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Does Carrying A Pistol Make You Safer?

There is a pistol-packing revolution going on in America. Nearly 13 million Americans have permits to carry concealed handguns — triple the number just nine years ago — and that figure is low because not every state reports.

It's puzzling that so many Americans are choosing to arm 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, I drove out to the Texas Firearms Festival, an outdoor gun extravaganza held near Austin where firearms fanciers get to shoot everything they see.

I'm not saying that being armed is gonna save your life, but at least you have an effective tool to mount some kind of defense.

"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," says festival producer Robert Farago. "I'm not saying that being armed is gonna save your life, but at least you have an effective tool to mount some kind of defense."

High school counselor Janna Delany, who carries a Ruger LC9, is more concerned about crime than mass shootings.

"It's more just for me personally to give myself a little bit of peace of mind, somebody trying to carjack me or hold me up at a gas station or stopped at a red light or something," Delany says.

Retired Houston homicide detective Brian Foster has a booth at the festival where he sells "politically incorrect" books.

"Police cannot take care of citizens," he says. "They react after the fact. I spent many years dealing with cadavers."

How Does Carrying A Gun Change You?

One thing is certain: Carrying around a loaded weapon and 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 say they're more aware of how people look and how they act.

"I pay attention to different people, weird people, maybe stereotype people," says Sam Blackburn, a diesel mechanic from Georgetown, Texas, who attended the firearms fest in an NRA cap. He carries a 9 mm Smith & Wesson.

What is he looking for, specifically?

"Gangbanger-looking guys, maybe guys that look like they're up to no good or somebody that may think they're a Muslim extremist or something like that," Blackburn says.

Carrying a 2-pound steel appliance around like a cellphone doesn't only change the way a person thinks, it changes the way they move.

"It's exciting. I won't lie to you. There's some visceral response that you get from carrying a firearm," says Doug Miller. He owns a small IT company in Austin and teaches Israeli self-defense classes on the side. "But after about 30 seconds, it becomes, 'Is this gonna be comfortable when I sit down? It's digging into my hip because my car has upholstered seats. That's really not that comfortable.' "

What Do Women Think About Guns?

A Girl & A Gun is a women's shooting league that started in Central Texas and has now gone national.

Robyn Sandoval, executive director of A Girl & A Gun, aims a rifle.
/ Courtesy of A Girl and A Gun
Courtesy of A Girl and A Gun
Robyn Sandoval, executive director of A Girl & A Gun, aims a rifle.

Executive Director Robyn Sandoval says carrying a handgun has become an extension of motherhood, a way to protect her children.

"Family situational awareness is a big deal," she says. "When we go to a restaurant, my 9-year-old [is thinking] who looks suspicious? What are people doing? What's an anomaly. Let's point out people in their cars. We make a game of it, of who can find somebody in their car just sitting there."

The gun girls talk about their firearms differently than men do. Guys speak of them as tools; these women talk about them like pets.

"We name our guns," Sandoval says, "I have Francesca, Dolly, Gracie. And we talk about 'em like, 'I'm takin' Gracie to the mall with us.'

"My small one is my Baby," says schoolteacher Bettylane Chambliss. "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.' "

When Can You Pull The Trigger?

Despite the pet names, there's 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 kill someone they feel threatened by.

Michael Cargill, a popular handgun instructor in Austin, had this to say: "You pull that gun out, your life is gonna change." He's right.

Of the millions of Americans who get a concealed handgun permit, only a tiny fraction ever use them. Pro-gun folks compare it to a fire extinguisher in the home — you have it just in case.

But what happens when someone actually fires their weapon in self-defense? I met three concealed handgun permit (CPL) holders in Detroit who pulled the trigger.

Life-Changing And Traumatic: Darrell Standberry

"I was parked at the pump right in front of the gas station. I exited my vehicle and before I could even get to the door of the gas station, the young man was already sitting in the driver's seat of my vehicle," says Standberry, who just earned a degree in green energy technology. He'd left his Yukon XL running with the key in the ignition.

Darrell Standberry — from Detroit — shot and killed a 19-year-old who tried to steal his car.
/ Courtesy of Darrell Standberry
Courtesy of Darrell Standberry
Darrell Standberry — from Detroit — shot and killed a 19-year-old who tried to steal his car.

He says he told the young man to get out of his car. The young man told him to step back. That's when Standberry says he saw the carjacker reach toward his pocket.

Standberry unholstered his Sig Sauer .45, reached through the passenger-side window, and fired one shot. He hit the carjacker in the torso. Gravely wounded, the carjacker drove away, crashed into a tree and died. Police found a pistol in his pocket.

"It changed a lot in my life," he says. "Matter of fact, in my English class, I just did a report on it. I named it, 'The incident that changed my life forever.' "

Standberry went to counseling. He became fearful of gas stations. And he carried the burden of killing a 19-year-old.

"You know why? Because my son was 19 at the same time. It really bothered me that I had to take a 19-year-old's life. His life was just beginning. But he was into the wrong things. To this day, I still ask God for forgiveness," he says.

