All Jim Cooley wants to do is buy some soda.

“You want to come to Walmart?” he asks his wife.

“No,” Maria says.

“Pretty please?” Jim asks.

“I’m not going to sit there and have the police called on you. I mean, I don’t want to see that crap,” Maria says, knowing what a trip to Walmart means. She knows her 51-year-old husband has two guns inside the house, and this afternoon it won’t be the 9mm, which he straps on with a round in the chamber when grabbing lunch at his favorite fast-food restaurant or visiting a friend’s auto shop. It’ll be the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, which he brings when going somewhere he thinks is dangerous, like the Atlanta airport, where he’s taken it loaded with a 100-bullet drum, or Walmart, where he thinks crowds could pose easy targets for terrorists.

In a country of relaxing gun laws where it’s now legal to open-carry in 45 states and there are 14.5 million carry permits, every day seems to bring a new version of what open carry can mean. In Kentucky, it’s now legal to open-carry in city buildings. In downtown Cleveland, people carried military-style rifles during the Republican National Convention. In Howell, Mich., last month, a father went openly armed to his child’s middle-school orientation. In Mississippi, it’s now legal to open-carry without a permit at all. And in Georgia, which has passed a “guns everywhere” bill and has issued nearly 1 million carry permits, Jim Cooley is staking out his version of what’s acceptable as he keeps pleading with his wife.

“I got to get soda.”

Maria sighs. She worked the night before assembling air-conditioner compressors at a nearby factory, and in a few hours, she knows she’ll have to leave for another third shift.

“Yeah,” she says, giving in. “I might as well get this travesty out of the way.”

“What travesty?”

“You carrying a big ol’ rifle in the store, scaring the hell out of all the Walmart shoppers.”

“There’s no difference between carrying a rifle and carrying a handgun,” he says.

“You tried that last time, remember?” Maria says, stepping into a pair of flip-flops and running her fingers through her hair. “And what happened? Barrow County sheriffs. Three or four of them.”

“They can’t tell me what and what not to carry,” Jim says. “You know I wouldn’t listen to them anyway.”

“Well, you go one way in the store; I’ll go the other,” Maria says. “Then when they say, ‘Ma’am, do you know this person?’ I’ll say, ‘No, I’ve never seen him before in my life.’ ”

He places a lit cigarette into an ashtray, walks into his bedroom, reaches behind its door, picks up the AR-15, snaps in a magazine with 15 rounds, and slings the rifle around his left shoulder so it rests against his torso.

“Ready?” he asks.

“Yeah,” she says, grabbing her purse and following her husband out the door for an afternoon trip to Walmart to buy soda.

The gun Jim Cooley carries is the ATI Omni-Hybrid Maxx AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. It cost him $579.99. It weighs 6.25 pounds, is 35 inches long, and fires bullets as fast as the trigger can be pulled, and, as Jim has learned, fits nicely between the front seats of a white minivan with peeling paint on the front and a bumper sticker on the back that says, “I ♥ Law.”

Jim goes everywhere now with a gun — if not the AR-15, then his sidearm — and is so reliant on one being close by that it surprises him to think the majority of his life was lived otherwise. He was raised in a working-class family in Chicago, where he can’t imagine living now because of its strict gun laws. But they didn’t bother him then. He didn’t hunt. He didn’t fear for his safety. If his dad had a gun, no one knew. He grew up without a gun, went to church without a gun, married Maria without a gun, began raising two children without a gun, and settled into a life that felt as safe as it was dependable.

But then it began unraveling, starting when he was fired from a trucking job days after telling Maria, who was pregnant with their first child, to quit her job and focus on the baby, that he could support them both. Their first bankruptcy filing wasn’t far behind, then the second, and the third, and then they were moving to Florida, where Maria had family and where Jim got a job with a grocery chain. It transferred him to Winder, and he moved the family into a middle-class neighborhood struggling with crime and drugs.

Jim now steers past the house of a neighbor who sold him his first gun — a .380 semiautomatic for $100 — so he could protect his family from that crime, then past Winder’s only gun shop where he took his dad so he could buy a gun, too. He lights a cigarette, feels the breeze from an open window because the air conditioner is broken, and takes a sip of soda from a big mug that says Athens Regional Medical Center.

It’s a memento of sorts from the day in late 2008 when he emerged from that hospital with three stents in his heart, debts worth $41,052.51 and a dawning realization he was now disabled, broke and would never work again. After the heart attack, he lost most of the circulation in his legs, received three more stents and started using an electric scooter whenever he had to walk long distances.

He told Maria he was all used up, a drag on the family. She should think about leaving him. But she wouldn’t, even after the hospital sued him for unpaid medical bills, even after he was arrested when he carried his .380 outside a school board meeting, even after he came home one day with an AR-15. He shot it at a nearby firing range and, feeling a sense of control that had gone missing in his life, told Maria he could now keep the family safe.

She now sits at his side, as always, in the passenger seat. At first, she didn’t understand the changes she saw in the man she married 24 years ago. Why did he suddenly want a gun when he never mentioned one before? Why did he want her to get one, too? Why did he put two four-inch knives inside the car’s ­passenger-side door? And why all the security cameras? Maria glances at a small screen beneath the rearview mirror: It shows feeds from surveillance cameras affixed inside the car that start recording when someone turns the ignition.


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