As I have noted in my other essays on guns, I grew up in what most would regard as a gun culture. I learned to shoot as soon as I could handle a firearm and have been shooting ever since. I am comfortable around guns (but not too comfortable—complacency leads to accidents) and around armed people. This is due to years of hunting and also due to the fact that my family participated in the revolutionary war re-enactments that were popular in the 1970s. As such, I grew up spending some of my summers around plenty of armed folks and even participated in several mock battles. As such, I am certainly not an anti-gun person. That said, I do have some concerns about the current trend in open carry protests.
While the exact legal details vary, open carry is when a person is (obviously enough) carrying a firearm openly. This is in contrast with concealed carry—when a person is hiding her weapon from sight, typically under concealing clothing. Most states require that a person get a concealed weapons permit to legally carry a concealed firearm and often prohibit open carry in many circumstances (hunting being an obvious exception). Some states allow those with concealed weapon permits to openly carry a fire arm. Some states do not. Complicating matters even more is that local laws can vary considerably, even within the same state. For example, some cities have bans against carrying loaded weapons within city limits. As another example, Florida resident Doug Varrieur was featured on the Colbert Report for (legally) having an open air shooting range in his residential neighborhood.
In an interesting form of civil disobedience, some gun owners have started engaging in open carry protests. That is, they openly carry their guns to protest a gun law or gun related matter that they regard as unjust. For example, gun owners in San Antonio recently engaged in an open carry protest after a man was tased and arrested for openly carrying a loaded rifle in city limits. Other open carry protestors have taken to openly carrying their guns when patronizing businesses, such as restaurants and coffee shops. Some businesses, such as Chipotle, Sonic, Starbucks and Wendy’s have asked protestors to not openly carry weapons in their businesses, sparking some outrage from some protestors. As another example, some gun owners favor what has been called “constitutional carry” that would allow gun owners to openly carry guns without any license and stage open carry protests in support of this proposal.
What is very interesting is that the NRA has been critical of open carry protests conducted in restaurants and home improvement stores. The organization has even gone so far as to call such protests “weird.” The NRA also noted that “using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners.” One reason for this approach is practical—the NRA is aware that these open carry protests can frighten people and thus have a negative impact on the NRA’s efforts in regards to achieving its goals. Some of those supporting open carry have condemned the NRA for this chastisement and some have even expressed the view that the NRA is not sufficiently pro-gun. The NRA thus finds itself in a situation parallel to that of the Republican Party, namely being pulled towards extreme positions and being criticized for not being extreme enough. While I disagree with the NRA on many issues, I do agree with them in this matter: using guns in this way seems to be a bit less than sensible and it also seems counterproductive in that it will tend to scare more people than it wins over. That said, I do have some sympathy for the protestors.
As I mentioned above, I grew up in “the gun culture” and I actually totally get the appeal of being able to walk down the street packing iron and swinging heat. Of course, this is purely emotional and, as such, is hardly the basis for a considered position on the issue.
Some of my concerns are practical. One is, as also noted by the NRA, that people openly carrying guns in a Starbucks or Home Depot will tend to scare people and this could lead to unfortunate situations in which a protestor is mistaken as someone who has come to engage in a mass shooting. I freely admit that if I were to see someone coming into a restaurant openly carrying an AR-15, my first thought would be “this guy could be here to try to kill us all…” Until I heard of open carry protests, that would have been my only thought—and I would be calling 911 and working on a plan to kill him as quickly as possible should it come to that. After all, as the NRA notes, walking into a restaurant or store openly carrying a weapon is weird, not sensible and likely to frighten people—or trigger a potential shooter response. And I say this a person who grew up with guns.
Another concern is that armed people wandering about in a crowded store or restaurant can be a recipe for disaster. While most gun owners know how to safely handle weapons and would hopefully not walk into a business openly carrying a loaded weapon, it is easy enough to imagine someone forgetting to properly check her gun (or even intentionally loading it) and having a terrible accident occur. I am actually a bit surprised that this has not happened yet.
On the one hand, I think there are legitimate grounds for such protests. The obvious legal ground is the 1st Amendment and the obvious moral ground is the moral right of citizens to engage in peaceful protests against laws and actions they regard as unjust.
Interestingly enough, if gun owners intentionally violated open carry laws in order to protest them and did not engage in violent resistance when arrested, they would be acting within the tradition of civil disobedience first advocated by Henry David Thoreau. Given the moral pedigree of civil disobedience, this would seem to be moral acceptable and perhaps even praiseworthy (though some might regard the goal as ethically problematic).
On the other hand, the use of guns in the protests is a point of moral concern. On the face of it, it might be tempting to regard such protests as forms of bullying or threat making. After all, a gun is an instrument of violence and carrying it openly can easily be seen as expressing an intention to coerce or threaten. To some, armed people “occupying” a business or gathered in front of a police station would be seen not as an act of protest but as an act of intimidation—the message being “I have a gun…so give me what I want.” Citizens do not have the moral right to use the tools of threats and intimidation against other citizens and, as such, this would seem to indicate that such protests are morally wrong. This, of course, assumes that the protests are actually intended to intimidate or coerce.
However, it is worth considering that a threat might be implicit in many forms of legitimate protests—although the presence of guns would seem to make the threat rather less implicit. It is also worth noting that the protest is about guns—so the presence of guns would seem to be relevant, on par with people advocating legalizing marijuana bringing marijuana to their protests against marijuana laws they regard as unjust. Of course, a gun is rather more coercive than a joint.
My considered view is that open carry protests are, if safely conducted, morally legitimate protests and that they could be a form of civil disobedience (the irony of this is not lost on me). However, I do have the above mentioned concerns: the safety issues, the view that such protests are actually counterproductive to the avowed causes, and the clear potential that such protests could be legitimately regarded as acts of coercion rather than acts of protest.