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Armed and ready to shop

Mark Mardell | 01:27 UK time, Thursday, 11 March 2010

Elm Grove, near Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Other customers stare as Nik Clark and Kim Garny do their weekly shop at a large upscale supermarket. It's hardy a surprise as a TV camera is trailing behind their trolley. But people would do a double-take even if the BBC weren't in tow. In some ways Nick wants them to look.

There's a revolver amid the ravioli, an automatic among the avocados.

Like cowboys out of Westerns, the couple carry handguns on holsters on their hips. She has a Smith and Wesson .38 special with a cute pink grip that makes it look almost like a toy. He has a rather more chunky Glock.

KIm Garny 's Smith and Wesson .38Wisconsin Open Carry. Groups like this have been springing up all over the States in the last year and they've been making an impact in the last week or so, getting Starbucks in California to agree people should be allowed into their coffee shops carrying guns. The groups are made up of people who want to make a point about the Second Amendment right in the Constitution to bear arms, by bearing them openly. Some want to make a point and test whether or not private firms like shops and restaurants recognise that right.

The movement is slightly different in the state of Wisconsin where concealed guns are banned. Nick says wearing a gun in a visible holster is the only way he can carry a weapon legally and he wants others to be aware of their rights: he doesn't want to confront but to convert.

"You have a right to self defence and open carry is a great deterrent. It's about personal protection," he says.

He's a beefy guy, with bulging muscles, so I ask: Isn't he rather intimidating when he's armed as well?

"I've been open carrying for about a year and most people don't notice, or some might make a comment. It's a demonstration I am a law-abiding citizen, you have nothing to hide. Criminals never open carry."

He says that his group respects property rights and if a shop doesn't want their custom and they are asked to leave they are happy to do so: they don't want to patronise that business. But he says most big companies know the law and have a policy that allows them to shop armed.

Kim says for her it is all about self protection: "I can guarantee if I am going to my car late at night and someone sees me carrying a gun they won't make me a victim."

Nik Clark and Kim Garny shoppingBut Nick says he is also making a point: "I want people to see me and have a level of comfort, to know that if they are out walking their dog it is OK to carry a gun, if they are walking to their car after work it is legal to carry a firearm."

When Obama was elected many gun enthusiasts expected the tightening of laws. Many of those in favour of controls expected Obama to increase regulation. As a senator he had always been in favour of restrictions on guns. But it seems thing are rather going the other way.

Last year a ban on carrying concealed weapons in national parks was lifted. In Virginia politicians are likely to change the law and allow people to buy more than one hand gun a month.

The supreme court is pondering whether to declare the 28-year ban on handguns in Chicago unconstitutional. They will take months before coming to a decision but observers who've watched the case carefully believe they will rule against the ban, with huge implications all around the states.

In Wisconsin, Open Carry is taking legal action against the rule that bans handguns within a quarter of a mile of schools. The supreme court judgement could have a bearing on that.

Still, when I meet around 30 people from Wisconsin Open Carry over lunch at a big restaurant there is a feeling that their rights need protecting. There are grandparents and mums and little children, and all the adults are armed.

Most tell me that this is mainly about protection but what they refer to as civil rights comes a close second. A couple of people tell me it is the other way around: the politics comes first. One man, whose name I don't catch, says he doesn't feel very threatened in suburban Wisconsin but it is about resisting the encroachment of the last two administrations, it's about not giving in to big government.

Matt Slavic, sitting next to his little granddaughter, observes that outside the United Nations is a sculpture of a gun, its barrel twisted in a knot. "The Second Amendment gives teeth to the rest of the constitution, it keeps tyranny at bay. I do feel it is under threat, not just from within the USA but from the UN - their small arms treaty would restrict hand gun ownership in the United States."

Several people tell me the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, underpins the first, freedom of speech. One of those eating with a gun at their side, John Laimon, goes further: "It's not about guns, it's about civil rights. It's growing because of the plain fear about inadequate politicians. They cut down guns but they've got bodyguards. Our rights are under fire."

If you're in the UK, you can see more in my report on BBC News at Ten on Thursday evening.


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