Crazy about Open Carry

by Charles C. W. Cooke
It’s yet another evidence-free panic.

The University of Texas’s resident “writing and photography” guru, Matt Valentine, has identified for your delectation a vexatious “new craze.”

The worrying trend, Valentine reported yesterday on Salon, is nothing less than the open carrying of firearms, and it “is more dangerous than you think.” Crazy libertarians, you see, have opened up a “new front line in the battle over gun rights and public safety in American culture,” and they are demanding the “liberty to display their guns in public rather than keep them concealed under clothing.”

Valentine’s piece is chock-full of fun predictions. In the course of 2,200 words, he contends that soon all of us “will be affected by seeing guns in our everyday environment,” he cites psychologists who are worried about “the kind of actions people are going to take,” and he expresses concern that “habituating people to guns so that they no longer perceive any threat . . . might not be prudent.” Valentine doesn’t point to any cases of people taking action, of course, but he does run through the science of the thing, which apparently reveals that carrying a gun makes one more aggressive and, also, more likely to think that things that are not guns are in fact guns. The implication is clear, if tumescent: If we introduce guns into American life, the natives will start shooting one another in public.

Naturally, what Valentine doesn’t do is demonstrate that open carry has any actual effect on crime. Nor, for that matter, does he show that it leads to any real change in human behavior. One would imagine that if there were statistics linking the open carrying of firearms to crime, Valentine would cite them. But he doesn’t. Instead, he relies wholly on theory and prognosis, noting with disrelish that the “real world effects of open carry might soon be tested in the largest lab yet — the state of Texas.” In Texas, “it’s not currently legal to openly carry modern pistols,” Valentine observes correctly. But this might be about to change. And then what might happen . . . ?

Those who have been closely following the remarkable liberalization of gun laws over the past three decades might well roll their eyes at the question. After all, there is no need for Texas to “test” the idea in a “lab” when open carry is already unequivocally the law in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming, and, with varying restrictions, the law in Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Utah. I understand that Valentine writes for Salon, which regards Texas not only as separate from the rest of the country but as a veritable workshop of evil in America, but he could at least have acknowledged that the rest of the country has already tried this, and that it has not yet descended into anarchy and bloodshed.

Funnily enough, Valentine’s suggestion, that Open Carry will lead to widespread fear, routine shootings, and an evolutionarily damaging desensitization to violence, is eerily similar to the forecasts that gun-controllers made when the concealed-carry idea picked up steam in the late 1980s. Back then, Americans were told that granting carry permits to “ordinary citizens” would lead to Dodge City–style shootouts in the street, road-rage massacres, and even murders in the supermarket. It never happened. As of this year, all 50 states have concealed-carry regimes, and still none of this has come to pass. Indeed, since the revolution started in the late 1980s, gun violence has been cut in half. So much for the return of the O.K. Corral.

If Valentine is looking for a problem to solve, perhaps he could take a short break from scaring the poor hoplophobic dears on the political left and instead expend his energy fighting the capricious manner in which state police have chosen to treat citizens who openly carry firearms in jurisdictions in which doing so is legal. Valentine’s piece is hooked somewhat haphazardly onto the case of William Dong, a Connecticut citizen who faces criminal charges for the crime of having being seen in public with firearms by someone who doesn’t like them. Both Dong and his attorney insist that he is innocent, and he will plead not guilty — a claim that Valentine is happy to admit has genuine merit but leaves up in the air nonetheless.

If there is a problem with Open Carry, it is not that it is likely to lead to widespread death, but that it is likely to lead to widespread confusion. In Connecticut, where Dong will be tried, police memos fully acknowledge that “there is NO state statute which makes it illegal for someone with a valid permit to openly carry a pistol in plain view,” and thus that “state Police personnel should NOT arrest a properly permitted individual merely for publicly carrying a hand gun or firearm in plain view.” And yet cases in which state police have done just that proliferate. William Dong had a permit to carry firearms. Why is he being harassed?

The open-carry question is a more complex one than some of its advocates like to admit. As I have repeatedly argued, there really is a line at which “carrying” a firearm becomes more: “intimidation,” perhaps, or “breaching the peace.” In England, the terms “alarm” and “upset” are dangerously vague legal concepts that are used to stifle free speech: They can quickly be turned by dissenters into a virtual heckler’s veto. Because they represent a subjective standard, there is little to stop someone from claiming that he was distressed, and expecting police to arrest the cause. But, this aside, in the case of firearm-carrying there is a line, and it is to the credit of almost every state that they have allowed law enforcement some discretion in this area.

Likewise, there are important extra-legal questions. One of the more valuable precepts of our civil society is that one’s having a constitutional right to do something does not necessarily mean that one should do it. In much of the country, Second Amendment advocates are quite right when they insist that openly carrying guns is legal. But that’s not the point. Of course people are going to be upset if you walk brazenly into a coffee shop with an AR-15, and no amount of “It’s my right” will change the fact. Suffice it to say that you probably won’t do a great job of attracting people to your cause if your idea of proselytizing is to stick a gun and a copy of the Constitution in their faces.

Insofar as Valentine is establishing that the move toward open carry is likely to cause some problems, he is on solid ground. Nevertheless, the desire to transmute every minor change in the gun laws into a potential public-safety catastrophe remains one of the Left’s more infuriating tics. During the last 20 years, the gun-control movement’s case has been gradually demolished both in theory and in practice — to the extent that all that it has left is hysteria, hyperbole, and lies. Let the “science” show what it may, the prognosticators continue with their predictions of doom. On the ground, the country remains safer than ever. And with results like these, there seems little to do but let the “crazes” continue unmolested.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.