Caught In A Gunfight: Alaina Gonville

Gonville is a mother of three, a big woman who works as a bouncer at a Detroit bar.

Alaina Gonville works as a bouncer in Detroit. Gonville was shot after being approached by robbers outside a grocery store.
/ Courtesy of Alaina Gonville
Courtesy of Alaina Gonville
Alaina Gonville works as a bouncer in Detroit. Gonville was shot after being approached by robbers outside a grocery store.

Gonville was coming home from work late at night. She'd stopped at a store for a bottle of papaya juice. A scrawny guy walked up, pulled out a pistol and demanded her money. His accomplices were watching from a car behind him. As it happened, Alaina was carrying her pistol openly on her hip.

"I'm assuming they saw my gun. That's when they opened fire from their vehicle. I heard the gunshots coming at me. That's when I pulled my gun and returned fire," she says.

She doesn't know if she hit them or not. The robber bolted. His henchmen sped out of the parking lot, spraying Gonville and her car with military-grade bullets.

"I got shot with an AK-47, and it basically blew my arm off. It was dangling. I carried it into the hospital. After four surgeries and a lot of prayer it's healed about 70 percent," she says.

Did she think that having a handgun that night saved her life or endangered her more?

"That's a good question. I replayed the situation in my head over and over. I can't say, but I'm glad I had it," she says.

In Trouble For Thwarting Shoplifters: Tatiana Rodriguez

Born in Colombia, Rodriguez owns a small tree-trimming business in a Detroit suburb. Last October, she was outside a Home Depot loading some materials into her truck.

"A lady comes screaming through the door for help, and somebody [was] running," she says.

A man was running into the parking lot pushing a shopping cart full of merchandise. Rodriguez used to work at Home Depot, and she knows the company policy: Don't pursue shoplifters. But she says she thought this was more serious because a lady was screaming.

She saw the shoplifters getting away in an SUV. She had her Heckler and Koch 9 mm.

"So I take my gun out and I point at the car when he was coming towards us. I jump to the side and decide to shoot out the tires to stop them," she says.

In Michigan, it's illegal for a citizen to use deadly force to stop a property crime. Rodriguez got 18 months of probation for reckless discharge of a weapon and had her gun license revoked. She thinks the punishment would have been harsher, but the cops caught the shoplifters after she shot out their tires.

Her story got lots of news coverage. It turned into a case study of when not to use your pistol.

"It was not my intention to do anything wrong. I was just trying to help somebody who really needed it. And it backfired on me. So what do you learn? It's like you have to think a lot before you help somebody," she says.

For this story, I contacted firearms instructors and lawyers who reached out to dozens of handgun carriers who had pulled the trigger in self-defense. To my surprise, very few wanted to talk.

Some had been arrested by the police or sued afterward, and had spent thousands of dollars on legal fees. They didn't want to be dragged into the media spotlight again. Others were just traumatized by the whole experience.

Gonville urges people to think long and hard before they carry a gun.

"A lot of times I believe people are just playing around and they think it's cool to have a gun," she says. "It's not just about being cool. It's real life. Life and death is serious. Getting shot is serious. Shooting somebody is serious."

Is It Safer To Carry A Gun?

An eye-opening Gallup poll released late last year revealed that 56 percent of respondents said they'd feel safer if more Americans could get permits to carry concealed handguns. Jennifer Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, wrote a book about handgun carriers in Michigan called Citizen-Protectors.

A lot of times I believe people are just playing around and they think it's cool to have a gun. It's not just about being cool. It's real life. Life and death is serious.

"This is what I think is really fascinating," she says. "It's not just the idea of if I conceal carry then I'm safer. It's the idea that if I just imagine there's people out there who are conceal carrying then the world is safer."

All the trigger pullers I talked to for this story said the range time required to get a handgun license is grossly inadequate in terms of being prepared to defend themselves from an active shooter. They believe they're alive today because they did extensive practice on their own.

Mark Cortis, a veteran firearms instructor in Detroit, urges all of his CPL students to get more training. But he says hardly any of them ever do.

"One of my concerns about the [Michigan] state requirements for getting a CPL is they don't really include the tactics and the strategy that one will need to win or prevail in an actual gun situation," Cortis says. "A hostile attack by a violent criminal is a fight."

Not only are most handgun carriers in America totally unprepared for a gunfight, but gun-control activists hasten to point out that more guns lead to more suicides and accidental shootings.

Three years ago, Detroit's new police chief, James Craig, made a startling public announcement. He encouraged law-abiding citizens to consider carrying concealed weapons as a deterrent to violent crime.

In an interview, I asked Chief Craig if he ever worries about the citizens that he has urged to arm themselves?

"What concerns me, more than anything else, is guns in the hands of criminals, guns in the hands of terror suspects. That's what keeps me up at night. Not armed citizens," Craig says.

Meanwhile, Cortis reports so many Detroiters are seeking concealed pistol permits, classes are booked for two months out.

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John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.