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Gun nation: Inside America's gun-carry culture

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Yet a little defiance of government authority is mixed in there as well. "The Democratic Party in many ways overinvested in symbolic legislation on gun control, which explains the backlash from hunters or people who have a legitimate reason to feel unsafe and want a gun by their bedside," says Sanford Levinson, a University of Texas constitutional law professor and expert on the Second Amendment. "But the more important thing is what the Republican Party has done over 25 years, which is to really delegitimize national government and make people feel that the national government is not merely incompetent, but also likely to be antagonistic and maybe even tyrannical."

The 9/11 attacks reinforced the view among many Americans that dark forces lurk in society that people need to defend themselves against. While the overall violent crime rate is down, a recent poll by Rasmussen Reports showed that 72 percent of Americans feel that local crime will increase in the near term. Some experts say this generalized anxiety is reflected in the popularity of movies and TV shows about zombies and similar topics. The grim mood hasn't gone unnoticed by ammo manufacturers, one of which is trying to capitalize on the zeitgeist by selling a line of Zombie Max cartridges and shells.

Paul Valone is another reason America is more heavily armed today. One day in 1994, Mr. Valone, an airline pilot, was watching lawmakers on C-SPAN press their case for an assault weapons ban in Congress. Outraged, he called around to various gun rights groups to find out what he could do. Frustrated with their response, he eventually launched his own group, Grass Roots North Carolina, which has evolved into a potent lobbying force in the state.

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