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What the Whataburger Flap Revealed About the Self-Identities of Open-Carry Activists

Critics of the chain's ban say their civil rights are being violated. But an openly displayed gun is not the same as skin color or sexual orientation.

Just what to make of the rumpus over Whataburger’s declaration that the open carrying of guns is unwelcome in its restaurants – a kerfuffle which has now entered its third week? The exhaustive coverage of the decision notwithstanding, this is an open-carry controversy warranting closer study: It offers clues both to what’s been fueling this form of gun-rights activism and how its practitioners see themselves.

Of course, Whataburger is hardly the first major business to take a stand against open carry. After a series of protests by gun-toting activists, Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz announced that open carry was unwelcome in Starbucks locations back in September 2013. The burrito chain Chipotle followed suit in May 2014. What distinguishes the Whataburger affair is the fierceness of the backlash. Open Carry Texas founder C.J. Grisham has slammed the decision by Whataburger CEO and President Preston Atkinson – who has taken pains to stress his general gun-friendliness as a hunter and concealed-carry permit-holder – as surrender to “fearmongering,” calling it “premature and irresponsible.” A group called Lone Star Gun Rights has enjoined supporters to stop patronizing the chain. Across pro-gun social media and Internet forums, the intensity of the anger at Whataburger is palpable.

But focusing solely on the strength of the sentiment misses what’s important about the outcry. The nuances also matter. And in the case of the outcry against Whataburger, what seems at first like red-hot rage is often a feeling of betrayal.

Unlike massive, global enterprises like Starbucks or Chipotle, Whataburger’s 750-odd locations are regionally restricted to the South and the Southwest, the majority of them in its native Texas. Moreover, unlike Starbucks, which concocts its soy lattes from a headquarters in Seattle, or Chipotle, which sources its sustainable ingredients from a Denver home base, Whataburger maintains its headquarters in San Antonio and has a long history in the state. Although the Starbucks CEO’s corporatese on open carry emphasized the need to avoid “uncivil” behavior, and Chipotle’s release stressed an imperative to be “welcoming,” Whataburger’s statement trades heavily in the very particular rhetoric of Southern hospitality, and includes imagery and tropes that are close to the hearth of Texas identity. “We’re the gathering spot for Little League teams, church groups and high school kids after football games,” it reads, by way of justifying its money quote: “We’ve had many customers and employees tell us they’re uncomfortable being around someone with a visible firearm who is not a member of law enforcement, and as a business, we have to listen and value that feedback in the same way we value yours. We have a responsibility to make sure everyone who walks into our restaurants feels comfortable.”

In a state that prides itself on its big-hearted hospitality and high school football, these appeals struck chords that the stereotypical politesse of latte-swilling Fortune 500 CEO never would.

Open carry in these instances isn’t about promoting gun rights per se: It’s about asserting dominance over a space, and about broadcasting a relationship, one way or another, to the possibility of violence in it.

But I think there’s something deeper going on here, too. Above and beyond reactions to previous open-carry bans, complaints about Whataburger’s policy have involved claims of victimization, persecution, intolerance, incivility, and — above all — a denial of civil rights.

Making sense of that argument from open carriers first requires taking a step back and clarifying what we mean when we talk about “open carry” as a phenomenon. Open carry is not a single, monolithic movement. It is a practice, and, in the political arena specifically, it is a tactic. Often, it’s a tactic employed to “educate” bystanders about their gun rights, to normalize the open display of weapons in public spaces, and to communicate to everyone involved (and to authorities in particular) that the open carriers take their Second Amendments rights very seriously and will exercise them to the fullest extent. “A right not exercised is a right lost,” runs the maxim often attributed to Thomas Jefferson – although it’s actually more of a paraphrase. Per the logic of these open carriers, if they weren’t actively flexing their muscles by open carrying in a high-profile fashion, they’d be passively enabling a government that is, in their view, always looking to capitalize upon complacency or inattention to take those rights away. For open carriers who tote their weapons in the name of gun rights, the medium is the message.

Yet open carry is a medium that can be used in service of other political messages and other activist purposes, which is what makes it so tricky for proponents of gun restrictions to respond to — and why it can be such a thorny problem for pro-gun groups as well. Some open carriers are clearly all about gun rights, full stop. But open carry has also been used as a tactic by groups ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to the Black Panthers  — in other words, to groups whose platforms and activities extend well beyond advocating for gun rights. In just the past few months, open carry has also been used by anti-“Sharia law” protestors picketing an Arizona mosque, by activists at two gay pride events in Washington State, and, in a scene that I suspect is a glimpse of much more to come, by multiple groups at a tense Black Lives Matter march in Texas. Open carry in these instances isn’t about promoting gun rights per se: It’s about asserting dominance over a space, and about broadcasting a relationship, one way or another, to the possibility of violence in it.

Now let’s loop back to Whataburger, and consider who, exactly, are the people who feel a need to open carry while getting their burgers — and why they feel so disrespected or even threatened by being told they are unwelcome when they do it. Some, no doubt, sincerely believe that Whataburger’s policy is a legitimate front in a broader struggle over Second Amendment rights; others may feel (whether misguidedly or in good faith) that their own safety is compromised in places that don’t allow open carry (even if concealed carry remains OK). But there also seem to be people who feel entitled to openly carry weapons in restaurants, and who feel specifically persecuted when they are told they are not welcome to do so. Jenai Hales, the owner of an Austin coffee shop who plans to open carry in her store, told the local news that if any of her customers were to express discomfort with gun-wielding fellow guests, the burden was on them to be more “accepting.” Said Hales: “You always find somebody that disagrees with a certain aspect of a lifestyle or a belief. If we all want to have tolerance, don’t we have to have tolerance for open carry as well? Isn’t that what tolerance is about?”

It’s hard to hear a statement like Hales’s about tolerance, or to read Lone Star Gun Rights decry Whataburger as “on the wrong side of civil rights issues” without thinking of two other emotionally intense debates that have recently gripped our nation: those involving the Confederate flag on the one hand and the SCOTUS gay marriage ruling on the other. Acknowledging the offense and implicit threat of a symbol so many rightly associate with violence and hate may well demand, for some open carriers, a difficult reckoning with their own sense of identity, as might acknowledging and accepting the same-sex marriages of others as a basic matter of civil rights.

But being an open carrier is different in multiple ways from being black or gay. Black people don’t have a choice in whether or not they can visibly holster up their identity before they step outside, much like they don’t have a choice when it comes to confronting the potentially lethal consequences of whether or not other people in public space have an implicit bias to perceive them as threatening. The figurative threat to the institution of matrimony that some people perceive in gay and lesbian marriage is very different than the literal threat of physical violence that queer and trans people can face. And having an identity because you bought a product and feel entitled to exercise your right to carry it around with you is different from having an identity that you were born with, or that you carry with you whether you like or not, and that has historically meant limitations on exercising your other rights – including your Second Amendment ones.

Open carriers may not recognize those differences — to them, the gun at their hip or over their shoulder is just an organic extension of another American identity deserving of accommodation. Some folks insist on planting their flags where they will, and, for them, being unable to order a Whataburger Patty Melt without a gun visibly in arm’s reach is a bridge too far.

[Photo: Flickr user Kaoru]