The Misguided Open-Carry Movement

Gun-rights advocates should change their tactics.


Having the right to do a certain something doesn't mean that certain something is always the right thing to do. For example: Death-metal bands and hip-hop artists have a First Amendment right to celebrate depravity—and it certainly is a shame that some do. The Westboro Baptist Church has a right to preach that American soldiers die because God hates gay people—but nobody should say such vile things, even if they can.

The Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms—a guarantee the Supreme Court finally and belatedly got around to recognizing in the Heller and McDonald cases. Many strong constitutional, philosophical, and utilitarian arguments make the case for gun rights nearly overwhelming.

In many parts of the country gun enthusiasts also have a right to walk around bearing firearms that are openly visible—a practice known as open carry. Lately they have taken to carrying weapons openly into private businesses (which have the right to tell them not to). And some also have made a point of parading the public streets with their firearms on view, as some fellows did the other day in Carytown, a quaint and bohemian (for Virginia) corner of Richmond.

Demonstrations like that make people nervous. This is not because the people who get nervous are gun-haters. Rather, it is because they are not mind-readers. When a man shows up at a shooting range with a Smith & Wesson .357 on his hip and a Colt AR-15 slung over his shoulder, his intent is plain. When he shows up at a Starbucks with those same weapons, his intent is far from plain. They don't generally set up silhouette targets in coffee shops.

Context matters. If you live in rural Alabama and it's hunting season, men (and women) in camo fatigues with high-powered rifles might roll into the church parking lot—and everyone will understand they just want to sing a few praise songs to Jesus. If the same crew rolls into a church parking lot in Berkeley, California, onlookers might feel rather differently.

As Jacob Sullum pointed out not long ago in Reason, there was a time in the U.S. when "openly carrying a weapon was considered manly and honorable, while secretly carrying a weapon was considered sneaky and disreputable. … 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." Today people understand the aim of concealed-carry is self-defense. What's the current aim of open-carry?

Well, the aim of those open-carry demonstrations that have made news recently is to convey a point. But the demonstrators could convey their point just as easily in ways that do not make other people nervous. That would be the civil, respectful, and prudent thing to do. It also could prove more persuasive, since people tend not to listen very well when they are scared.

Not long ago in The Freeman, Jeffrey Tucker wrote an excellent piece "Against Libertarian Brutalism." At its best, he noted, liberty promotes peaceful cooperation rather than power and force. But liberty also permits hate and ugliness for those who want those things; their autonomy is an end in itself, even if they misuse it. Even bigots have rights, so defending rights sometimes requires defending bigots, too. But to defend only bigots, or especially bigots, is libertarian brutalism. Like architectural brutalism, Tucker writes, it "forc[es] us to look at unadorned realities, an apparatus barren of distractions, in order to make a didactic point."

The better path, he suggests, is the more humanitarian course: the promotion of liberty for the sake of "the well-being of the human person and the flourishing of society in all its complexity." As Sheldon Richman adds (again in Reason, back in April), those who treasure liberty most do so because they "care about individual persons." Caring entails compassion, and compassion extends beyond the narrow concern over which party in a dispute initiates the use of force.

Gun-rights advocates who delight in making suburban mothers nervous are practicing libertarian brutalism. They resemble those abortion-rights supporters who think it's funny to wear a shirt that says, "Why did the fetus cross the road? Because they moved the dumpster." Feeling put-upon, they have an urge to lash out at the other side, to rub the other side's nose in the dirt and teach it a lesson. But lashing out rarely achieves much. Often such brutalism does nothing but generate resentment.

Having a given right means never having to show consideration for how others feel about it, if you don't want to. But advocates for individual rights should want to. We make a more persuasive case for liberty when we show such consideration. If, as one of the Carytown gun-toters put it, they wish to raise awareness about "responsible gun ownership," then behaving responsibly would be a good place to start.