Open gun carry under fire

MAY 5, 2010


Gun rights activists have stirred up controversy in recent months by carrying, and displaying, firearms in the open in California, including in restaurants and coffee shops. This has led to a movement to ban the “open carry” of weapons by those without special licenses.

Open carry” is distinguished from “concealed carry,” as I explained in a February article on “concealed carry” laws. In California, “concealed carry,” laws require that someone get a permit from a county sheriff to lawfully carry a concealed weapon.

But “open carry” currently is allowed for most citizens. That is, any adult can openly carry around, in public, a pistol or rifle. California does require that those doing so keep their ammunition separate from the weapon.

The issue made headlines with the Minutemen anti-immigration group in San Diego County. Some of their members and supporters marched carrying weapons.

After that, open-carry advocates walked into coffee shops and restaurants in San Francisco. “We’re just a bunch of citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights, which if you don’t use them, you’ll probably lose them,” Gus Konstantaras with East Bay Open Carry told ABC7 (KGO) on January 30.

Gun control groups then began calling for the coffee shops and restaurants to insist, using their property rights, that guns not be allowed in their establishments. Peet’s Coffee and Tea and California Pizza and some other establishments have enacted such private bans, Karen Arntzen told me; she’s California Chapter Services coordinator for the Brady Campaign, a gun control group. But Starbucks “would not take a position on it,” she said. “They would not engage the issue.”

She added that the Brady Campaign delivered “over 33,000 petition signatures to Starbucks’ headquarters a few weeks ago,” protested at Starbucks’ shareholders meeting, and has picketed outside Starbucks coffee shops.

Brady also has “launched a campaign” with Credo Action, she said. Credo calls itself “a mobile, credit card and long distance company that turns everyday activities into progressive acts.”

Ironically, the open-carry protesters today are mostly right-wingers, whereas a similar controversy broke out a generation ago with gun-wielding marches by a left-wing group, the Black Panthers.


This being California, the Legislature has gotten into the act. Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, D-San Diego, has introduced AB 1934, which reads, in part:

“Existing law provides that firearms carried openly in belt holsters are not concealed within the meaning of those provisions. This bill would delete the exception pertaining to firearms carried openly in belt holsters.”

It passed the Assembly Public Safety committee on April 20 and 27, and now awaits a second reading on the Assembly Floor.

“What I’m concerned about is people who have no training can carry a gun for no other purpose than to make a public statement,” explained Saldana.

The Brady Campaign supports AB1934 “absolutely,” Arntzen said.  “We feel open carry is a very dangerous practice. They want to change conceal carry laws,” not just carry weapons in the open.

She pointed me to a policy statement by Legal Community Against Violence, a group whose motto is “expertise, information & advocacy to end gun violence” (lower case in original). The statement explained:

“Open carry advocates seek to normalize the carrying of firearms in public places, and often use open carrying to protest what they see as unjust state firearms laws. While members of the open carry movement argue that they are just ‘exercising their rights,’ the open carrying of firearms intimidates the public, wastes law enforcement resources, and creates opportunities for injury and death due to the accidental or intentional use of firearms.

“Open carrying poses particular challenges for law enforcement officers who must respond to 911 calls from concerned citizens about people carrying guns in public….

“Claims that open carrying is needed for self-defense are belied by the available research. Even when a gun is used in self-defense, which is rare, research shows that it is no more likely to reduce a person’s chance of being injured during a crime than various other forms of protective action. [References are in the statement.]”

Paucity of research

Unfortunately, the LCAV statement conflates “open carrying,” specifically, and the general category of “when a gun is used in self-defense.”

The problem is that social science research, to be useful, needs a broad and comprehensive data base, John Lott told me; he’s a scholar at the University of Maryland and author of “More Guns, Less Crime.” He said:

“First, there hasn’t been a lot of change in open carry rules since crime and other data has been readily available.  Of course, there are exceptions such as Wisconsin recently, but they are rare.

“Second, it is not obvious to me that many people do it.

“Third, there are crimes that concealed carry can protect against that open carry can’t.  For example, multiple victim public shootings.  Killers will either take out the person openly carrying the gun first or wait for them to leave the scene.

“Fourth, while there is some benefit to the person carrying the gun openly, concealed handguns benefit people who would never think of even owning a gun.”

He explained that “you just can’t” do serious studies because Wisconsin’s open-carry law change was “the first in 50 years” among the 50 U.S. states.

“I suppose you could look at crime rates in Wisconsin to see if there is a very recent change. But you need multiple places changing rules over time” to find if there is a cause and effect for this – or any – phenomenon.

He pointed out, for example, that if it’s shown Wisconsin’s crime rate went up or down right after it changed its open carry laws, the real cause might be something else, such as a tough new crime bill that cut crime – or, conversely, a demographic change that might increase crime.

It’s also hard to know how many people are carrying weapons openly, in a state or across America.

By contrast, he said, research on concealed carry weapons is much easier because most states with such laws require people to get a special permit. If the person commits a crime with a gun, the permit is revoked. The number of revoked permits is something that can be quantified, and studied.

Lott’s research showed that, for the many changes in concealed weapon laws over the past 20 years, those states that liberalized concealed carry laws saw measurable reductions in crime.

“I have no problem with open carry in theory,” he said. “But there’s a bigger benefit with concealed carry.”

John Seiler, an editorial writer with The Orange County Register for 19 years, is a reporter and analyst for His email: [email protected].

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