There was a genuinely delightful news item a couple weeks ago which came out of Northern California. The story described the worry-filled reaction of the management of the national Starbucks Corp. to the fact that some folks in California have selected Starbucks as a good place to meet and celebrate their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms by, well, keeping and bearing arms in holsters where everyone can see them. These are commonly called the “Open Carry” advocates. (There is even a website, www.opencarry.org.) Essentially, these are people who are in favor of strapping on hog legs and walking down the street. [Note to Carolyn: a “hog leg” is an old slang term for a large revolving pistol.] Since Starbucks is a natural and popular public gathering place, “open carry” advocates have chosen to gather there and celebrate their display of armaments.
After what was apparently a good deal of angst, Starbucks decided to leave the situation alone and ignore the fact that some groups of customers walk in tooled up. (In most states, including West Virginia, a landowner or business premises has a right to exclude people who are carrying firearms, even legally.)
As an aside, let me say that my communication were I the Starbucks president would have been, “Are you sure you people are smart enough to drink coffee without dribbling it all over yourselves?”
Gun rights are an unusually hot topic at the moment. Two years ago, the United States Supreme Court announced a decision in the Heller case which came out of the District of Columbia concerning the ban on firearms within the District. The holding in the Heller was that the Second Amendment did create a personal right to bear arms. Oddly, that was the first time that the Court had interpreted the Second Amendment vis-a-vis citizens. The limitation of Heller was that since it was a District of Columbia case, the ruling did not extend to states and municipalities. Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court heard argument in the case of McDonald v. Chicago, which addresses the gun ban within the City of Chicago. The Petitioner there seeks to extend Heller to the States through the 14th Amendment Equal Protection guarantee, just as the First Amendment binds the States. The consensus among Court-watchers is that the Supreme Court will extend the Heller doctrine to cover the states, and thereby make it harder for states and municipalities to limit people being armed. (Shortly after Heller, somebody on a District of Columbia city Council proposed that they permit citizens to possess firearms only so long as they were disassembled. I don’t think that would very far.) The workings of the Supreme Court are much more open these days, and a transcript of the argument in McDonald is available online. (www.scotusblog.com) While the Judges talked some about historical context, the argument was mostly on arcane legal concepts.
What, I wonder, are the “open carry” advocates trying to do and trying to say?
While it is couched as some kind of joyous celebration of rights, it is fairly in your face to load up, tool up, and then go walkabout. Whether they admit it or not, these people are indulging in a defiant demonstration that (1) they can carry a pistol and (2) that they in-your-face support gun rights generally, and encourage an armed citizenry for the usual purposes of order, lawfulness and public defense. I find it annoying that many of these people equate themselves with the participants in the Boston Tea Party. (See observations in the not-too-distant future on this subject regarding the odd “tea party movement” in the United States.) Let us be clear at the outset to all open carry advocates: You’re not the Boston Tea Party. You aren't even close. In the locations you are choosing to openly carry weapons, you have a right to do so whether it’s smart or not, and if the representative of the sovereign is standing right there, he or she is not going to arrest you, put you into a prison, try you in a hostile court and then execute you. This was not the case with the actual participants in the Boston Tea Party. Had they been caught, they would have been ended up very publicly stretching a rope. As it was, they did a great deal of economic damage by destroying a very difficult-to-replace commodity. Frankly, strapping on a pistol and taking a walk to Starbucks is pretty weak tea compared to what the Sons of Liberty did. (Aside: They were nearly all Freemasons, and the Boston Tea Party plot was hatched in a Masonic lodge room.)
While the “defiant demonstration” is their best argument, the argument breaks down when you try to determine if it is an effective demonstration, which is not.
Some folks love empty or idiotic yet loud gestures, but I think we should look to the effectiveness of a demonstration. Waving a sign seldom does a whole lot of good, although there are exceptions. The most common misperception by those making demonstrations is that they will be taken seriously in direct proportion to how sincere serious they are. This is rather like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin because he has the Most Sincere Pumpkin Patch.
