws in the handful of states that still have them put well-meaning, law-abiding gun owners at risk of criminal prosecution.

The Well-Armed Woman

The Allen case is a reminder of another unexpected trend: among the newly armed, state statistics show, an increasing number are women. In Tennessee, the number of concealed-weapon-permit holders increased 69% from 2012 to 2013, but among women the increase was 82%. In Florida, the number of female concealed-weapon-permit holders doubled from 2010 to 2014, while male permit holders increased 59%.

Carrie Lightfoot, 53, got her first gun and concealed-weapon permit in 2008 after her four grown children had moved out. “My kids were gone, and all of a sudden I felt vulnerable,” she says. Lightfoot became a regular at a shooting range near her Scottsdale, Ariz., home but says she was turned off by the male-oriented gun culture she encountered. “There were babes with machine guns, but there was nothing intelligent or straightforward for women,” she says. So in 2012, Lightfoot launched a company called the Well-Armed Woman that manufactures and sells gun accessories and boasts a female-gun-enthusiast program that has 200 chapters in 44 states.

Lightfoot’s lavender-hued website offers a wide selection of holsters and concealed-carry bags designed for women. The Flashbang holster, a device that allows a woman to attach a small handgun to her bra, is a popular item, as is a waistband holster available in pink, key lime and leopard print. The Well-Armed Woman website also features videos training women how to shoot through handbags if they don’t have enough time to draw their guns before firing.

Lightfoot cautions, however, that carrying a gun in a purse has its drawbacks. The bags can get stolen or left unattended, and children can rifle through them. “I ask women,” she says, “‘When you’re at the grocery store and you go to get a tomato, is your purse left sitting there?'”

Like many people who carry their weapons in bags, cars or hidden under clothing, Lightfoot loathes groups like Open Carry Texas, which has organized public demonstrations at which gun owners gather to collectively brandish assault rifles or other weapons. “It makes people uncomfortable,” she says. For many of the women who are carrying guns, the appeal is not a symbolic demonstration of their Second Amendment rights but because they are afraid of being victims. “In the previous generation we were a protected gender,” says Lightfoot. Women today “are single and working. They have to move around the world, but they can’t do it with a male protector. We’ve had to learn to protect ourselves.”

Guns and Guacamole

The boom in both open and concealed gun packing has coincided, advocates often note, with a dramatic decrease in crime. In 1993, there were 747 violent crimes per 100,000 Americans; by 2012, the figure had fallen to 387 per 100,000, according to the Department of Justice. Some Second Amendment advocates tout research that links the falling crime rate to all those hidden holsters. Those studies are heavily disputed if not discredited. What’s not in dispute is that allowing more citizens to carry loaded guns in public has not led to an uptick in violence.

“The prediction was blood in the streets and that every fender bender was going to turn into a shooting,” says Eugene Volokh, a professor at UCLA and a leading constitutional-law expert. “It didn’t happen.” When someone with a concealed weapon does use it in a way that seems excessive–as in the Trayvon Martin case–something else seems to occur: widely publicized shootings often lead to a run on guns, amid fears a crackdown is coming.

Which is not to say the conceal-and-carry movement has not had its share of problems. In a Florida movie theater on Jan. 13, 71-year-old Curtis Reeves Jr. used his legal concealed weapon to shoot and kill 43-year-old Chad Oulson. Police say Reeves was incensed that Oulson was texting and shot the father of two in the chest in the darkened theater. (Reeves has been charged with second-degree murder and pleaded not guilty.) On July 26, an 86-year-old man with a new concealed-carry permit opened fire on a suspected armed robber fleeing a store in Crestwood, Ill., according to police. A local cop pursuing the suspect on foot had to abandon chase and duck for cover.

Still, says Dave Kopel, an associate policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute and a Second Amendment scholar, “You do not have permit holders going off en masse, starting fights and acting inappropriately.” Kopel has a concealed-weapon permit and says he regularly carries a hidden handgun around his hometown of Denver. This includes trips to the Cherry Creek Shopping Center, one of the city’s largest malls. “There are thousands of people there, and statistically that means there will be dozens of people carrying at any time,” says Kopel.

If that image is something most shoppers never think about when they hit the malls, it is something many retailers do. In response to the increasing number of people carrying guns inside their stores, Chipotle and Starbucks recently asked customers to refrain from arming themselves when they venture out for burritos and lattes. Target did the same in July, saying in a statement, “Bringing firearms to Target creates an environment that is at odds with the family-friendly shopping and work experience we strive to create.”

And yet there is the risk that banning guns can turn your business into a proving ground. Disneyland, located in Orange County, doesn’t allow firearms–carried openly or concealed–into the park, which helps explain why some enthusiasts boast in online forums about getting holstered weapons past the theme park’s security. In a 2009 post titled “Carried for my first time in Disneyland,” one poster describes wearing a hidden gun inside a waistband at the park: “Went just fine with no problems at all.” A Disneyland spokeswoman affirmed the park’s no-gun policy and declined to describe its security procedures, for fear of exposing weaknesses in the system.

Lightfoot of the Well-Armed Woman says she almost never leaves her house without her gun. Hutchens, the Orange County sheriff, takes a different approach. As a young deputy in the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department, Hutchens once shot and killed a man in the line of duty. Today she wears her gun while in uniform but sometimes leaves it at home when she’s off the clock. “If I’m going out for dinner or whatever, I don’t feel like I’ve gotta carry a gun,” she says. “Here, I just feel safe.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the September 29, 2014 issue of TIME.

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