By Terry Miller
In recent weeks, and the wake of more senseless and horrific mass shootings, the national debate has once again turned to gun control, ease of purchase along with a myriad of unanswerable questions. How can this continue to happen in the United States?
Of course, there is no easy answer for such a multifaceted impasse. However, as we recently learned in doing some research for this article, carrying openly visible guns in public is extremely common in more than half of the United States.
Naturally, this can quickly turn disagreements fatal, be used to threaten and suppress the First Amendment rights of others, and create severe uncertainty for law enforcement responding to shootings.
Despite the evidence that openly carrying firearms endangers public safety, many states lack laws to limit open carry—and some have even taken steps to diminish the regulation(s) of visible guns in public.
Historically, most states either prohibited or strongly regulated the carrying of firearms in public. Over the past three decades, however, state laws have changed dramatically. In that time, many states have significantly weakened their laws, which resulted in permitting more people to carry guns in public places and to reduce or eliminate local law enforcement’s ability to keep potentially dangerous people from carrying guns in public.
Open carry refers to the practice of carrying openly visible firearms in public. Though most states continue to require a permit in order to carry a concealed weapon, many states now place few or no restrictions on open carry. In fact, some states have imposed draconian requirements on private businesses that wish to keep deadly weapons off their property.
We were stunned to find 30 states have little or no laws against carrying a weapon.
By promoting gun carrying in public places, often with few restrictions, open carry can increase the likelihood of conflict, severely endangering public safety.
Researchers have suggested that the presence of visible firearms may alter behavior and increase aggressive and violent behaviors.
Multiple studies show that restrictions on carrying concealed weapons can increase public safety. For example, recent analyses have shown that states with weak standards for concealed carry have higher rates of violent crime and gun homicides than would be expected if the states had stricter standards for publically carrying weapons.
White Supremacists have long used firearms—and permissive open carry laws—to threaten and intimidate others, with examples of such violence going back to the Reconstruction Era.
In 2017, a group of white supremacists protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, openly carrying military-style rifles as a means to intimidate and suppress the Constitutional rights of others.
White supremacists have also abused weak open carry laws to threaten and intimidate at other rallies across the country, as well as in front of houses of worship and electoral campaign offices.
Recent examples show that open carry can create substantial confusion for law enforcement officers, impeding their ability to protect public safety.
911 calls from concerned citizens about people openly carrying firearms can create confusion for responding officers and can endanger both officers and gun carriers.
Similarly, in states with open carry laws, law enforcement agencies can have difficulties distinguishing between credible threats to public safety and legal open carry. In October 2015, a Colorado woman reported a man with a long black rifle outside her home, but officers did not immediately respond to her call because open carry is legal in that state. Shortly after the 911 call, the gun carrier shot and killed three people.
Open carry can also complicate police response to shootings. In the July 2016 shooting of police officers in Dallas, law enforcement struggled to distinguish between people legally carrying guns openly and the gunman responsible for the attack.
SUMMARY OF FEDERAL LAW
Federal law does not restrict the open carrying of firearms in public, although specific rules may apply to property owned or operated by the federal government.
SUMMARY OF STATE LAW
Three states (California, Florida, and Illinois) and the District of Columbia generally prohibit people from openly carrying firearms in public. Two states (New York and South Carolina) prohibit openly carrying handguns, but not long guns, and another three states (Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey) prohibit openly carrying long guns, but not handguns. In the remaining states, people are generally allowed to openly carry firearms, although some states require a permit or license to do so.
Please also note that open carry laws are usually subject to significant exceptions. Most states that allow open carrying still prohibit carrying firearms in some specific locations such as schools, state-owned businesses, places where alcohol is served, and on public transportation. The lists below are meant only to reflect whether open carry is generally allowed or prohibited.
Five states, California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and South Carolina, as well as the District of Columbia, generally prohibit people from openly carrying handguns in public places. Thirty-one states allow the open carrying of a handgun without any license or permit, although in some cases the gun must be unloaded. Fifteen states require some form of license or permit in order to openly carry a handgun.
The first is permissive open carry. This means that it is legal to carry a firearm on foot and in a vehicle openly. A license or permit is not required to open carry in these states. States and territories with permissive laws are:
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Northern Mariana Islands, Ohio, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming.