Open carry is gaining momentum in areas of the country that won’t allow concealed carry permits, or where those permits are so highly restricted as to be all but impossible to obtain. Debates and arguments for and against open carry are fueling increasing concerns and outright alarm on both sides.
Proponents for open carry argue that government officials in certain areas of the country routinely deny issuance of concealed carry permits and generally have an anti-gun or elitist mentality. Proponents argue also that in so doing, the government denies the right of self protection to the individual, which has in turn, helped to spark the growth of open carry as an alternative strategy for self defense.
Opponents argue that open carry creates alarm, unease, and increased threat to both citizens and law enforcement officers. Opponents argue also that open carry increases risk factors, social unrest, and general lawlessness.
In my PoliceOne article on dealing with citizens legally carrying a concealed weapon, I dealt with some of the issues already and I suggest reading that article for background.
I support the right to both own and carry a weapon for self defense, sport, or what have you. This right is supported and articulated both in the United States Constitution and in applicable laws found nationwide. I am also in support of law enforcement officers and others who wish to be able to feel safer in their dealings with people on the street.
In the end, we have to look at what the law allows and be able to deal with a legal activity, regardless of our personal feelings on the matter.
In Hunting Country
I go back to my law enforcement experience and working in situations where we worked wildlife calls and hunter trespass complaints and would have to check hunters and others in the field and in their vehicles where weapons are carried and in plain view or concealed under a garment in colder weather.
Wildlife officers, deputy sheriffs, and other law enforcement officials routinely contact people openly carrying loaded and unloaded firearms for legitimate purposes. It is simply a fact of life and part of the job.
While there are criminal types who like to hunt and fish etc., the vast majority of gun enthusiasts afield are morally-responsible citizens who are ethical human beings. While I have had encounters with hunters in the field who were acting in an irresponsible manner, I can tell you that such incidents were rare when compared to the number of positive contacts I’ve had.
Open carry doesn’t fit into the hunting or sporting use of firearms. It really isn’t about hunting or sport shooting. It’s about the fundamental right of self defense and is a form of political protest. There are many internet forum discussions on open carry that deal specifically with this type of organized protest.
Signs of the Times
For citizens concerned with legitimate self defense, open carry is a way to actually be able to do that. Some of the reasons I have come across have to do with the perception of poor police presence and response times, the downsizing of police forces as the economy has worsened, the early release of criminals from penal institutions, and the feeling of being more at risk in today’s society in general.
For the law enforcement officer, any type of weapon being carried, openly or concealed, appears as a threat to their well being and is therefore regarded as a hazard. The common perceptions of a person carrying openly is an escalation of perceived threat, potential for violence, possibility of the weapon carrier being targeted during criminal activity such as a bank robbery, and the possibility of an “untrained” person causing more harm than good in violent encounters. Add to that list the general unease from people who are simply not comfortable with the idea of people who are not cops, not in uniform, but running around with guns on their hips.
Further, what is to keep others with less than pure motivations from carrying openly? It’s feasible that gang members and militia types — who, obviously, do not have firearm ownership prohibitions stemming from prior criminal activity — could also legally carry under open carry conditions.
Officer Safety Issues
Imagine dealing with a carload of people with guns on and having them step out of the car to confront you, no matter how peaceful their intent or actions might be. Raise the bar by having them challenge your legal authority to check them, regardless of their lack of resistance. It simply raises tensions on both sides. I dealt with this type of situation from time to time as a deputy sheriff and having to deal with posse comitatus members and other similar types in Colorado.
As with concealed carry, there seems to be a lot of hypothetical rhetoric in regards to threat situations of “what could happen?” versus “what does history show us has happened?” Is there a heightened state of criminal activity associated with open carry versus concealed carry versus no carry (other than the obvious firearms violation for school zone or whatnot)?
The answer appears to be “not really.” Regardless of opinions or beliefs, there is not a spike in criminal activity associated with merely carrying a firearm. The same is true of concealed carry. It is always the intent of the person, not the firearm, that matters.
Practical Tactics & Strategies
So, what can you do as a law enforcement officer or, as a citizen who will read this article on various forums nationwide? Here are some thoughts to ponder as well as tips to go by.
1.) Open carry is a legal right. Regardless of where personal beliefs may lie, it carries the weight of law and cannot be ignored, pushed aside, or worked around.
2.) Understand that — as with any belief that people feel strongly about — open carry is a form of political protest. While the majority will do what is asked of them without a lot of fuss, there will be extremists who are willing to be political martyrs by doing whatever it takes to push their agenda and raise awareness to their cause.
3.) Targeting open carry by finding ways to charge people with other violations and then ticketing or arresting them may backfire and could be very expensive in the long run. One of the universities in Utah apparently tried this approach and it was leaked to the press. Now we run into civil liberties violations, etc.
4.) Know the letter of the law and the interpretations of the law in various districts. Have a written document that can be referred to online or given to those parties interested in them.
5.) Even if you don’t agree with open carry, stay objective and keep your feelings to yourself. It is the behavior of the person — not the gun — that we key on. If they get annoyed and start protesting you, remember that unless they are threatening you with harm, they have a right to voice their opinion, even if they raise their voice at you.
6.) It still takes time to draw and load the firearm. It can be done in around two seconds for well trained individuals. As with any contact, watch the hands and body language.
7.) Follow good judgment. IF THERE IS PROBABLE CAUSE to treat them as an armed criminal, by all means do so. However, when you make contact with someone carrying openly without good probable cause, the strategy of “when in doubt, prone ‘em out” would not be my first choice. Keep your distance if you can, and ask questions so you can get some indicators of the mental/emotional state of the contact prior to moving in closer.
8.) From a officer safety perspective, at least you KNOW that they are carrying a weapon! That knowledge alone will keep you from becoming complacent. Think of it as an opportunity to practice your officer safety tactics.
The right to self defense — as well as the right to keep and bear arms — is fundamental and has huge support in this country. Open carry has come about because of perceived government infringement on those rights. You as a law enforcement officer will be looked upon as part of that infringement and will incur indignation, hostility, and anger expressed as verbal or non-verbal protest. Don’t take it personally. They see government when you contact them. Stay calm, professional, watchful, and respectful.
A side note to the citizen carrying openly: You should expect to be contacted law enforcement. You should expect to be feared by some, and considered to be a person of interest to many. Understand that by wearing a weapon in the open, you raise the perceived threat level in the eyes of law enforcement and other citizens. Friendly behavior goes a long way. People key on behavior rather than the weapon. Most folks respond well to a smile, polite behavior or a warm hello rather than a cold stare. I recommend that approach. You will be surprised how many people respond in a positive manner when you do that. Actually, this holds true on both sides of an open carry discussion, contact, or encounter...
I suspect that just like concealed carry, most of the perceived threats will not come to pass and it will largely be a live-and-let-live situation we’ll just have to deal with. In time, perhaps concealed carry laws will pass in those jurisdictions that don’t allow them, and citizens can move on to concealed carry as a means of carrying a weapon legally if they so choose.
Then, of course, you will have another set of issues to consider...