Gun Rights

Sure, Police Can Get Confused Seeing People Open Carrying Weapons in the Midst of a Mass Shooting. That's Not a Good Reason to Rethink the Legality of "Open Carry."


Dallas Police Chief David Brown told reporters yesterday that "it's increasingly challenging when people have AR-15s slung over their shoulder and they're in a crowd," he said. "We don't know who the good guy is versus the bad guy when everyone starts shooting."


He's talking about Texas' practice of allowing open carrying of legally owned long guns, even without a specific license, which led to more than one person on the scene, well, openly carrying their legally owned weapons. 

Brown was being hyperbolic, to be sure; even in the crazy situation during Micah Johnson's violent sniper rampage in Dallas last week, there was no actual situation of "everyone starts shooting." As far as I know, the practice of open carrying has never anywhere led to such a dangerous situation.

Still, the sight of openly armed people on a scene when someone is wantonly shooting at police, or anyone, certainly does risk police making a mistake potentially fatal to the open-carrier. (Even though the greatest danger in this case was the police spreading a picture of Mark Hughes, a black man carrying his AR-15, on Twitter as a "suspect" in the event, which he had nothing to do with. They lied to him, he insists, about evidence they had linking him to the shooting when he turned himself in as well.)

Dallas had already been home to a deliberate movement for open carry on the part of black citizens, the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, which Elizabeth Nolan Brown and Zach Weissmueller have both reported on for Reason. The Club was unhappy over 70 Dallas police shootings of citizens over the past 10 years.

The practice of openly carrying a legally owned weapon is legal to some degree (varying in what is required in terms of licenses, or types of gun, and along other dimensions) in 45 states. Even some gun rights activists, including one NRA staffer in a statement the organization took down when it pissed off too many people, frown on the practice. The argument against it is usually along the lines of: open-carrying is too show-offy and potentially alienating to the cause of widening the rights to carry guns in public.  A. Barton Hinkle has argued against the politeness and probity of open carry at this site.

Concealed carry has the extra benefit, some argue, of deterring crime more widely since would-be crooks have no idea who might be carrying. In addition, concealed carrying is less likely to unnerve fellow citizens or police officers.

Historically, though, the NRA openly supported laws against open carry in California in the 1960s, laws inspired by the scare put into the establishment by seeing armed Black Panthers in public.

Should we be that scared of permitted carriers? You can make your own relative judgments of risk, but even when they were trying their best to scare up scary stats, the best the Violence Policy Center could come up with was about 3 times a year that a licensed gun carrier committed a mass shooting, from likely over 12 million such licensed carriers.

The New York Times yesterday tried to build a long "stroking one's chin in deep concern" piece about the alleged second thoughts about open carry that the police's mistakes regarding Mark Hughes should cause us to have.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings told the Times, in their words, that "he supported tightening the state's gun laws to restrict the carrying of rifles and shotguns in public" after the Dallas police shooting.

The Times later notes:

One of the state's most prominent open-carry activists, C. J. Grisham, the founder and president of Open Carry Texas, disputed the extent of the confusion caused by marchers carrying rifles. In videos from the scene, he said, "you can see that police are walking right past people who are open-carrying rifles and it's not a problem. So obviously it's not that difficult to tell who the good guys and the bad guys are."

The Times was not able to come up with any other past circumstance under which there was a clear and obvious danger connected with open carry or a serious risk of confusing a carrier with someone the police really needed to consider shooting. One person open carrying during the Dallas shooting was arrested on a misdemeanor charge, the Times reports, who "was not legally allowed to carry a gun."

When The Atlantic dedicated a long article in January to "Tallying the Costs of Open Carry," those costs were entirely about people's discomfort over seeing them, some slight difficulty in terms of legally keeping open-carriers out of private property in areas where it is legal (that should not be difficult, and if the law makes it so that should change), and businesses forced into the uncomfortable position of having to displease either their customers who want to carry or their customers who don't want to see guns.

Open carrying may in many cases cause social unease of that sort that the polite might want to think about avoiding. If you think there's a strong chance you might wander while open carrying into a mass public shooting in which your carrying puts you at risk of being mistaken for a mass shooter, you might want to personally rethink the practice. (Though it doesn't seem a particularly rational fear, comparatively.)

But this one bizarre outlying situation in Dallas, even given the regrettable aftermath for Mark Hughes (who insists he's still in fear for his life and receiving death threats) caused not so much by him carrying as by the police marking him very publicly as a possible/likely mass cop-killer, is far from sufficient reason to rethink open carry as a matter of public policy.