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Gun Activists Have a New Craze — And It’s More Dangerous Than You Think

The new front line in the battle over gun rights is "open carry." Here's why it has psychologists deeply concerned.

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Earlier this month, in the parking lot of the Shop Rite supermarket in West Haven, Conn., a young man pulled a semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle out of his Toyota SUV. Shoppers watched from a cautious distance as he placed the loaded rifle on the floor behind the driver’s seat and then walked away, carrying his laptop case and two handguns. A witness described the armed man to 9-1-1 operators — he was Asian, wearing dark sunglasses and heading toward the University of New Haven campus. UNH students were ordered to shelter in place as police searched for the suspect. Officers spotted William Dong when he emerged from biology class in Kaplan Hall, still carrying the two Glock pistols. A subsequent search of Dong’s padlocked bedroom (in his parents’ home) turned up 2,700 rounds of ammunition, as well as newspaper clippings about the Aurora theater massacre.

Tuesday, defense attorney Frederick Paoletti said Dong will plead not guilty to weapons charges. Though the Bushmaster is on a list of guns that are restricted under a  new state law, Dong might have purchased his rifle before the ban went into effect. And the pistols? He had a permit for them, and Connecticut law makes no distinction between “concealed carry” (wearing a gun under your clothing) and “open carry” (walking around with a gun that everybody can see).

The debate over open carry is the new front line in the battle over gun rights and public safety in American culture. In Texas,  FloridaSouth CarolinaWashington, 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.

CJ Grisham, president of Open Carry Texas, says there’s no reason to fear civilians with guns. “This idea that gun owners are angry and just looking for an opportunity to shoot somebody is absolutely false,” he explains. “Although if I’m threatened by somebody, I’m not going to hesitate — if somebody points a gun at me I’m gonna get there first.”

Indeed, there have been  many incidents of armed civilians using their guns for legitimate self-defense. But civilian gun owners reacting to imaginary dangers have also killed unarmed people. A recent  study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that when people are holding a gun, they’re  less capable of evaluating a threat than they would be if they didn’t have a weapon in their own hands. Jessica Witt, a psychologist at Colorado State University, asked volunteers to hold either a plastic gun or a neutral object (such as a ball) as they reacted to pictures flashed on a screen. The photos depicted people holding various objects — sometimes a gun, sometimes a shoe, a soda can or a cellphone. While holding a gun, volunteers were more likely to misidentify the object in the photo as a gun. (Likewise, if you’re holding a shoe, you’re more likely to think the guy in the photo is holding a shoe — but that mistake isn’t likely to end in tragedy.)

“You can imagine the kind of actions people are going to take if they misperceive an object as being a gun,” Witt says. “That’s going to be a terrible consequence — obviously for the victims of those actions, but also terrible for the people who make the mistakes. We think we can trust our eyes, that our eyes tell us the truth. But if your eyes lie to you and then you make a regrettable action based on that, that’s a terrible thing to happen.”

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