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Gun owners talk: Self protection is more complex than 'stand and fight'

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This is no knee-jerk conclusion; it's a rationale constructed through psychotherapy and soul-searching. Stroup – who calls her gun a "tool" rather than a "weapon" and sees pure logic rather than irony in her choice – believes it will reduce the fear that darkens her life.

Stroup's complicated experience may be unique, but her response is very American.

Owning guns for self-protection is a common American practice. A Gallup poll found in 2005 that in the 40 percent of American households that own a gun, 67 percent reported self-protection as a – if not the – reason. And in the immediate aftermath of the December Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting, a Pew Research Center poll found that a slim plurality – 48 percent – of Americans think gun ownership does more to protect people from becoming victims of crime, while 37 percent say it does more to put people's safety at risk.

People who buy guns for defense range from victims like Stroup with hard-to-dispute evidence of a need for protection to those impressed by scary headlines. Some are better prepared than others to use them in real life.

Dave Young, whose company, ARMA Training – a part of the defense training Vistelar Group  in Mequon, Wis. – provides military, law enforcement, and civilian firearms courses around the United States, has seen thousands of novice and expert students and estimates that 3 or 4 out of 10 in his civilian courses fail after he cuts through "all the fiction and fantasy" they bring with them. But Mr. Young does preach strongly the obligations a gun owner has – specifically, an exhausting list of lifestyle adjustments, including holster-accommodating wardrobe changes, how to sit, walk, and even hold a cup of coffee. And then there's the requirement to practice gun-drawing and shooting – in any number of possible positions – once a month. It's a regimen that would give pause to even the most avid gun enthusiast. (He details the just how hard the responsibilities are here.)

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