There it is, plain as day.
A six-shot revolver swings lazily from the gunslinger’s hip as he saunters down a dusty street (cue For a Few Dollars More soundtrack). Everyone can see the pistol, but no one seems concerned. Carrying a firearm openly is just part of daily life in Every Cowboy Movie Ever Made, and the revolver provides its owner with much-needed protection in the dangerous western town.
But then – shots ring out. A dispute has led to a duel, which leaves one man bleeding out on the street. It’s anyone’s guess whether that man deserved to die, but it doesn’t matter. The man with the quicker draw and better aim walks away while the undertaker arrives to collect the body.
These are the two competing narratives in the debate surrounding “open carry” (the practice of carrying a firearm openly). One side says open carry protects the carrier by deterring would-be criminals. Carrying a firearm openly normalizes the presence of guns in society, securing Second Amendment rights and demonstrating that guns are not dangerous in law-abiding hands.
The other side paints a different picture. Anti-open carry advocates believe the practice is intimidating to unarmed citizens. Openly carrying a firearm can waste law enforcement resources, confuse police officers in active shooter situations, and, ultimately, lead to the normalization of “gun violence” a la Every Cowboy Movie Ever Made.
Open carry has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after the murder of five Dallas police officers and in anticipation of a tumultuous Republican National Convention.
Dallas Police Chief David Brown has said on the record that the 20 or 30 individuals carrying AR-15s at the protest in Dallas made it more difficult to apprehend the shooter. “It’s increasingly challenging when people have AR-15s slung over their shoulder and they’re in a crowd,” he said. “We don’t know who the good guy is versus the bad guy when everyone starts shooting.”
Likewise, Stephen Loomis, the President of the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association, has requested Ohio Governor John Kasich to suspend the state’s open carry laws in the county surrounding Quicken Loans Arena, the site of this year’s Republican National Convention. Loomis is concerned about a situation like that in Dallas, and he doesn’t want open carriers to add confusion to an active shooter scenario.
“We are going to be looking very, very hard at anyone who has an open carry,” he told CNN. “An AR-15, a shotgun, multiple handguns. It’s irresponsible of those folks — especially right now — to be coming downtown with open carry AR’s or anything else. I couldn’t care less if it’s legal or not. We are constitutional law enforcement, we love the Constitution, support it and defend it, but you can’t go into a crowded theater and scream fire. And that’s exactly what they’re doing by bringing those guns down there.”
Open carry is an interesting issue because, unlike universal background checks or “assault weapon” bans, it divides genuinely pro-Second Amendment communities. The Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms, and restrictions on open carry strike some individuals as a dangerous step in the wrong direction. On the other hand, Chief Brown’s concerns carry weight, and it’s easy to imagine the difficulty open carriers present to law enforcement officials searching for the true source of a crime.
I want to take a hard look at both sides of this debate and present each side as honestly as possible. Then I’ll conclude with what, in my opinion, is the best way forward.
There are a number facets to this argument. First and foremost, proponents say, the right to carry a firearm openly is crucial to a proper understanding of the Second Amendment. The Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. Full stop. This means that any government restriction on the Second Amendment is unconstitutional, including a mandate to keep firearms concealed.
Organizations like OpenCarry.org also believe that “a right unexercised is a right lost.” Only by normalizing the presence of guns in society can the pro-gun community finally secure its right to keep and bear arms. Otherwise, many Americans will continue to view guns as frightening, dangerous, and only capable of being wielded by government officials.
OpenCarry.org includes on their website a quote from anthropologist Charles Springwood, who they say “sums [their goal] up nicely”: open carriers are trying to “naturalize the presence of guns, which means that guns become ordinary, omnipresent, and expected. Over time, the gun becomes a symbol of ordinary personhood.”
Ultimately, open carry proponents want guns to be as common as they are in Every Cowboy Movie Ever Made. If guns are just another part of everyday life, anti-gun activists won’t be able to demonize what is nothing more than a hunk of metal and plastic.
Two additional considerations are often cited by open carry proponents.
If a state legalizes concealed carry but not open carry, anyone who inadvertently reveals their firearm could be subject to prosecution. While most states include protections for those who mistakenly reveal a firearm, many concealed carry permit holders still worry about being charged with “improper exhibition of a firearm.” Legalizing open carry removes this concern as well as the potential for abusive prosecutions by anti-gun activists.
