Tallying the Costs of Open Carry

More and more Americans are being introduced to new, expansive laws permitting guns in public spaces—and to their intrusive side effects.

Mother's Cafe, Austin, Texas (Matt Valentine)

As soon as they arrived at the public library in Covington, Kentucky, Michele Mueller and Tracey Goodlett realized they were walking into an armed ambush. The women are the leaders, respectively, of the Ohio and Kentucky chapters of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. From online comments and past experiences, they weren’t overly surprised that their new-member orientation was being targeted for an open-carry demonstration. Mueller sent me a photo she took in the parking lot; the bumper sticker on a red Toyota reads: “If you say guns kill people one more time, I will shoot you with a gun and you will (coincidentally) die.”

“That was a flag that we were walking into a situation, possibly,” Mueller says. “At first, we noticed there were some armed people standing outside of our door,” Goodlett adds. She recognized one man, who had previously protested a lemonade stand the moms had sponsored, displaying his gun and staring at the volunteers. He had also followed the women during a gun-violence-awareness march, carrying a semiautomatic rifle and a holstered pistol. This was the first time he had actually come for one of their meetings. “He’s getting braver,” Goodlett says.

The armed men signed in, took their seats, and listened quietly to the presentations. Two women, who had brought children with them, left immediately. The library staff and other patrons definitely noticed the armed presence, and a police officer walked past the meeting room and glanced in briefly. But nobody was arrested or asked to leave. Displaying a firearm in public, “open carry,” has been legal in nearly all public buildings in Kentucky, including libraries, since 2013.

The expansion of open carry in the Bluegrass State reflects a nationwide trend in recent years: allowing openly carried guns into many places where they were previously banned. Just a few days before the armed demonstration at Covington’s public library, a group of “gun hobbyists” met in a Terre Haute, Indiana, public library. One of them unintentionally fired his weapon, causing minor damage to a wall. Again, nobody was arrested, and no one so much as lost their book-borrowing privileges—open carry has been legal in most Indiana public buildings since 2011. Accidentally firing one’s weapon is treated as just that: an accident.

Announcing new executive actions on gun control in January, President Obama warned that unchecked gun rights could intrude on other rights, such as religious freedom and peaceful assembly. He invoked the mass shootings that had killed scores in churches and movie theaters. But newly broadened gun rights, particularly expansions of open carry, have begun to intrude pervasively on other rights as well—including the rights of private property owners—even when nobody gets shot. The effects can’t be quantified in death reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or in crime statistics from the FBI, but they are quietly touching the lives of thousands of Americans more directly than mass shootings ever will.

Consider this year’s expansion of open carry in Texas, where people with concealed-handgun licenses may now also carry pistols openly and in places they were previously banned, such as churches and some public buildings. Proponents repeatedly asserted that the new law would not increase crime and might even deter it. And Richard Briscoe, legislative director for the gun-rights group Open Carry Texas, testified to the Senate Committee on State Affairs, three weeks after the expansion took effect, that implementation was proceeding smoothly: “It’s been remarkably uneventful, just as expected. They are a very law-abiding group of people. The most recent statistics from the Department of Public Safety are that license holders statewide have an offense rate of 0.3 percent.”

In fact, the DPS data that Briscoe referenced reflect a low conviction rate for people with concealed-handgun licenses. The data also provides a demographic portrait of the typical licensee: white, male, and with a zip code in the suburbs. Saying that licensed handgun carriers are rarely convicted of felonies in Texas is just another way of saying that middle-class white men are rarely convicted of felonies in Texas. As illustrated in The New Republic and reiterated in Slate, prosecutors are reluctant to bring charges against a “good guy with a gun,” even in cases of deadly negligence. The privileges of licensed carry are particularly evident at the Texas State Capitol Building, where licensees are waved through their own separate entrance while everyone else waits in line to pass through a metal detector. The concealed-handgun license is also a valid voter ID in Texas—a college ID from a state institution is not. The concealed-handgun license only requires four hours of training, followed by an impossible-to-fail test—the perks might be worth the application fee, even for someone who never intends to carry a gun.

But even if it were true that licensed carriers rarely hurt anyone physically, laws designed to further accommodate carriers still present other, unanticipated intrusions. Consider the Quakers of Live Oak Friends Meeting in Houston. As committed pacifists who generally deplore guns, the Friends debated for months about whether and how to respond to open-carry laws. To effectively ban guns under the new law, the Quakers would have to plaster their place of worship with signage, defacing a building that is literally a work of art—a James Turrell skyspace. “The signs are massive and ugly and must be placed at every entrance,” says Katharine Jager, a member of the Meeting. “This is a problem because we have so many doors—twenty in total.”

