Handgun Open Carry Laws

“Happiness is a Warm Gun”

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The passage above is familiar to most Americans with a cursory familiarity with our United States Constitution. Said passage is the Second Amendment to the Constitution, accepted by the House of Representatives in 1789. Two hundred and nineteen years later, Americans were faced with debates regarding the applicability of this amendment to everyday life, after the Supreme Court ruled that a Washington D.C. statute banning ownership of handguns was un-Constitutional.

Time does not permit a review of the merits or shortcomings of this issue here, but a new debate is gaining a lot of attention in the state of Texas, and that involves the open bearing of handguns in public. What is the stated purpose for this “refinement” of the existing law? What might be other reasons for an “open carry” law? And does it make any sense? According to Jacquielynn Floyd writing in the Dallas Morning News, Mr. Ian McCarthy started a petition drive in the state of Texas last year advocating an open-carry law. According to the website OpenCarry.org, more than 40,000 Texans have signed so far.

McCarthy lists a number of reasons justifying the need for this new law, the first two of which are citations to the Second Amendment. His third point says “Criminals are not deterred by rules, regulations, and laws forbidding the possession of weapons. A man bent on mass murder will not be stopped by a rule forbidding him to have a gun.” This of course is a restatement of the familiar axiom that “if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” But what is the empirical data behind this? According to Wikipedia’s article on gun related homicides per capita on countries with a gross national income of $15,000 or more, the United States leads the pack. And based on the statistical database found in Statemaster.com, the District of Columbia leads the rest of the nation in firearm deaths by a comfortable margin. So at best, the evidence is unpersuasive that handguns, and especially open display of handguns, result in a reduction in deaths by such weapons.

So why the emphasis on this notion of “open-carry”? Returning again to the group leading this battle, we see an attractive “soccer mom” with her cell phone holstered on her left hip, and her handgun on the right. The only thing missing is an apple pie. Again referring to OpenCarry.Org, here are some of the justifications for the ability to display your sidearm like Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke:

4. It is well known that the requirement to conceal a handgun for the purpose of protecting self, friends, and family can be difficult especially in Texas with our extreme heat since a person will usually have to wear a jacket to properly conceal a handgun and to avoid “printing.”

5. The requirement to conceal a handgun can make it difficult to draw the weapon should the life of the carrier or the life of someone else be in danger.

6. A criminal will not open carry a weapon because he does not want to draw attention to himself. We believe that a citizen openly carrying a handgun lawfully will be a deterrent for crime.

There seems to be an emphasis on the importance of visually displaying guns for all (especially criminals) to see. Is it simply the intimidation factor that the proponents of this law view as significant? Our local and state police wear their weaponry openly (at least those with the specific role of civil peacekeeper), but that is in addition to badges and uniforms which mark them as assigned with this responsibility. And of course we know that the English police also wear uniforms and badges without the necessity of carrying a sidearm. Do the “open carry” constituents consider our designated police officers ineffectual or incompetent, or do they rather want to elevate themselves to the level of “keepers of the law” for reasons more subtle than that? There are academies for the training of police officers, funded by tax payer dollars.

The purpose of these is to prepare those desirous of this life of service to be skilled and discerning in the use of tools to keep the civil peace. The emphasis is the use of all strategies first before utilizing “deadly force”, which is the way we as a people seem to prefer, and certainly our courts have expressed that preference. Will the soccer mom or construction worker, when faced with a perceived threat, exercise the caution and discernment that is legally required of a trained police officer before taking the law into their own hands? We have seen in tragic cases how the judicious use of force is a great challenge even for the trained officer, so are we as a society really interested in extending that challenge to the general populace? In Ms. Floyd’s article, she quotes Mr. McCarthy as saying on an Austin radio station “it’s kind of sad that people are so afraid of guns.” She goes on to quip “Why? People ought to have a little healthy fear of guns – they can kill you!”

In our sentimentalized view of the Old West, citizens on the frontier found themselves surrounded by imminent danger, and insufficient or non-existent governmental protection, creating the necessity for a rifle at every door, and a holstered gun on the hip of every man. Regardless of the historical truth of this “ideal”, the proponents of “Open Carry” legislation maintain a view that questions the ability of our designated police officers to protect life and property. And even more insidious is the opinion of these proponents that perhaps the “established authorities” are really in league with the criminals who want to steal or destroy all that is near and dear to them.

Could that possibly be? The sins of racial and class hatred are a part of the human condition, and the fear of the “the other” who have different views, languages, or beliefs, is all too easily viewed, even in our society today. The lines of division that have been so apparent through the last election cycle have emphasized the cultural touchstones that identify the Red versus Blue, liberal versus conservative, Republican versus Democrat. And Second Amendment rights are one of the primary areas of emphasis for the conservative minded or persuaded. Witness the surge in gun purchases before and after the Presidential election by those who have been trained to believe that the forces of the Left are poised to break down the doors of the righteous citizens and haul away all their guns.

Once that happens, the forces of crime and Hell will be unleashed upon the masses, and crime and murder will be the norm. We have to hope that cooler heads will prevail, and of course reality and statistics noted earlier indicate that Americans seem to have a gun violence problem on a far greater scale than other countries, even with our more liberal gun rights. The New York Times editorial dated December 2nd, 2008 quotes President-elect Obama as stating at the Democratic convention “Don’t tell me we can’t uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47’s out of the hands of criminals.” Common sense policy must view the notion of “open carry” legislation as a step in the wrong direction in terms of reducing gun violence in the United States.