Editor’s Note: As a follow up on our recent open carry discussion, I asked Aaron Cowan, the Lead Instructor for Sage Dynamics and law enforcement officer to comment on open carry from a pro-liberty LEO perspective. I hope that this time around we can have a more intelligent debate on the topic without people jumping to unsupported and erroneous conclusions. To facilitate that, here are a few rules of engagement.
- If you comment on this article, you are certifying that you actually read it. Novel idea, I know. If your comment makes it clear to me that you didn’t read the article, your comment will be removed.
- Comments will be kept civil. If you want to disagree or argue a point, please feel free, but if you cannot do so without ad hominems or other window licking behavior, your comment will be removed.
- Comments that accuse the author or the site of being anti-gun, anti-open carry or anti-liberty will automatically violate rule number 1 (because nothing could be further from the truth) and will be removed.
I support responsible open carry. I do not support open carry as a political statement, or a means to incite possible negative contact with law enforcement. I know, as you do, that our Constitutional Rights and our Second Amendment Rights specifically are very emotional subjects, as they should be. I consider the protection of all constitutional rights a responsibility of the people that they protect. When it comes to open carry, the obvious (and correct) explanation to those who do not agree with it is that it is their right by law to do so and in some states, the only manner a firearm can be carried in a lawful manner. I also agree with this.
What I do not agree with is someone exercising a right but not being morally responsible in doing so. With the carry of a firearm comes the responsibility to know how to use it and the responsibility to keep it out of the hands, to the best of your ability, those who would use it to harm innocent people. With an openly carried firearm you are announcing to anyone who recognizes it for what it is, that there is a firearm present. I won’t go into the usual hyperbole some use about the subject but I will say this; everywhere you go, you are carrying with you the means to take a life and protect life and it should be accorded the appropriate respect. Without cherry picking specific situations I have encountered, I think each of us can remember a time when we observed someone carrying a firearm openly in an unsafe manner. Using a holster without retention or an obvious lack of situational awareness are but two ways that an OC can and does look like food to anyone with the inclination and the ability to take their weapon.
We also have the responsibility to consider that the largest part of our population that open carries on a regular basis, law enforcement; have received varied degrees of weapon retention training to prevent their weapon being used against them or others. Some of these very same trained individuals will at some point in their career have their weapon taken from them and some will lose their lives. Of course our police officers, by occupation, seek out and interact with the criminally inclined while the responsible OC is just going about his or her daily life with no intention of seeking out a criminal. Because of the nature of an officer’s job, some would say they are far more likely to encounter someone who would make a grab for their weapon and I totally agree. But the statistics stand (you can refer to the latest data from the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted report for specific figures) and show us that even with training, officers are killed with their own weapon. We should also consider that a great many more officers do not lose their lives because they were able to defend their weapon against a grab successfully. If you open carry and have not taken steps to do so responsibly by receiving professional instruction on weapon retention, I would be most interested in hearing how not training has made you a more responsible gun owner. Would you be criminally negligent if your weapon was taken from you and used against others? Possibly. Would you be civilly liable? Almost guaranteed.
It can also send a bad signal to the general public. We want normalcy with open carry, not grandstanding. I am not saying that you shouldn’t exercise a right because it may scare or offend someone, but I think that to ignore this possibility and the consequences of it is foolish. For open carry to be publically accepted (which is a steep slope to climb due to the negative media attention it receives) then those who choose to OC should be seen as responsible by the public. Firearms are not political props or personal statements for the public ingestion; they are tools for self-defense. For the mass of low-information Americans to accept this, we have to educate them, but if you have put any though to how to do that, you know that we don’t get to decide how they learn. Our best representation for open carry is responsibility. Disheveled appearance, poor weapon awareness, overt posturing and bad attitudes are but a few ways that we can alienate those we come in contact with. If you are openly carrying, you are inviting a conversation about it and will do nothing to help perception if you are not willing to have that conversation in a respectful and thoughtful manner. Sure, you can brush someone off our use the stock “It’s my right” line (because it is) but consider that your interaction may cause that person to view OC negatively and that same person may be one of the few people left who actually votes. We can have a political discourse with the general public without grandstanding to get their attention. I love nothing more than a passionate gun owner but I have to shake my head at the size of some of the soap boxes people use to shove their rights into other people’s faces as they go about their daily lives. There is a time and a place for that; physically displaying a firearm as a means of political posturing first and self-defense second is the wrong order of things.