Finally, despite the fact that 45 states allow some form of open carry (30 states allow it without a permit), none of the doomsday scenarios imagined by the anti-open carry community have come to fruition. No one is dueling in the streets. The number of crimes committed with guns has gone down, not up. It isn’t even clear that Texas’s open carry laws contributed to any officer deaths in the recent shooting. The individuals carrying AR-15’s caused confusion in the search for the shooter, but no one has claimed that any officers died as a result of those individuals openly carrying weapons.
In short, open carry can strengthen Second Amendment rights and has yet to caused the kind of widespread chaos its critics feared. It’s easy to see why so many in the pro-gun community have jumped on the bandwagon.
But no right is unlimited, the other side of the open carry debate is quick to point out. Freedom of speech has its limits. The press cannot print whatever it wants. Religious freedom does not allow for murder or breaking the law. The same applies to the Second Amendment. The right to bear arms is guaranteed, but governments can place certain “reasonable limitations” on that right. Some would say that outlawing open carry is one such reasonable limitation. They cite a number of reasons for this.
The most common is laid out in this article, entitled “Open Carry is an Invitation to Chaos.” The idea here is that openly carried guns make it difficult for law enforcement officers to weed out the good guys from the bad. The chaos resulting from this confusion is a threat to public safety. As the author notes, “Even law enforcement is fearful of the consequences of allowing people to open carry, out of a concern about not knowing who is the good guy or the bad guy in the midst of a violent encounter. Law enforcement and communities at large view the carrying of any type of weapon, openly or concealed, as a threat to their well-being and public safety.”
Closely related to the fear of chaos is the difficulty of policing “man with a gun” 911 calls in open carry states. If a 911 dispatcher receives a call about a person with a gun in an open carry state, that dispatcher has no way of knowing the intent of that individual. The carrier of the firearm is not technically breaking a law until he brandishes his weapon, and the dispatcher does not want to waste law enforcement resources. But if the firearm carrier has nefarious intent, the situation could result in tragedy. In Colorado, for example, a dispatcher did not send police to the scene after a woman called about her neighbor carrying a rifle down the street. That man with the rifle went on to kill three people.
The third reason for opposing open carry is that guns are intimidating and frightening to those unfamiliar with firearms. These individuals have the right to go about their daily lives without experiencing the fear caused by exposure to weapons. As the author of the article above notes, “people who choose to live in peace also have the right not to be exposed to weapons and violence.” The author of this article likewise believes that openly carrying a firearm is “provocative,” “dangerous,” and “intimidating.”
I personally don’t find firearms intimidating, but I can imagine an individual feeling uncomfortable if they’ve been raised to believe all firearms are dangerous. The question, of course, is whether their discomfort should trump what could be a constitutional right. Anti-open carry proponents answer with a resounding yes.
I am sympathetic to both sides of this debate, and I think the best way forward lies in a kind of compromise. I’m not at all convinced that openly carried firearms are dangerous or intimidating, but I do think they could present a problem to law enforcement. Responding to “man with a gun” calls can be dangerous for police officers and citizens alike as well as wasteful of law enforcement resources. I can certainly sympathize with Dallas Police Chief David Brown and other law enforcement officers who don’t want to be forced to determine whether an individual with a firearm is a threat or a law-abiding citizen.
That being said, I’m also aware that outlawing open carry could contribute to the marginalization of Second Amendment rights. When we tell law-abiding citizens they must hide their guns, we reinforce the idea that guns are scary and dangerous. The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, and citizens should not be forced to hide the exercise of that right like it’s something dirty or frightening.
So I don’t believe states or the federal government should pass laws that outlaw open carry. But I do think gun owners need to be cautious and respectful in their exercise of their right to bear arms. If you plan to attend a rally in the middle of a big city, maybe it’s better to leave your firearm at home or—better yet—conceal it. Our law enforcement officers place their lives on the line every day to protect us—they don’t need us making their jobs any more difficult. And if you do decide to carry a firearm openly in a public place, remember that you’re representing gun owners across America. You may be the only person some people ever see carrying a firearm. If we want to reinforce the truth that law-abiding citizens can be trusted with firearms, we need to act like it.
Open carry is constitutional, but it also comes with certain dangers. The pro-gun community doesn’t do itself any favors when it downplays or ignores the potential risks associated with the public display firearms. Open carry should not be limited via government intervention, but we must always remember to be vigilant and cautious in the exercise of our rights.
About the Author: Jordan Michaels is a new convert to the gun world. A Canadian immigrant to the United States, he recently became an American citizen and is happily enjoying his newly-acquired Second Amendment freedoms. He’s a communications professional, a political junkie, and an avid basketball fan.