To keep out both open and concealed guns, the Friends would need to post a whopping 40 signs. Texas law specifies one-inch-tall letters, with text in English and Spanish. Any deviation from the exact language provided (even correcting the spelling errors in the state’s Spanish translation) might invalidate a sign, a caveat that licensed carriers actually exploit: Gun-rights advocates have created a website and an iPhone app to track posted locations, noting any noncompliant signs they think they can ignore. “All of our attempts to create different language that more accurately reflects our values and our tradition of pacifism fail in the face of these laws,” Jager says. “It’s appalling.” Similarly, Catholic bishops in Tyler and Dallas and the chancellor of the El Paso diocese also oppose open carry in churches, but that position has alienated some of their gun-carrying parishioners and has been an ongoing topic of debate among Texas Catholics.

Not every venue has angst about the signs. “It’s a little garish, but it also can’t be missed,” says John Silberberg, one of the owners of Mother’s Cafe in Austin. “We were struck by how large it was but moved on.” Silberberg received several calls at the beginning of the year from people asking whether open carry would be allowed at Mother’s. Without exception, the customers Silberberg spoke to said they wanted guns banned, which he attributes to the particular clientele of the homey vegetarian restaurant. “Our parking lot half the time looks like a used-Prius dealership,” he says. “You’re never gonna see a Prius with a bumper sticker that says, ‘From my cold dead hands.’”

Silberberg doesn’t know if any of his customers carried concealed weapons in the past, and prior to 2016, Mother’s had never posted a sign to ban concealed carry. “Open carry is so much more in your face,” Silberberg says. “And proponents have been sort of staging things in such a flamboyant fashion that it has pushed its way into everyone’s awareness.” When the restaurant ordered a sign to ban open carry, they went ahead and ordered another to ban concealed weapons. The twin signs are now posted on the host station, the first thing customers see when they walk through the door. Mother’s is just one of many restaurants to make the leap from no signs to two—a trend that has filled online gun forums with murmurs that the new law has backfired.

Other businesses—especially national chains—have tried to find some sort of compromise on open carry. Target issued a statement that they would prefer customers not bring guns into the store, but its stores won’t be posting signs to formally prohibit it. Walmart, the largest gun retailer in the United States, decided to allow open carry in its Texas locations, but it instructs employees to ask armed customers to show their licenses. (Add “confronting armed men” to the list of job responsibilities for those hourly employees in blue vests.)

“The law is forcing business to take a side, essentially,” says Ed Scruggs, a board member of Texas Gun Sense. “They’re either comfortable with the idea of somebody carrying openly in their establishment, or they’re not.” This puts businesses in an awkward position. “They don’t like that,” says Scruggs. “They don’t like having to take a stand that some of their customers might find controversial.” Scruggs has called hundreds of Texas businesses to ask them how they’re handling the transition to the new law. He says some have heard feedback from customers who think open carry is not so much dangerous as it is intimidating or rude. “It’s also very distracting,” Scruggs says. “For example, if we’re sitting here having lunch right now and there’s a person sitting right over there with a Colt .45, I could not help but be looking over there the entire time.”

That phenomenon—fixation on the sight of a gun—is called “weapon focus,” something psychologists and legal experts have observed for decades. Weapon focus occurs when a person sees a weapon and gives her whole attention to it—to the exclusion of the other details of her surroundings. This psychological and physiological response was observed in empirical studies in the 1970s and 1980s, and it is a factor that courts sometimes observe in eyewitness testimony: Witnesses often clearly remember seeing a gun during a crime but are hazy about everything else, because all their focus was on the weapon.

People throughout the United States are now having their first encounters with open carry—at restaurants, libraries, churches, schools, psychiatric hospitals, and lemonade stands—often in the form of armed extremism as a kind of social activism. In Michigan, open carriers are demonstrating in support of the people of Flint (though it’s unclear how guns might assuage lead poisoning). And, intentionally or not, the militants at Malheur Wildlife refuge in Burns, Oregon, have become representatives of the open-carry movement. Other legal transgressions notwithstanding, the anti-government protesters in Oregon aren’t breaking any laws by displaying their weapons. Open carry is legal under state law, and legal under an expansion of federal gun rights in national parks signed by President Obama in 2009.

For weeks, though, the conspicuous presence of guns influenced every aspect of life in Burns and the surrounding community. School was closed for days. Public meetings were canceled due to safety concerns. Public officials even quit their jobs and moved away. All before a single shot was fired. Why? Because locals saw the open display of guns as something other than merely an exercise of Second Amendment rights. They saw a threat.