THE APPLEBEE'S in Folsom, Delaware County, attracted a high-caliber crowd Saturday night.

More than 30 gun owners showed up with their weapons legally displayed, while the rest of the dinner crowd blithely ordered their "2 for $20" specials, boneless wings and Bourbon Street steaks, plus alcoholic refreshments.

The "meet and eat" was organized by Mark Fiorino, 25, the Delaware Valley's on-target proponent of "open carry," the controversial right of gun owners to legally display their weapons. The event, Fiorino said with a Glock .40-caliber semiautomatic on his waist, was social, and an attempt to "raise awareness" and decrease fears about guns and their owners. (Some gun owners make gun haters seem like victims of an obscure but treatable illness.)

I aimed to join them for dinner. I strapped on my Sig Sauer .45, which is too heavy for me to comfortably wear, but this was a special occasion: gun talk, constitutional rights and Applebee's!

I spoke with about a half-dozen gun owners who converse on an online discussion forum on the Pennsylvania Firearm Owners Association website.

No one spoke for everyone, but one who fired out sentiments shared by many was statistician Ted John Noga, of Upper Pottsgrove Township, Montgomery County. He brought a Belgian FN Five-seven, a semiautomatic used by the Secret Service.

He uses it "mostly to punch holes in paper," meaning he shoots at paper targets, which is true of most handgun owners. He came to Applebee's "to support the right to carry," he said, even though he rarely carries. He wants to keep carrying as an option.

Noga, 39, has about a dozen weapons - "every firearm you shoot is a different experience" - he has acquired over the years and says he has never used one in self-defense. No one I spoke with at Applebee's said he had.

Well, then why do you need to carry a weapon? you might ask. They would say just having it has kept me safe. Besides, it's my right.

Everyone used the technical term "firearm" in preference to "gun," and several referenced what they called "irrational fear" of firearms in our local culture (as opposed to, say, Utah) and I'd have to agree. I've seen it myself in hysterical people who think guns just guarantee death. According to most-recent U.S. figures, there are more annual auto deaths (34,485) than gun deaths (31,224), even though there are more guns than vehicles. The majority of gun deaths are suicides.

The fear is triggered by lack of knowledge of guns, Fiorino says, and also by guns in the hands of criminals who create havoc with guns they should not even have.

The majority of gun owners at Applebee's were male, and the majority of American gun owners are male. But more women are becoming owners and shooters, primarily for self-defense.

Such as Katrina Xander, 32, who's had a Ruger .45 for about a year. As a single mom with a small child at home, she wanted a gun for home defense.

A school administrator, Xander never takes her gun to the campus, rarely carries it, conceals it when she does but supports the right to open-carry.

As do I, but still I hesitate.

While openly carrying his weapon, Fiorino was arrested last year in Philadelphia by a cop who didn't know the law. The soft-spoken Fiorino just received a $25,000 settlement from the city for the improper arrest.

At the time, I wrote that Fiorino was within his rights but was irresponsible to open-carry in Philly. I admire him for insisting on his rights, but . . .

After Applebee's, I stopped at Acme to pick up a few things. I know my rights, thanks to Mark, but I covered up the huge .45 on my belt. Sometimes reason trumps rights.