Credibility and truth are not irrevocably tied together, and so the open carry people are simply barking up the wrong tree. The abortion/abortion limitation protesters who wave coat hangers or gruesome photographs of aborted fetuses are two sides of the same coin. No matter how sincere or emotionally driven an advocate might be, if the demonstration is so extreme that it is perceived as coming from a fringe element, nobody is going to take it seriously. That does not impact the First Amendment right to make the statement. It does make the statement useless, ineffective and silly. You have your First Amendment right to make a statement, so go right ahead. If you don’t care if anyone’s listening, that’s your problem.
The strapping on of the old hog leg does, in my judgment, make two statements loud and clear:
One, I watched a lot of cowboy movies when I was a kid. Look at me I’m a real buckaroo. Yippee-ty-yi-yay. And I’m also a dork.
Two, and this is rather more immediately problematic. If one carries firearms for their lawful purposes, open carry tells the ungodly “Please, Mr. Criminal, shoot me first.” (Yeah, yeah, if you have a gun, you can shoot it out. Wrong. You cannot outdraw someone whose gun is already drawn.)
We don’t have to like it, it is not biblical, and it’s not nice, it is not pleasant to contemplate, but much conflict resolution is resolved in this society with force. Force can take lots of forms, the simplest (and most brutal?) of which is physical force. Implements multiply physical force. Firearms multiply it to the point of being deadly force. For all our so-called gun culture, there is really not a very good understanding of firearms in America. Very few people have seen a gunshot wound. GSW’s are not accurately depicted on TV or in the movies. Even in the “real life” medical programs, the brightness of the blood, the subtle gurgling of lungs filling up, and the mixed odors of a perforated body are lacking. Directly visualizing a heart or a brain is just another breed of experience. On television, it can be “just a flesh wound.” That is rare in the real world. On television, we don’t see instances of permanent disability and nobody ever seems to end up in a nursing home. People who do a casual “study” of firearms bandy about terms like wound channel, projectile expansion, muzzle velocity and so forth, but few have the experience to match that in the effect on the human body.
I enjoy shooting as a sport. Not very many people do. That’s okay with me, because as long as people don’t require me to be interested in what they do that I think is boring, the reverse should apply. But make no mistake: firearms are weapons. They were made to be used against flesh, human or animal. Where handguns are concerned, they have been invented and modified and perfected in the way which is best calculated to create the most effective harm to human beings. Whether you are sipping coffee with your Colt on your hip at Starbucks or have a peashooter in your night table at home, if you cannot accept that it is a weapon aimed primarily at shooting people, you’re an idiot and you need to get rid of the gun before you do something terminally stupid with it.
The people who are most familiar with firearms are not those who are running around wearing them to Starbucks. People most familiar with firearms have a deep respect for firearms and what they can do. As such, they are very unlikely to seek out any confrontation and very likely to go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. Some armed people, for example, carry a money clip with $50 or so to give to a mugger/attacker so that a confrontation has a chance to end without the presentment of a gun.
Also, just as a true automobile connoisseur can “love” a Corvette, so can a gun person “love” some particular type of weapon. And when the gun person touches a weapon, he or she does so with the same degree of professional attention and respect that the competent driver shows when firing up a hot car. Let me point out, this is not a genetic thing. My Y-chromosome does not make me a good shot, a good driver, or the world’s greatest lover. No matter how much practice I have, I doubt if I’m ever in a better than decent in marksmanship, if that. When someone picks up a firearm and thinks that this makes them more powerful than a locomotive and able to shoot bulls-eyes at 100 yards, they are exactly the people who shouldn’t be handling firearms or even sharp implements. If you watch people who are familiar with firearms handling, you will be struck with the concentration and attention and FOCUS they pay to them. Every time such a person picks up a weapon, for example, they will clear it, or determine whether it is loaded, safety on, etc. And then, no matter what the result, they will continue to treat it as if it is loaded. If you are not willing and anxious to be this fanatic about the safety issues, you’re not a gun person and you shouldn’t carry a firearm. If you are not willing to accept that what you know about firearms before you pick one up is wrong and are ready to have an open mind to learn to use weapons from the ground up (i.e., from the point “this is the end the bullet comes out of”), don’t go around armed. That’s not a problem, and that’s certainly not a challenge to anyone. If it’s not your cup of tea, you don’t need to do it.
