Want to get a flame war going in a discussion about guns? Certain topics are a guarantee. Call out, “Forty-five or nine millimeter,” and get behind something solid. Or bring up steel vs. Tupperware—I mean, polymer. But one subject draws even the attention and ire of people who have never owned a gun and have never wanted to come within hailing distance of a gun: open carry.
First, let’s clarify some terms and language. It’s obvious to say that open carry means the firearm will be visible to others, but think through that. The firearm will be visible to others. Now the good guys in western movies carried their revolvers and rifles openly, except when they didn’t, but conceptually, the popular image of the honest hero is of nothing hidden. But for many in this modern age, a firearm that they can see is intimidating, to use language in an Everytown for Gun Safety press release, for example. And it’s that openness that lies at the heart of the matter—why it’s done and why it should or shouldn’t be done.
But before that, as someone who pays a good number of his bills by grading papers, I have to make one point on usage. When I hear people use the expression, “I open carry,” it grates on my ears. “I carry openly” will please your English teachers, even if they find the practice itself deplorable. All right, this may seem to be a minor point, but it aims at something much larger, namely the notion of ethos that I mentioned in another article, which I will come back to in the future. How we are perceived does matter, not for the right itself, since rights are inherent, but for how much success we’ll have in exercising this right in its many aspects.
When it comes to open carry, I can’t speak from experience, since most of my time as a carry license holder has been in Arkansas, a state where said practice may or may not be legal, unless you’re in Van Buren, where it’s supposed to be legal, perhaps—no matter what the Wall Street Journal happens to believe. I’m not being confusing for no reason. Even professors at the University of Arkansas’s law school aren’t sure what the law allows. As Massad Ayoob once said, Mama didn’t raise any test cases, so I’ve left open carry to others. As someone without a dog in the hunt, I do hope to have a dispassionate view of things.
A couple of reasons for open carry are easy to make. One fact about where I live is the curious habit of the wind always to blow in the opposite direction that I’m going. That being the case, an open shirt or jacket presents problems as a concealment garment. Or to put things another way, should a Marilyn Monroe moment expose a carry license holder to prosecution for brandishing?
Arkansas is also the Natural State. This means getting away from civilization can be done in most any direction after a few minutes, including escaping from the burden of air conditioning during our hot summers. Sweat and guns don’t go well together—did I mention polymer somewhere?—and open carry sounds like a good idea in the woods where the breeze can move drops of salty water about, instead of allowing the to stay in one spot on the surface of the blued steel.
Notice that those are considerations that likely never occur to people not familiar with the carry of handguns. We in the flyover states who want to leave concrete and asphalt behind from time to time know about these things, and it’s up to us to remind our more consistently civilized fellows (from civis, Latin for city) about the pleasures of the wilds. In fact, my first exposure to open carry came when I was a child, walking with my parents on a bit of the Appalachian Trail in my home state of North Carolina. I saw a backpacker with his son, the father wearing a revolver openly on his hip. That image has stayed with me, a demonstration of something that was sensible, given the reputation of the trail, and something that when it’s seen more often comes to feel normal.
And that’s the main case made for open carry. I appreciate in this context the argument made by OpenCarry.org that “a right unexercised is a right lost.” Rights do need to be exercised in public to remind everyone of their existence. This is especially the case when the right offends some people. The most insidious form of censorship is the kind we impose on ourselves for fear of drawing disapproval.
That being said, it’s incumbent on those of us who do carry openly to present an ethos of good people doing not only nothing wrong, but also what is right. The accusation of gun control advocates is that people carrying openly are doing so to make a scene, to intimidate, to frighten others. As I’ve said elsewhere, every group has all kinds, and I can’t speak to the reasons each one of us has for our actions, but my experience of talking to fellow gun owners and carriers is that most of us are just going about our days. And that’s as it should be. We’re not trying to draw special attention. We’re not searching for a reaction. But if you carry openly, perhaps you will get people wanting to talk to you or even to confront you. Moments like that are opportunities. Some people are beyond reaching, but a calm response, explaining in rational terms what you’re doing will win more understanding to our cause.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.
Cover: Alex Garland