Openly Carried Guns Affect Gun Debate in Polarizing Ways

How would the debate about gun control be different if everyone who owned a gun carried it with them, and carried it openly, at all times? A micro-case of this recently occurred in Virginia. NPR reported that a 22 year-old man carried an assault rifle slung over his shoulder into a Kroger grocery store. Some shoppers fled the store, while others immediately called 911. The police came, searched, and questioned the man, but he was not arrested. In Virginia, “open-carry” is legal. While businesses can choose to ban firearms from their premises, the act of carrying a gun is not illegal. Did the man not realize that his actions would cause a stir? A note found on the man when police searched him indicated that he was carrying the gun to exercise his first and second amendment rights.

This constitutional issue is the main challenge of gun control, of course. But so too is a culture where guns are most often owned by law-abiding citizens who store their guns properly and do not use them to provoke others. It is thus possible to see irresponsible use of guns as the acts of criminals, whose ownership of guns might not be reduced through background checks. Even for non-gun owning citizens, the relative invisibility of guns may make issues of gun control seem unimportant.

But what if guns were more visible? Here’s what might change. First, more businesses would explicitly ban guns from their premises. As I walked into a cafĂ© on State Street this morning, I noted a “no guns allowed” sign on the door. Second, businesses may push legislators to make carrying a gun in a place where it is banned a criminal offense. Third, many Americans will reveal their fear of guns in a much more explicit way. Consider the actions of the Kroger customers in Virginia–running and calling the police–all because a man was carrying a gun and going about his shopping. The presence of a gun in everyday life (especially an assault rifle) has come to mean death and destruction. Fourth, gun rights advocates will press for even more liberal gun laws. Recently, legislation to allow “open carry” has been introduced or passed in many states including Kentucky and Texas.

In short, if more people exercised their rights of open-carry, the gun debate would become even more polarized. But would we also become better informed about attitudes toward guns in the United States? One dichotomy would become clear very quickly: The biggest divide about guns is between people who fear guns and people who fetishize them. It is very difficult to convince people who fear guns that guns can be owned and stored responsibly and that there are responsible uses of guns, including hunting and target sports. It is very difficult to convince people who fetishize guns that those attitudes are shaped by gun advertising, that some gun owners do not see guns first as dangerous and powerful tools, and that the fear of guns is more likely to create safer environments than fetishizing guns will. (The fetishizing of guns is what drove NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre to suggest more guns as the solution to gun violence.)

Responsible gun ownership means, quite simply, that only those who use the guns for safe, legal purposes in controlled conditions can access the guns and that access is completely controlled by the gun’s owner. Any circumstance of gun access that does not meet these conditions is therefore irresponsible gun ownership. This includes open-carry because other people could gain access to the weapon, either to use it immediately (especially dangerous if the carrier has ammunition, either in the gun or on his person) or steal it. If open-carry leads Americans to recognize this important fact, then I hope more people begin exercising their rights. But if open-carry simply increases the danger of gun violence while also making citizens feel in danger and hurting business, then I hope more states begin to restrict this potentially disastrous policy.

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