NEW ORLEANS – Sixty-four-year-old Vivian Westerman rode out Hurricane Katrina in her 19th-century house. So terrible was the experience that she wanted two things before the 2006 season arrived: a backup power source and a gun.
"I got a 6,000-watt generator and the cutest little Smith & Wesson, snub-nose .38 you ever saw," she boasted. "I've never been more confident."
People across New Orleans are arming themselves — not only against the possibility of another storm bringing anarchy, but against the violence that has engulfed the metropolitan area in the 19 months since Katrina, making New Orleans the nation's murder capital.
The number of permits issued to carry concealed weapons is running twice as high as it was before Katrina — this, in a city with only about half its pre-storm population of around 450,000. Attendance at firearms classes and hours logged at shooting ranges also are up, according to the gun industry.
Gun dealers who saw sales shoot up during the chaotic few months after Katrina say that sales are still brisk, and that the customers are a cross-section of the population — doctors, lawyers, bankers, artists, laborers, stay-at-home moms.
"People are in fear of their lives. They're looking for ways to feel safe again," said Mike Roniger, manager of Gretna Gunworks in Jefferson Parish.
Citizens, the tourism industry, police and politicians officials have been alarmed by the wave of killings in New Orleans, with 162 in 2006 and 37 so far this year. A Tulane University study put the city's 2006 homicide rate at 96 slayings per 100,000 people, the highest in the nation.
National Guardsmen and state police are patrolling the streets of New Orleans. In neighboring Jefferson Parish, which posted a record 66 homicides in 2006, the sheriff sent armored vehicles to protect high-crime neighborhoods.
In New Orleans, police have accused the district attorney of failing to prosecute many suspects. Prosecutors have accused the police of not bringing them solid cases.
Some people are losing faith in the system to protect them.
Earnest Johnson, a 37-year-old chef who lives in Kenner, bought his first gun recently and visits a shooting range regularly. "Things are way worse than they used to be," he said. "You have to do something to protect yourself."
Kevin Cato, a 41-year-old contractor, bought a .45-caliber handgun for protection when he is working in some of the city's still-deserted areas. "But it's not much safer at home," Cato said. "The police chased a guy through my yard one time with their guns out."
In New Orleans, the number of concealed-carry permits issued jumped from 432 in 2003-04 to 832 in 2005-06. In Jefferson Parish, 522 permits were issued in 2003-04, and 1,362 in 2005-06.
Mike Mayer, owner of Jefferson Indoor Range and Gun Outlet in suburban Metairie, said that despite the dropoff in population, sales are up about 38 percent overall since Katrina.
Just how many guns are out there is anybody's guess. Gun buyers in Louisiana are not required to register their weapon or obtain a concealed-carry permit if they keep the gun in their house or car.
In a measure of how dangerous New Orleans is becoming, guns are finding their way into criminal hands at an alarming rate. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' "time-to-crime" analysis of the interval between the legal sale of a gun and the time it is seized in a crime investigation is five years on average around the nation, said ATF spokesman Austin Banks. In New Orleans, time-to-crime is six months, he said.
This sometimes happens because of "straw purchases," in which a buyer obtains a gun for someone not legally eligible to purchase one. Many guns also are stolen from homes and cars.
While many are buying guns for protection, only two defensive killings of criminals by civilians took place in New Orleans in 2006, according to police. No charges were filed against the shooters.
Westerman, an artist who lives in the city's Algiers neighborhood, is prepared to use deadly force.
"I'm a marksman now. I know what I'm doing," she said. "There are a lot of us. The girl next door is a crack shot."