Post-Baton Rouge, I’ve seen a lot of criticism of laws that permit the open carrying of firearms (or, to be more precise, the absence of laws that prohibit the same). This tweet, one of thousands I saw yesterday, summed up the progressive critique quite well:
— David Harris-Gershon (@David_EHG) July 17, 2016
As it happens, I have fairly nuanced views on open carry — if you’re interested, you can read them here and here and here – but I don’t want to reiterate those today. Rather, I want to correct a few misconceptions lest this debate get off on the wrong foot.
First off: It cannot be said often enough that the open carrying of long guns is neither niche nor new. During both the Dallas and Baton Rouge shootings it was suggested in the media that open carry rules are a) self-evidently “insane,” and b) that they are the product of the unchecked Second Amendment extremism” that one finds in the more conservative parts of the country. But neither of these submissions is correct. In fact, a remarkable 44 of America’s 50 states have declined to prohibit the carrying of long guns, and, as of yet, there have been few problems as a result of their doing so. To people who live in cities, it may indeed seem rather odd that anyone who is so disposed can strap a shotgun to his back and walk around with impunity. But “odd” does not equal “dangerous,” and nor does it equal “insane.” Right now, it is lawful for Americans in Rhode Island, in Connecticut, and in New York to carry their rifles openly. That you haven’t heard much about their doing so should tell you something important: This really isn’t a problem.
Second: Baton Rouge really had nothing to do with open carry.
From what I can gather, the case against Louisiana goes a little like this: 1) The shooter carried his rifle openly. 2) Because this was legal, it would have been difficult for the police to stop him before he committed his crime. 3) He committed a crime. 4) Therefore open carry is bad.
To which I would respond: Have those advancing this argument not read what actually happened yesterday? As in Dallas, the shooter in Baton Rouge purposely set out to kill police officers. As in Dallas, he was dressed up like a special forces agent. As in Dallas, he used his military training to inflict as much damage as he could. What, pray, would have been different had somebody seen him and called the police? As we now know, the shooter’s entire aim was to get close to the police so that he could hurt them; indeed, per Reuters, he deliberately “lured them” into his vicinity with a 911 call. Suppose that open carry had been illegal in Louisiana yesterday. Wouldn’t the police have just been lured a little quicker?
Hell, suppose for the sake of argument that this killing had happened in Canada or Germany, in both of which countries guns are harder to come by and open carry is prohibited by law. What, in even those cases, would have been different? Once again: This was a man who explicitly wanted to engage the cops; a man who wanted to shoot at the cops; a man who wanted to kill the cops. Are we to believe that the means by which he got their attention would have mattered?
Nah. Had this happened in Berlin, a bystander would 1) have seen the shooter, 2) have dutifully called the police, and 3) have watched in horror as the police arrived in time to be gunned down. In the abstract, it is reasonable for gun controllers to argue that open carry increases the risk of putatively peaceful citizens starting gunfights if provoked. It is reasonable, too, to argue that open carry makes life difficult for the police, who can not know at first glance if a carrier is a criminal or a law-abiding citizen. But it is not reasonable to argue that open carry hurts in situations such as the one we just saw in Baton Rouge. Why not? Well, because the killer there desired nothing more than a showdown with the law. Giving him such a showdown a little more quickly would have helped nothing.
As I have written repeatedly, I am generally sympathetic to the idea that open carry should be sparingly used — not because the “what if?” situations adumbrated above ever actually come to pass, but because I believe that it is incumbent upon gun owners to be polite and because gratuitously scaring people is impolite. Moreover, I am generally fine with the imposition of limited time/place restrictions on the carrying of arms (as, it should be noted, were the American founders). But it seems to me in the wake of Baton Rouge that we are once again being tempted to blame laws for the actions of men, and to invent problems where they do not exist.
One of the biggest mistakes the gun control movement has made over the last thirty years is to have predicted over and over again that an absence of laws will lead to shootouts in the streets. We heard this warning when concealed carry laws were being loosened, and . . . nothing happened. We heard this warning when campus carry was gaining traction, and . . . nothing happened. And we are now hearing it said that America’s almost ubiquitous open carry policies — many of which have been in place since before the Revolution — are causing problems that are worth our attention. That simply isn’t true, whatever else may be going on at present.