The Unbearable Rightness of Being Armed


Yesterday the California Assembly approved a bill that would make it a crime to openly carry a gun in public. Under current law, Californians may carry guns openly as long as they're unloaded—a fact that some gun owners have used to make a symbolic statement about their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. The alarm generated by these displays gave rise to the bill, which now goes to the state Senate. The Los Angeles Times sums up the arguments pro and con:

Supporters of the bill…argued that the practice [of openly carrying guns] intimidates the unarmed and wastes police resources because officers frequently have to respond to worried callers saying there's a person with a gun outside Starbucks, or a similarly crowded public space….Opponents argued that there have been no serious incidents associated with openly carrying firearms in California, and called the bill a solution in search of a problem.

What's interesting is that carrying a concealed weapon, which by the logic of this bill's backers would be preferable, is much harder to do legally in California. In addition to undergoing training and passing a criminal background check, you need permission from the local sheriff or police chief, who decides whether you have "good cause" to carry a gun. Such a discretionary permit policy is now the exception in the U.S.; nearly 40 states either do not require a license or grant one to any resident who has a clean record and completes the training. But policies like California's used to be common, based on the premise that hiding a gun, as opposed to carrying it openly, reflected a sinister motive. As Justice Antonin Scalia noted in D.C. v. Heller, the 2008 Supreme Court decision upholding the Second Amendment right to armed self-defense, "the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues." But those laws allowed the carrying of visible weapons, which were deemed less threatening precisely because they were out in the open—exactly the opposite of the premise endorsed by the California Assembly yesterday.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence cites a poll it commissioned that indicates most Americans share this uneasiness about the open display of firearms (unless they're carried by police). The group does not provide the exact wording of the questions it used (which may have been biased against conspicuous gun toting), but the results are plausible. Question for discussion: What does this reversal of traditional assumptions about the proper way to carry a gun signify?

Previous coverage of gun-toting Starbucks customers here and here.