Are people who assert their Second Amendment rights by bringing rifles and shotguns into stores and restaurants "weird" and "scary"? At least one staff member at the National Rifle Association (NRA) thought so, and he expressed that view in an online commentary that the organization felt compelled to retract last week after it caused an uproar among gun rights advocates.
To some extent, the episode reflects divisions among Second Amendment activists, many of whom view the NRA, despite its reputation for adamantly resisting gun control, as insufficiently zealous. But the brouhaha also highlights a shift in American attitudes regarding the public display of guns.
The controversial essay, which the NRA posted on May 30, argued that protesters associated with Open Carry Texas had "crossed the line from enthusiasm to downright foolishness" by openly carrying rifles into coffee shops and restaurants. Although such displays are legal in Texas, the unnamed author said, they "can be downright scary" to people who do not understand what's going on, and they risk alienating potential supporters, making "folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates."
That article, which was originally attributed to the NRA itself, has since disappeared from the organization's website, replaced by a video in which Chris Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, insists that "the National Rifle Association supports open carry…unequivocally." Apologizing for "a poor word choice," Cox says the NRA agrees with Open Carry Texas that people should be allowed to carry handguns as well as long guns without having to hide them.
"In Texas some people have decided to protest the absurdity of the ban on open carry of handguns by carrying their long guns openly and legally," Cox says. "Ultimately what this comes down to is a tactics discussion."
In other words, while there is nothing wrong with wearing a pistol on your hip, slinging a rifle across your chest is a bit too ostentatious for the NRA's taste. Many people, however, may be alarmed by the sidearm as well, which presumably is why Texas and several other states ban open display of handguns even by people with carry permits.
Then again, at least 18 states allow open carrying of handguns without a permit. That approach jibes with an older sensibility that viewed concealed weapons with suspicion.
As the Supreme Court noted in District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 decision recognizing a constitutional 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." In 1850, for example, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld a ban on concealed weapons, ruling that the right to bear arms protected by the Second Amendment applies only to openly displayed weapons: "This is the right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, and which is calculated to incite men to a manly and noble defence of themselves, if necessary, and of their country, without any tendency to secret advantages and unmanly assassinations."
Openly carrying a weapon was considered manly and honorable, while secretly carrying a weapon was considered sneaky and disreputable; someone who hid his weapon was probably up to no good. Today, by contrast, the prevailing view, at least among urbanites, seems to be that secretly carrying a weapon is less worrisome than carrying it openly. Out of sight, out of mind.
Although their constitutional position has a long pedigree, organizations such as Open Carry Texas, which seeks "to condition Texans to feel safe around law-abiding citizens that choose to [openly] carry [guns]," may be fighting a losing battle. In any case, concealed weapons are probably a more effective deterrent to crime: When guns are hidden, bad guys do not know which potential victim might be armed. Hence there is a practical advantage to keeping your gun out of sight, aside from avoiding a panic at Starbucks.