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Trentyn Murrell, sales associate at The Shooter's Depot, fires a Smith and Wesson Model 66 on the practice range.

Gun Permits by State

According to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, there are 478,904 handgun permits issued in the state as of this month. Georgia and Alabama don't release the exact number of carry permits, but Georgia had an estimated 600,000 in 2011, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Alabama had about 380,000 in 2012, according to reports from county sheriff's offices.

Handgun Carry Permits

• Hamilton County: 21,773

• Bradley: 8,048

• Marion: 2,065

• Bledsoe: 1,059

• Grundy: 1,100

• McMinn: 5,081

• Meigs: 1,191

• Polk: 1,661

• Rhea: 2,483

• Sequatchie: 1,401

Source: Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security

States' Carry Laws

• Don't allow open carry at all: California, Texas, Illinois, New York, South Carolina, Florida, Washington, D.C.

• Allow open carry with a permit: Tennessee, Georgia, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, Hawaii, Utah, Connecticut

• All other states allow open carry with no permit.

• Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming and Vermont allow concealed carry without any permit.

Source: Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence

The man was over 6 feet tall, built like an NFL linebacker, bald and carrying a huge handgun on his left hip in broad daylight in downtown Chattanooga.

He wasn't threatening anyone, though the gun on his hip carried an implied sense of danger. He was just doing his job, hooking up a car to a wrecker. And, if he had the right permit, he wasn't breaking the law.

In Tennessee, if you have a handgun carry permit, you are allowed to carry the weapon either openly or concealed. The same is true in Georgia, but Alabama allows you to openly carry without a permit.

"It's a personal preference," says Trentyn Murrell, a criminal justice student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and an employee at Shooter's Depot on Shallowford Road.

But make no mistake, if a person is carrying a weapon openly, there is a message being sent, Murrell says.

"It's an outward warning saying, 'I'm not afraid to use it.' It's a visual display that you don't want anyone messing with you."

While it's hardly a daily occurrence for most people to see someone other than law enforcement who's openly packing heat, chances are, if you haven't see it yet, you will sometime in the future. And even if you don't see the glint of gunmetal on a hip, there's an increasing chance that someone around you in that movie theater, shopping mall or restaurant has a concealed carry permit and is using it, even if the business itself doesn't allow weapons.

Gun laws are being openly debated in most state legislatures, some calling for them to be tightened, others wanting them loosened. This year, for instance, Georgia passed one of the least-restrictive gun laws in the country, the Georgia Safe Carry Protection Act, which opponents called the "Guns Everywhere" law. It allows guns to be carried in bars, churches, public housing, unsecured areas of airports and in government buildings that don't have security personnel.

In Tennessee, among the gun laws debated by the Legislature in recent years are to allow guns in bars, on campuses of public K-12 schools and colleges, in business' parking lots and in public parks. Guns in bars and in parking lots (as long as the owner has a permit) passed, but the others failed.

Carry choices

Some folks carry a weapon -- concealed or otherwise -- to make them feel safer in what they see as an increasingly lawless society. Some are making a statement in support of the Second Amendment, which they fear is being assaulted daily by anti-gun activists and the government.

But for those who don't carry a weapon, seeing a gun right out there in the open can be a jarring experience, sometimes a frightening one because, chances are, they don't know the person wearing the gun, don't know the person's frame of mind: "Is he a nut or someone nice like my next-door neighbor Bob?"

Amy Smith, one of the owners of Shooter's Depot, grew up in a household where gun education was a priority, says she understands why guns -- whether carried openly or concealed -- make some people uncomfortable.

"These are the people who think a gun is going to go off by itself," she says. "They don't know how a firearm works and the process it takes from loading ammunition to when it comes out of the barrel toward a target. There's a lot that has to happen."

C.J. Grisham, president of Open Carry Texas, insists there's no reason to fear.

"This idea that gun owners are angry and just looking for an opportunity to shoot somebody is absolutely false," he told Salon.com. "Although if I'm threatened by somebody, I'm not going to hesitate -- if somebody points a gun at me I'm gonna get there first."

Gun stigma

But there is a stigma to carrying guns, especially in the open. Several people who have carry permits declined to comment for this story, not wanting the expected hassle that would come if their beliefs were put out in public. A local businessman who is also a bicyclist says he's thinking about getting a carry permit.

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Trentyn Murrell, sales associate at The Shooter's Depot, wears a Ruger LCR, a 9mm, on his hip.

"I don't own a gun, but with all the issues we have riding on rural roads and rednecks harassing cyclists, I would consider strapping one on the outside of my jersey so they would see it," he says.

But he did not want his name used because, he says, "guns are a sensitive subject."

Murrell, whose parents own a gun store in Nashville, says he grew up learning about and respecting guns. He openly carries one while at work.

"Normally, I do not carry a visible firearm but, while at work, I'm sending a message to someone who might come in our store for the wrong reason," he says, explaining that when he's not at work, he's usually on the UTC campus, where guns are not allowed.

Like Murrell, some carry weapons because their job has some danger to it.

"A lot of people who work in industries that put them at risk, like a bounty hunter or someone who repossesses vehicles, often carry openly," says Smith at Shooter's Depot. "I completely understand why. These people are law-abiding citizens. They're not the kind of people anyone should be afraid of like the criminals who have guns without getting background checks or carry permits."

Former bounty hunter David Massengale says he carries a loaded weapon at all times -- except when he's at work, ironically, as an undercover security officer for a local department store that does not allow him to carry his weapon inside the store. But even when he's carrying in his personal life, he prefers to keep his gun hidden.

"I carry a concealed weapon inside my pants in a holster or on my ankle," he says. "I always thought carrying a gun in plain sight was a little cocky or arrogant. I do not carry for intimidation purposes -- just protection only."

But, having been shot while working as a bounty hunter, Massengale never leaves home without his weapon.

"I hope and pray I never need to use it," he says. "We frequent downtown and carrying a weapon truly offers me peace of mind. I know how to use it. I've had years of training and practice and I go to a shooting range at least once a month."

Murrell notes that there's a flip side to openly carrying a gun, one that could cost you your life.

"Let's say you're openly carrying a gun on your hip and you walk into a gas station and a couple of guys come in behind you to rob the place. If they see a gun on you, you're likely going to be the first person they shoot," he says.

"If you go into a gas station and you have a concealed weapon and someone comes in to rob the place, they're going to look at you as a bystander. But, as soon as they start doing something, you'll have the opportunity and the element of surprise to do what you need to do to suppress the issue."

Smith says people are intimidated by guns, in general, because they're not educated about guns.

"They don't understand what you actually have to do to legally own a firearm," she says. "There's many hoops you have to jump through in Tennessee just to be able to get a permit. It is not an easy process. It's not like in some states where you can basically walk in and write your name in crayon and get your carry permit.

"To get a carry permit in Tennessee, you have to take an eight-hour class, take shooting and writing tests, get fingerprinted, and it costs you $200," she says. "Then you have to wait six weeks for it to come in the mail before you can start to carry the gun.

"It's an effort to buy a gun in Tennessee. It's not like going to Wal-Mart and picking up a fishing license."

Like most everyone in her family, Smith carries a concealed gun. She also has home-defense firearms and she keeps a gun in her vehicle.

"My sister-in-law openly carries a 1911 Colt 45 on one hip and her nearly 3-year-old daughter on the other, which I think is awesome. She a modern mom. It's obvious why she carries it. You see what she's protecting."

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

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