Open Carry Guns: Reassuring & Alarming People at the Same Time

| by Reason Foundation

By Jacob Sullum

One goal of the "open carry" movement, The New York Times notes, is to encourage liberalization of concealed carry laws. California, for instance, is one of nine states where concealed carry permits are issued at the discretion of local officials, which often means that only the politically connected receive permission to discreetly pack heat. But California law (PDF) allows you to openly carry an unloaded gun without a permit, provided you are outside of designated "gun-free" zones. Hence the holstered coffee drinkers letting it all hang out at Starbucks:

"It is a discriminatory issue in California," said Paul Higgins, 43, a software engineer who runs a Web forum called "If you are politically connected, if you're rich, if you're a politician, if you're a celebrity, you get a permit. Otherwise, you don't."

Mr. Higgins said the meet-ups [of gun toters] were not meant to be confrontational. The hope, he said, is that if other restaurant or cafe patrons are uncomfortable with guns being displayed so conspicuously, pressure will increase on lawmakers to consider changing the law so that weapons can be carried more discreetly.

Public attitudes on this issue seem to have changed dramatically since the 19th century, when carrying a concealed weapon was often banned as a sneaky, disreputable practice conducive to crime. Today, by contrast, it's the open carrying of weapons that is deemed alarming. In addition to avoiding that effect, hidden guns have the advantage of deterring criminals who can't be sure who is armed and who isn't.

Yet in D.C. v. Heller, the 2008 decision vindicating Second Amendment rights, the Supreme Court noted that "the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues." The majority therefore deemed such bans "presumptively lawful." The Second Amendment lawsuit that I discussed in my column last week, challenging the District of Columbia's blanket ban on carrying handguns, argues that legislators may require people to conceal their guns or to bear them openly but cannot constitutionally ban all carrying in public. 

Beyond the legal and practical issues, of course, there is the question of whether open carry activists are helping or hurting the cause of gun rights by popping up in coffee shops and restaurants with weapons on their waists. Respectable, law-abiding people carrying guns openly in public places could help normalize gun ownership and armed self-defense among people who are unfamiliar with both. The experience of a Walnut Hill, California, pizzeria owner who decided to welcome gun carriers is consistent with that hope:

"Frankly, I wasn't sure how I would feel in that type of situation, and it really turned out to be a total nonissue," Ms. Grunner said.

"The families were great," she said. "These were very gracious people." The fact that customers wore sidearms, she said, "just faded into the background."

Then again, the sight of people with pistols on their hips could serve to confirm prejudices about gun owners among people who believe they fetishize their weapons and seek to project a macho image. The goal of encouraging support for liberalized concealed carry policies depends to some extent on normalization yet at the same time assumes open gun toting will make people uneasy. I'm not sure people can be simultaneously reassured and alarmed.