So why do we have armed society and why do we have a Second Amendment? My little bit of writing is not going to add anything to the lexicon, but I do have a few comments.
One argument that is sticky is that an armed populace will not be overwhelmed by a despotic government. That’s not a popular argument, and perhaps the conditions have changed so much since the Revolution that it no longer has tactical viability. (I briefly made that argument to the West Virginia Supreme Court in a gun rights case several years ago, and got REAL negative feedback from a couple of the justices.)
The valid and continuing argument/condition is that there are bad people out there. There are criminals out there. There are people out there who are at times lacking in control and at those times will hurt or kill their fellow man. There are people out there who are simply amoral or sociopathic and don’t care if their actions harm or kill others. One of our inalienable rights, and a right that does not come from the Constitution but which predates it throughout history, is the right of self-defense. Like it or not, the handgun is the highest current expression of a portable deadly weapon. If an aggressor is armed with a handgun, defense will be difficult and generally unsuccessful without a firearm of one’s own.
The principal common argument against the personal possession of handguns is that we have adequate police protection. This is incorrect, and any honest police officer will tell you that they act as a reactive force rather than a preventive force. They respond to 911 calls, but 911 calls occur after something bad is happening. If what is bad is happening amounts to personal violence, it is most unusual that the police response will be fast enough to intervene and prevent the harm. If the wrongdoers are apprehended, jailed and so forth, that may deter that wrongdoer and others from future offenses, but the victim of that particular offense is just shit out of luck.
That being said, not all voices which resist a universally armed society are liberal pinko nut cases. Most Americans do not own or use guns. We must respect that. There are restrictions on firearms which are supported by reason or by the most generous interpretation of personal rights. I have met few responsible people who have heartburn over the restriction on people who have committed violent felonies with guns possessing firearms. Ditto the incompetent, insane, drunken, and drug addicted. I know few responsible people who chafe too much about restrictions on weapons which push their capacities into places we commonly accepted as military or completely unrelated to defense. I cannot own a fully automatic weapon (note to Carolyn again – that means a machine gun) without a special license which is real hard to get and real expensive. Ditto a silencer or sound suppressor, or explosive projectiles. Nuclear weapons are not related to home defense, sorry.
Beyond that, we step into what few people are prepared to admit is grey territory. There are people who commit suicide who would not do so if a firearm were not present. Yes, they have the ability to do so by other means, but many just would not do so owing to the nature of the various mechanisms of violence. Yes, there are children who are injured and killed in firearms accidents. Almost invariably, this comes from a failure of adults to secure firearms, teach children, and supervise them. These injuries and deaths would not occur if the firearms were not present. You cannot brush those facts away and the most common response by the gun community, that it doesn’t happen too often, is cold comfort to the families where it does happen. On the other hand, it is not the Wild West in states where gun rights are generous, and gun deaths in those areas are less than those where guns are more restricted. Yes, we can argue legitimately about the interpretation of the data, but the data is there. And, importantly, there are something over 2 million instances a year were a citizen uses a firearm for defense. Mostly, that use is simply the presentment of the firearm or making the aggressor aware that the firearm is present. Within all of these situations, we can argue and predict how many bad or good things would occur proportionally if the firearms were or were not present, and there is little valid research to assist us. Fudging the facts is a poor place to start, though.
This is written in my West Virginia hills. Lots and lots of my fellow Mountaineers are armed routinely and perfectly legally at this writing. And you may be certain that damn few of them are carrying weapons openly.
And so a message to the ungodly: you guess which of us are armed, and have a nice day.