A few days ago I was discussing the people who periodically openly carry guns in order to reassert their rights to do so. In case you are not an avid follower of gun politics, here is the crux of the issue: in order to carry a CONCEALED weapon, you need to have a special license. The hoops you have to jump through in order to get this license vary from state to state. On one end are the most lenient “shall issue” states, which start with the premise that they shall issue a concealed weapons permit to anyone who applies unless there is a valid reason why they shouldn’t (for example a domestic violence conviction or a history of mental illness). On the other end are the states who only allow law enforcement and similar folks to have the coveted licenses.
But this applies to weapons that are concealed. The reason is that, at least in the traditional view of American lawmakers, weapons that are concealed are signs that someone could be up to mischief. They are problematic because someone could ambush you and you would never see it coming. They could do harm and people wouldn’t have time to take precautions. So our laws have always been much more stringent when it comes to concealing weapons, but there is something that has been notably absent in this body of law. And that is law regarding carrying weapons openly.
Recently, some people have taken to doing what, from time immemorial people have done to remind the powers that be that a certain right has always existed. In historical England and Scotland farmers would take their animals to graze in places known to them as open land because they wanted to assert to the government that these lands were not, in fact, open to be taken over by the government. By making sure to walk their animals over this land, and to let their animals eat, they were just reminding the government of the correct order of power. Similarly now, there are people who have taken to walking the streets with firearms openly visible just to remind folks that this is a right. If it is not periodically reasserted it may fade in memory and it may be taken away or eroded. Law enforcement may become unfamiliar with this right and then overreact when they see people who are carrying weapons. There have recently been court cases over whether or not this right is still active, and it is.
But today’s world is not the world of the past. Today we have school shootings and mall shootings and random outdoor shootings. People are gun-phobic like never before, and less people are familiar with guns than perhaps any time in this nation’s history. And as with anything else, lack of knowledge can breed fear. This seems especially true with guns. Police are understandably jumpy about unknown people walking down the street carrying large guns. So people openly carrying guns can be creating a dicey situation.
At the same time, many of the people who want to make a point of openly carrying seem to have a bone to pick with police and other authority figures. It is partly because they are afraid of the overreach of power of these very people that they are openly carrying in the first place, so cooperating with them is anathema. There are a number of videos on youtube where you can see these people carrying their long guns down the street, and when they are stopped and questioned by police, usually after several calls by concerned (sometimes hysterical) citizens reporting armed men in the street, they are downright hostile. Yes, they do have a perfect right to be doing what they are doing. And yes, it’s true that they don’t have to give answers to the questions they are being asked by the police. But their ‘please confront me I dare you‘ attitude doesn’t make them the best ambassadors for gun-rights advocates.
On one hand here’s how I think things should play out: I think before someone is planning an open carry he should walk into his local police station and let them know, “Hey guys, at 3 pm tomorrow at 4th and Main Street, I am going to walk down the block openly carrying a weapon to assert my Constitutional rights. You can check who I am so you will see I am not sketchy and not up to no good.” This does several things. It puts the police on notice so when the 911 switchboard gets flooded with calls the operator will know how to process the calls. It won’t tie up his or her time getting unnecessary details and dispatching cars to the scene of a non-event. Also, they can calm down the callers, instead of allowing public hysteria to whip itself into a frenzy. It reassures the police that you are not some wacko when you stroll down the street- in the latest example it happened in front of a school- and lets them know you are following legitimate laws. It gives the police some time to formulate a correct response to what you want to do, one that respects your rights while keeping others both safe and calm, and it lets them do this with a cushion of both time and space.
Here, however, is where my internal conflict comes into play: Part of the reason citizens need to preserve a right to carry weapons is in case the government over-reaches its power. Whether or not you believe in what some would characterize as conspiracy theories, it is absolutely true that in every country where government power has been held in check citizens have played a key role in holding their governments accountable. Our own history is one of armed citizens fighting off a king who had become overbearing and oppressive. So to have to report in with a government body and run your plans by them before you open carry kind of defeats a crucial part of the purpose behind it. To say otherwise is to miss the point. Also, the court cases that have upheld citizens’ rights to openly carry specifically said that those citizens did not need to give their information to the police. Unless you are doing something wrong, or are suspected of doing something wrong, the police cannot force you to identify yourself. Doing so violates your Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.
People who openly carry are doing so with the best of intentions. They are trying to preserve rights for all of us. Even if we don’t use those rights now, it doesn’t mean we won’t want or need to use them at some time in the future. And these people are at the vanguard of the fight to maintain those rights in a legal way. I have to applaud them for not only standing up, but for doing it in a way that demands they be both educated and dedicated when it comes to those rights. That isn’t always an easy battle. Much simpler to just wait with a cache of weapons and then jump into the fray if times ever get tough than to put yourself out there to be ridiculed and scorned by those you seek to protect. So I have to applaud those who are willing to walk the walk, even if I wish they would have better people skills at times. Sometimes keeping tyranny at bay is best done by those who are willing to get their aprons dirty and their hairdos mussed… They may not be the prettiest girls at the fair, but I’d darn sure want them on my team if push came to shove…
So on one side, I completely understand that in a world of maniacs with guns who shoot up schools, police are justifiably nervous about random people carrying guns who then won’t identify who they are or what they are doing with those guns. On the other, I am quite sympathetic to the reasons that compel these same people to carry these guns and walk on those streets and avoid answering the questions that would give the police peace of mind while simultaneously chipping away at our rights to openly carry. And I’m not sure what the correct balance should be. It’s a tough question, as all good constitutional questions should be, and it makes me both sad I’m not a lawyer and grateful I’m not a Supreme Court Justice. Either way, it definitely makes for an interesting intellectual exercise.