Shortly after white nationalists and supremacists clashed violently with counter-protesters at a Nazi rally in Charlottesville, prompting Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency, the Virginia National Guard helpfully tweeted that its troops could be identified by the “MP” (military police) patches on their uniforms.
Such a clarification was necessary, as Guardsmen and local cops weren’t the only armed, uniform-clad people in attendance: White nationalists openly carried firearms as they protested the removal of a Confederate statue in the progressive college town. So, too, did militia members, who came, they said, to ensure that free speech rights were preserved.
McAuliffe, for one, was impressed by the milia men’s firepower.
“You would have thought they were an army. They had better equipment than our State Police had,” he said on Sunday.
The open carry movement, which came to national prominence a few years ago when demonstrators began showing up at Texas fast-casual food chains with assault-style rifles, is moving to a more consequential phase. Heavily armed private citizens have become a regular sight at protests and large political gatherings, raising concerns that amid the chaos of a rally like the one in Charlottesville, someone will pull the trigger in anger.
Protesters and counter-protesters at future rallies may also have a harder time distinguishing police officers from militia members. And police officers may find it more difficult to separate law-abiding open carriers from active shooters — a misunderstanding that can have deadly consequences.
Last summer, Dallas police mistakenly identified an open carrier as a suspect after a sniper killed five officers and wounded several others in an ambush attack. In Baton Rouge, a man who killed three police officers had been identified moments before by a dispatcher as merely a “subject walking with a coat and an assault rifle.”
The prospect of armed demonstrators at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland shortly after was so concerning that the president of the patrolmen’s association in that city asked the Ohio governor to temporarily ban civilians from openly carrying guns. (He didn’t.)
But armed political clashes could become the norm, if a recent left-wing protest in Houston is anything to go by. Its organizer, a socialist, showed up armed, just like the conservative counter-protesters who faced off against him.
Here’s our primer on the open carry movement: its origins, its future, and how it’s evolving in the Trump era.
What is open carry?
Open carry is the practice of carrying a firearm in public. It’s distinct from concealed carry, where a firearm is hidden by clothing on one’s person.
Where is open carry legal?
Almost everywhere. Forty-seven states allow some form of open carry, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, though many impose restrictions on who can carry firearms in public, and where they carry them.
In some states — like Texas, Georgia, and Maryland — a concealed carry permit is required to open carry a handgun. Three states and Washington, D.C. explicitly ban the open carry of long guns, including the military-style rifles frequently toted by militia members.
In 30 states, no special license is needed to carry handguns or rifles in public, though there can be restrictions in some public venues, such as government buildings, schools, and hospitals. Three states prohibit the practice entirely.
Is open carry new?
To the contrary: Open carry has been legal in many states since the 19th century.
“Not as a way for civilians to keep the peace,” Robert Spitzer, a political scientist and one of the foremost experts on the history of gun laws, tells The Trace, “but simply to make sure that when people were traveling with guns, they weren’t concealing them, and to allow for the transport of them.”
How did open carry become a political movement?
Open carry became a national news story in 2013, after activists began bringing firearms into Starbucks locations, and sharing their experiences on social media.
Private businesses have the right to ban guns from their premises, but Starbucks’s policy was to yield to a state’s open carry laws. That meant customers could bring their firearms into most of the chain’s 13,000 U.S. locations. In August of that year, gun rights activists held a national “Starbucks Appreciation Day”: To thank the company for not banning open carry, participants were encouraged to enter shops around the country and, while bearing their weapons, purchase a beverage.
The event provoked widespread outrage. The following month, Starbucks’s CEO, Howard Schultz, wrote an open letter requesting that “customers no longer bring their firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas.”
Since then, open carry has coalesced into a full-blown national movement. Open carriers regularly upload their encounters with police and the public to YouTube, and visible firearms have become a regular, symbolic fixture at protests. Open carry is part of a broader effort to normalize the presence of guns in every corner of American life.
In 2015, there was even an open carry demonstration at a zoo in St. Louis, which did not permit the practice. The demonstration was led by Jeffry Smith, a middle-aged man from Ohio, who told The Trace, “I carry as an ambassador for gun owners and gun rights. It’s a form of outreach.”
The same year, after a man carried out a series of shootings at military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee, open carriers fanned out around the country to defend recruiting stations, where guns were not permitted at the time.
Last year, it became legal in Texas for permit-holders to openly carry handguns. The statute was immensely controversial, further raising the profile of the open carry movement. In the months before the law took effect, officials held meetings around the state to address the concerns of citizens. At one event in Houston, a mother memorably asked, “What do you suggest we tell our children, who might be out and about without us, when they see a man with a gun, what do they do? Because they’re scared.”
Open carry enthusiasts dismiss such fears as overblown, and say that their presence actually makes people safer.
Is the gun rights movement unified on open carry?
Not all gun activists believe open carry is a good idea. Most memorably, in 2014, the NRA wrote an open letter condemning open carry protesters in Texas.
“Let’s not mince words,” the letter read, “it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself.” The NRA continued, “It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates.”
After receiving a barrage of criticism from activists, the NRA quickly walked back its remarks, but there are many avid gun owners who agree with the organization’s original position. Shortly after Texas’s open carry law went into effect, users on a popular gun-rights forum co-moderated by an NRA board member suggested that the policy was doing more harm than good. The rise of open carry, the forum’s users speculated, had made the public more critical of guns.
Dean Rieck, the executive director of the Buckeye Firearms Association, an Ohio-based pro-gun group, expressed similar concerns shortly before the Republican convention.
“If you’re trying to get attention for a particular political cause, you have to think about how it’s going to affect others,” he told The Trace. “Your objective should not be to alarm people.”
How do police differentiate between a peaceful open carrier and someone who intends harm?
This is a quandary that police officials who oppose open carry most commonly cite.
In 2015, a 33-year-old man carrying a rifle opened fire in downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing three people. Shortly before the incident took place, a resident had called 911, saying the man looked suspicious. The dispatcher informed the caller that Colorado is an open carry state, and so the man was within his rights. Police did not arrive on the scene until the shooting was already underway.
Open carriers also created confusion in the aftermath of last year’s Baton Rouge and Dallas police shootings. Responding officers in both cities temporarily detained individuals who were openly carrying firearms.
Speaking after the Dallas shooting, then-Police Chief David Brown expressed his concerns about Texas’s open carry law, which had been opposed by a majority of chiefs around the state.
“We’re trying as best we can as a law enforcement community to make it work so that citizens can express their Second Amendment rights,” he said. “But it’s increasingly challenging when people have AR-15s slung over their shoulder and they’re in a crowd.”
He added, “we don’t know who the good guy is versus the bad guy when everyone starts shooting.”
Where did the notion to openly carry at last year’s Republican National Convention come from?
It began as a “joke.”
In March of 2016, a staunch gun control advocate wanted to test the convictions of the remaining Republican presidential candidates, who were opposed to gun-free zones. The advocate discovered that the Quicken Loans Arena, where the convention was set to take place, banned all weapons on its premises. He launched a petition on Change.org, claiming the policy put attendees in danger and demanding it be nullified.
But the joke — a bit of political satire, really — was taken seriously, and fired up pro-gun activists. Over 50,000 people signed the petition within a week, attracting nationwide media attention.
The arena’s firearm ban stayed in place. But with special exceptions, it remains legal to openly carry on most of the public property outside the arena.
The creator of the petition told The Trace, “I was surprised by the huge scale of the reaction.”
[Photo: Kyle Grillot for The Trace]