It’s a bright afternoon in America and you are somewhere out in public. As you go about your business, shopping or merely enjoying the day, you happen to see someone with a rifle slung across their back. He or she is not holding the rifle “at the ready,” and is going on about his or her business as if carrying nothing more innocuous than a beach towel. It’s a crowded public place and no one else is carrying weapons.
Would this be suspicious? Would you be afraid? Would you call the police?
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Chances are, the person openly carrying the rifle thinks you will and, in fact, wants you to call the police so he can be questioned and film it for the Internet.
Of the nine states whose constitutions specify that concealed carrying of firearms can be regulated, none explicitly forbid carrying the weapon openly. Gun-rights advocates, usually also with a chip on their shoulder about police overreach, will open-carry knowing that they will eventually be stopped and questioned.
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At least, that’s what happened in Appleton, Wisconsin on September 7, when two men were questioned then released when open-carrying at a downtown farmer’s market. While they claim that they do this to “educate” both police and the public, I think it might be more than that.
As a veteran of the U.S. Army, I have been trained in the use of a number of weapons systems. By far my favorite is the M-16/AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. When deployed, it was my preferred weapon to carry. The reason I wanted it with me in hazardous theaters was because it is a very efficient killing machine. I never fired my weapon in combat, thankfully, but if I had needed to, it was the best weapon for the job. That said, it’s also a really fun weapon to shoot on the range and, for those of us who like guns, it’s cool.
Yet, to civilians and those inexperienced with firearms, it can be a terrifying sight, and those who test the response of local police to open-carry situations know that.
This is why you could find hundreds of videos on sites like YouTube and LiveLeak featuring shaky camera footage of confrontations between gun owners and police officers, and usually not the best of either party.
Still, this is Opposing Views, so let’s examine both sides of the argument.
Police officers face a situation similar to the one faced by my fellow troops in Iraq. They have to move about a community of people with no idea if any of them are an enemy and seek to do harm to the officer or others. For the gun owners, they fear that a right they wish to exercise is, at best, being infringed upon or, at worst, being taken away bit by bit. The police are, mostly, concerned about the safety of themselves and the community they serve, while the gun-rights advocates are concerned about their ability to defend themselves.
Both concerns are legitimate, although gun-rights advocates may be victims of a systematic approach by gun and ammunition manufacturers who have had record sales since President Obama’s election in 2008. There was a massive media push, echoed by Republican spokespeople, that President Obama was an enemy of the second amendment, despite the fact that he expanded gun-rights during his first term and never publicly supported gun control legislation until after the mass-shooting at Sandy Hook elementary in December of 2012.
This is not to say that law-abiding gun owners don’t have any real concerns about police harassment.
An active-duty Sergeant in the US Army named C.J. Grisham was hiking with his son for the Boy Scouts. They were hiking in a rural area known for dangerous wildlife, so Grisham carried a pistol and a rifle. They were recording the hike — as it is apparently Boy Scouts policy to document these hikes for merit badges — and a police officer stops the pair. The police officer proceeds to grab the rifle from Grisham. It was slung across his body, so it was attached to him, and Grisham reflexively took a step back. The police officer draws his gun, pointing it at Grisham. He then complies with his requests, but does so under protest.
You can see the video that was released below.
Given the officer’s attitude, plus the almost instinctive uneasiness a soldier has relinquishing his weapon to a stranger, Grisham’s actions don’t seem to warrant arrest or any charges. According to his own personal blog, the case is likely to go to trial in late September. Grisham has become internet-famous and appeared on a number of conservative media programs since the incident, but he is not a person who set out to find this fame in the support of an issue.
Three men in Texas were arrested on September 13, open-carrying rifles to a “planned event” outside of the Texas Capitol. In the video below, Terry Holcomb—a Christian Pastor and board member of Texas Open Carry—gives an interview and is then followed by a group of people waiting to film his eventual arrest. Texas does prevent carrying handguns openly, but there is an exception for antique guns or replicas. Yet, he also came armed with cameras and printed-out copies of relevant laws.
Officer Jim Estes of the Albany Police Department was the subject of one of these “instructional” videos when a group of people with various YouTube channels met up to go on a walk, with Warren Drouin who runs the gun-rights-themed Markedguardian. They are inevitably stopped and quested by Officer Estes who seemed to know immediately what was going on. For the rest of the almost 15-minute video, Officer Estes patiently explains himself and his intentions, while the hosts nervously mumble questions to him. They also express reticence to identify themselves to Officer Estes, despite the fact that their sole intention is to “educate the public” on the YouTube channels that bear their names.
It has somewhat baffled me since my discharge from the military, that anyone can go into a gun store, fill out the proper paperwork, and leave with a gun but perhaps without the knowledge of how to even load the thing. Firearms are not excessively dangerous if the person wielding the firearm has extensively trained with it. Things like muzzle discipline—ensuring that the barrel is not pointing at any person unless you mean it to be—and clearing the weapon become second-nature after a while. You respect the machine; you don’t fear it.
So if education was the true goal of these guns-right’s advocates, I think that there are a number of much better strategies than walking around a neighborhood until enough people get nervous that there is a confrontation with police. Instead of holding rallies, where armed people mill about carrying weapons like they’re handbags, perhaps they could take a more open and informative approach. They could consider those who are afraid of guns, explaining their point of view with patience and not condescension. For the police, perhaps they could take a more agreeable tone, instead of seeming gobsmacked every time one of them suggests that openly-carrying a formidable weapon would be a cause for alarm. It’s disingenuous and surely makes every officer run through a mental list of folks they know who’ve been shot while on the job.
Americans have the right to free expression, a right so important that it is the first amendment included by the Anti-Federalists in the compromise that gave us our Constitution. However, if a citizen wanted to stand in the middle of a public park and express himself by shouting vile expletives or mean-spirited rhetoric, the police could remove the citizen under the “catch-all” charge of “disorderly conduct.” While there are legitimate concerns to the abuse of disorderly conduct by the police, it seems to me that the better gamble for them to avail themselves of that charge if they can’t ascertain the intent of the armed citizen. If it’s just to educate, perhaps they should be more free with relevant information.
As details about the tragic mass-shooting in Washington D.C. continue to be revealed, it’s inevitable that the national conversation will again focus on the debate versus gun control and the free exercise of second-amendment rights. Given the rising frequency of mass-shootings in the past few decades, many blame the easy access to guns in America, while others blame the media’s response to these events. Still, for those who wish to advocate for gun-rights, especially in the aftermath of these emotional and frightening events, perhaps it is best to take a softer approach. Otherwise, the advocate is just another angry person holding a firearm, which will ultimately hurt the cause.