Concealed guns were the topic of a recent marathon hearing in the Texas State Legislature. In the middle of the hearing, one Suzanna Gratia suddenly marched over to Senator Royce West, pointed her index finger at him, and cocked her thumb. “Tell me. Senator,” said the good-looking chiropractor about a fellow nearby, “would you like him to have a concealed weapon at this point or not?”

The Lone Star State’s lawmakers were debating a law allowing “ordinary” citizens to carry a gun, and viewing the scene on television might have led one to believe Gratia was a distraught woman in favor of stiffer gun-control laws. But that was not the case at all. Gratia and her parents were eating at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, in October 1991 when a gunman walked in and started blasting away. Her folks were among 21 people murdered. Gratia had left her Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver in the trunk of her car because Texas law prohibits mixing guns with vittles. Obeying the law, she lamented, “was the stupidest mistake of my life.”

Gratia is just one of the many irate Americans tenaciously pushing state legislatures to allow citizens to carry firearms for protection, and for the most part, politicians are giving the people what they want. But gun owners had better realize that the good times might not last if the gun grabbers ask Congress to strike down right-to-carry gun laws. Moreover, they had better be prepared to make an argument that does not rely on statistics if they want to keep the right to carry guns.

The states that allow citizens to defend themselves or are debating the issue are legion. As of this writing, Virginia was one of many states that liberalized what Time magazine calls “carrying concealed weapons laws,” a term that makes one who carries a gun sound like a riverboat card cheat with a derringer up his sleeve. Arkansas, Utah, Texas, and Idaho are just four more of at least 16 states that were prepared to liberalize right-to-carry laws a few months ago.

The impetus behind this restoration of the right to defend oneself is fear of criminals who may strike anywhere at any time. If you believe television, gun-toting thugs rule the streets of major American cities, where crime affects not only the quotidian routine but also the tourist business. With that in mind, Florida became the testing-ground for a right-to-carry law in 1987. Opponents said minor traffic accidents and traffic jams would erupt into gunfights between irate motorists, but that Wild West scenario never came to pass. Indeed, ever since Floridians reasserted their right to pack a mohaska, handgun murders have dropped 29 percent. One lawmaker who opposed the law said he sees no reason to change it.

For those who publish statistics about homicide and accidental shootings to gin up fear of guns, the numbers from Florida are not encouraging. And it’s no surprise that the National Rifle Association and other groups are using Florida as a model for other states where lawmakers have been pushed into acting. Yet crunching numbers will not win the battle. For one thing, Florida’s right-to-carry law may have no bearing on the decrease in homicides. For another, homicides could quite easily increase after a right-to-carry law passes. If that happens in Virginia or anywhere else, the gun lobby will have a difficult time arguing that right-to-carry laws are not as ill-conceived as the antigun crowd says they are. Furthermore, it had better be prepared for a fight at the federal level when Sarah Brady and her minions at Handgun Control Inc. begin loading up for bear. After all, if Congress can pass laws regarding the ownership of certain kinds of firearms, it can also pass laws forbidding the right to carry them.

Whatever happens, action on the state level is a welcome development precisely because numbers are not the point; principle is. The state legislators who have shown some spine on this issue have ignited a philosophical and legal debate over firearms that will either bring more states to the Jordan or prompt federal Caesar’s usual antigun edict or even both. Such a confrontation between the federal city and states will force a gun owner to make a choice: either carry a gun for self-defense or obey an unjust law. That has always been the choice with gun-control laws, but the issue was never as clear as it is now, when crime and its effects are rapidly spreading from urban nuclei of random violence to the yuppie white suburbs, whence much of the agitation for gun-control emanates.

Americans desire a social order that places a premium on liberty, yet until recently they have been unwilling to accept the dangers that accompany it, which include those associated with the right to own and carry guns. They have been all too willing to look to the government for protection. Now that state legislatures are passing right-to-carry laws, it seems Americans have rediscovered not only the right but also the duty to defend themselves against the depredations of criminals. Perhaps they understand that comprehensive police protection requires revoking the right to self-defense and erecting a totalitarian state, or perhaps rapists and murderers have a way of fixing the mind on something besides Power Rangers.

Whatever the truth, Suzanna Gratia intuitively understands her right to own a gun and what exercising it means: you can defend yourself. Unhappily, she paid a high price for the lesson she learned. She is unlikely to leave her .38 in the car ever again, even if packing it in her purse means breaking an unjust law.