Open Carry Sensationalism

Have you heard the news? Us gun owners have discovered a new way to instill fear into the hearts of men! How? By advocating for the ability to openly carry a firearm. OK, it’s not a new strategy. Some of us have been open carrying for quite some time now. And it’s not a strategy meant to instill fear. But if you read Salon’s latest gun control article, and knew nothing about open carry laws, you would be lead to believe that gun owners are fighting for open carry laws so they can scare grandmothers and little children:

The debate over open carry is the new front line in the battle over gun rights and public safety in American culture. In Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, gun rights activists have been staging protests, demanding broader liberty to display their guns in public rather than keep them concealed under clothing. Major candidates in statewide elections have voiced support for open carry, asserting that the conspicuous display of firepower will deter crime. For decades, though, social scientists have studied the way people behave around guns, and they’ve found that all of us — not just criminals — will be affected by seeing guns in our everyday environment.

This is pure sensationalism. We already live in a society where guns are openly carried by people. These people are called cops and they’re responsible for killing eight times as many people as terrorists. In fact the number of Americans killed by cops has surpassed the number of Americans killed in the Iraq War. We’re not only exposed to people carrying firearms every day but those people have a rather violent history.

Let’s discuss carry permit holders for a second. Compared to carry permit holders cops are three times more likely to murder somebody. Here in Minnesota the rate of murder and manslaughter committed by carry permit holders is .542 per 100,000 whereas the rate for the general population is 1.78 per 100,000. So people should actually feel less threatened by permit holders openly carrying firearms than by the general population sans firearms.

If seeing a person openly carrying a firearm instills fear or aggression I haven’t noticed it even though I’m always openly carrying a firearm while biking. Nobody cares nor have people made any attempt at avoiding me on the trail (in fact I get asked for directions with notable frequency).

Open carry is already normalized in American society thanks to the police. The article sites a 1967 study to argue that people act more aggressively when in the presence of a gun:

Even when you’re not holding a gun, you can be psychologically affected by seeing one. Since 1967, researchers have been observing the “weapons effect,” a phenomenon in which the mere presence of a weapon can stimulate aggressive behavior. Of course, a person doesn’t respond to a gun the way a cartoon bull reacts to the matador’s cape; we aren’t spontaneously enraged every time we notice a firearm. But empirical research has repeatedly shown that when people are already aggravated, seeing a gun will motivate them to behave more aggressively.

Imagine you’ve volunteered to participate in a study on a college campus. You arrive to find the lab somewhat cluttered: There’s a badminton racquet and some shuttlecocks on a table. The researchers tell you to ignore that stuff — it’s for a different study. They hook you up to a machine that administers electric shocks, and hand the controls to another participant like yourself. He zaps you. Repeatedly. (He’s secretly part of the research team, following specific instructions — but as far as you know he’s just being a jerk.) Now it’s your turn to zap him. How many shocks will you administer?

Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage repeated this experiment with 100 male students at the University of Wisconsin, sometimes replacing the badminton equipment with a revolver and shotgun (or no stimulus at all). They found that participants administered more electric shocks when in the presence of guns. According to Berkowitz and LePage, the weapons were “aggressive cues.”

There’s a major flaw in that study’s methodology. How a person perceives a gun sitting on a table is likely to differ from how he or she perceives a gun carried on a person. If this weren’t the case then police officers would find themselves constantly dealing with more aggressive than average behavior. Most people, when dealing with a police officers, tend to act less than aggressive. The primarily reason for that likely stems from the fact that aggression is unwise when the other person has the ability to defend him or herself. As Robert Heinlein wrote in Beyond This Horizon, “An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.” A good example of this may have been a time period often cited by gun control advocates: the Old West. Unlike portrayals in Hollywood and claims by gun control advocates indicate, the Old West was quite peaceful (at least until the federal government started grabbing for more power in the region). Openly carrying firearms during that time period wasn’t uncommon yet the rate of violence was quite low.

Openly carrying a firearm isn’t anymore dangerous for a society than secretly carrying a firearm. The manner of carry isn’t important, the people carrying are. In our society firearms are openly carried by law enforcement agents, who have higher rate of violence than the average carry permit holder. Our civilization hasn’t collapsed due to this. Civilization also hasn’t collapse in states where open carry is legal. Advocating to legalize open carry in other states isn’t a dangerous new strategy being used by us gun nuts. It’s an acknowledgement that legalized open carry hasn’t negatively impacted any state so there is no justifiable reason to prohibit the act elsewhere.