Inevitably any discussion of open carry leads to the discussion of law enforcement and how they react to it. Law enforcement, like any other profession, has good and bad people doing the job and unfortunately varied degrees of legal knowledge across the profession. Police officers are inquisitive by nature and training and some are nosy by purpose. If it looks out of place, it tends to draw our attention. The open carry of a handgun, and almost assuredly a rifle in certain areas will get our attention. We will want to talk to you, especially if we don’t know you and guaranteed if someone called us about you. If you are lucky, you will get someone like me, an Oathkeeper who is an American first and a LEO second; someone who knows the law and pays attention to the semantics of a situation. But we know that you may very well end up facing the worst, most uneducated officer on shift and he/she may very well treat you like a threat because that’s how he/she perceives you.
This perception can be based on any number of factors, from your personal appearance and location to the nature of the call (if there was one) or even his/her attitude towards citizens or perhaps your initial attitude towards him/her. You may be treated with the utmost respect, or you may be threatened. Keep in mind that you know what the cop doesn’t, which is to say that you know you. You can be the most patriotic, law abiding citizen that good parenting and proper education has ever produced but as LEOs, we have no way of knowing that and we don’t make a habit of taking someone’s word for it without supporting facts. You may be threatened during the course of a contact with a LEO, usually right at the beginning and this is far more common than you might think. If an officer is dispatched to a “man with a gun” call, it will be treated as such until shown otherwise. Feelings can be hurt, pride bruised and time wasted but your contact with that officer is going to help shape his or her opinion of those who open carry. I think it’s also important to note that officers self-initiating contact with someone openly carrying a firearm has prevented crimes in the past and does so regularly. Law abiding citizens are not the only ones who purposely display firearms. A simple stop and talk is all that is needed and both parties can be on their way, unfortunately we know that there are LEOs who are anti-gun rights and I personally wish they would all be fired for forgetting their oath, but it isn’t going to happen tomorrow, and until it does, our best action is to represent all responsible gun owners as responsible citizens.
We cannot be a house divided. The open carry issue is one that we helped create, not because we were arguing amongst ourselves (we do that quite a bit anyway), rather because we are not sure how to police our own. I know a few people who have taken open carry a bit too far, using it as a political tool and knowing that they were doing it specifically to make a statement at a political rally that wasn’t even about gun rights specifically; I was at a loss as to how to dissuade them. It’s their right and by the nature and location of this rally, they wouldn’t be breaking any laws. Even with that, I didn’t see what they intended to gain. Of course my advice to rethink carrying simply to “show the flag” was ignored and both of them ended up detained briefly by police. No rights were violated and the situation was quickly resolved but both men admitted to the fact later that they did not need to publicly display weapons to show solidarity with their chosen political ideals.
The public perception is swayed easily, and any “progressive” reporter with a camera and some creative wording can spin a responsible citizen into a public menace or use the public’s misunderstanding against them as a vehicle of fear to drive an agenda (AR15 shotgun, anyone?). This underscores responsibility and a unified front against those who want to strip our rights away. If we make open carry a political tool, we have to be prepared for the consequences of that as we don’t get to decide how people perceive it. Sure, the more we open carry the more the public at large will be desensitized to it (pre 9/11 it was not common to see a police officer armed with a long gun on the corner of Anytown USA. Today, it’s accepted by the general public) but the best way to help the public accept it is to help each other do it responsibly. I will ask no man or woman not to open carry where they may legally do so, but I will certainly offer advice against it if I think it is unsafe or unwise to do so and coming from a LEO background, ask them to be non-confrontational in the event of a police contact. Our best tool against those who wish to destroy the Second Amendment is responsible behavior and peers watching out for peers. If we argue amongst ourselves every time a new trolling video or bad LE contact video goes viral, we risk further divides in the largest active pro-rights community in the US. I think we can do much to keep it civil amongst ourselves, and we can all do much to make sure open carry is done responsibly.
Or I could be wrong and you will burn this article down with flames of disagreement and rhetoric