The War Between Police and the NRA: Open Carry Laws Make Cops' Jobs Virtually Impossible
There’s been a lot of talk on the right lately about law and order, an unsubtle phrase meant to express unwavering support for law enforcement against those protesting police abuse. The line is a mantra for people who shout over Black Lives Matter activists about blue lives mattering (as if the two are necessarily oppositional) and who oppose sensible firearms legislation, supposedly on behalf of “good guys with guns.” Police in multiple states have voiced criticism of open carry laws, which many say make their jobs more difficult, stressful and dangerous. Instead of listening to these police criticisms, those who continue to demand unfettered gun rights—nearly the whole of the GOP and its base—imperil the same police lives they claim to want to protect. “You can’t be the party of law and order and not listen to your police chiefs,” Art Acevedo, police chief of Austin, Texas, admonished his state’s Republican lawmakers recently.
Forty-five states permit open carry of guns. Among them are Texas and Louisiana, where recent cop shooting deaths have called into question how the practice—particularly during mass killings, a regular occurrence in this country—gets in the way of policing. Earlier this month, on the heels of the Dallas shooting that left five officers dead, Police Chief David Brown suggested that open carry had made the task of identifying the shooter harder.
"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," Brown said at a recent media event. “But it’s increasingly challenging when people have AR-15s slung over their shoulder and they’re in a crowd. We don’t know who the good guy is versus the bad guy when everyone starts shooting.”
Gun advocates were quick to criticize Brown, as well as Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who urged “common sense” reforms, for attempting to “push their political agenda and keep guns out of the hands of the American people.” But the police chief was voicing a sentiment plenty of officers around the country have already expressed. Norm Stamper, a 34-year veteran police officer and former chief of the Seattle police department, says open carry can add an element of confusion to police work, hampering suspect IDs at crucial moments.
“The difficulty [of] distinguishing a law-abiding gun owner from one who is about to, or has committed, or is [in the act of] committing a violent crime is oftentimes impossible to determine” when multiple people on the scene are openly carrying weapons, Stamper told me. “Even the best, most intuitive, calmest, most professional police officers are not mind readers. Until somebody engages in some form of action, threatening or criminal in nature, the officer has no idea what that person's motive is.”
In addition to complicating time-sensitive police investigations and potentially hindering outcomes, Stamper says open carry can intensify tensions between police and the communities they’re supposed to serve. The stakes are heightened when even the most mundane interactions have the potential for violence. Stamper says that in the average American city, it’s “extremely jarring and jolting” for cops to see a gun on open display, even if the law condones it, and that it causes officers to “focus more time and attention on those who are [open] carrying, possibly at the expense of other more important responsibilities.”
“I think it certainly contributes to hypervigilance on the part of the police,” Stamper says. “Vigilance is one thing, hypervigilance or excessive vigilance, begins to suggest—in the non-clinical sense of the term—police officers becoming paranoid. That's never a healthy thing.”
That paranoia is particularly acute when African Americans exercise their right to bear arms in full compliance with laws. Second Amendment rights—and empathy, for that matter—are not applied equally, as evidenced by the recent cop killings of black citizens who legally possessed a gun. Alton Sterling, murdered by police earlier this summer, was armed in an open carry state; video of the killing shows no indication he ever reached for his gun, though officers nonetheless shot him multiple times in the chest and back. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by Cleveland, Ohio cops in 2014 for holding a toy gun in a state where open carry is legal. Philando Castile had a license for the gun he carried on his person when an officer opened fire on him as he sat in a car with a 4-year-old in the back seat.
Compare those incidents with the number of white Americans who have had armed standoffs with police and managed to walk away unscathed. Or those who have committed mass murder, like Dylann Roof, who was given a trip to Burger King after his arrest.
Stamper, who has written and spoken about racial disparities in policing, suggests open carry does nothing to aid the “already sour relationship” between “mostly black and Latino communities.” Because of the complex racial dynamics involved—not just with open carry but a number of other gun issues—the onus is on police to try to mend those well-worn, deep wounds.
“I think that it is to the police that the responsibility falls for improving that relationship,” Stamper says. “And unless and until the police take the kinds of initiatives that I think are necessary to improve mutual trust and mutual respect, and in the process of course, relieving the kinds of pressures that lead to violence in a community, that the situation will only get worse under open carry.”
In numerous cases, the “good guy with a gun” theory pushed by the NRA and its adherents has failed to prove itself. Of the many mass shootings that occur in this country every year, it’s extremely rare that an armed citizen saves the day. A 2015 Politico article pointed out that there have been multiple mass shootings where armed citizens didn’t act, for any number of totally valid reasons. The piece also notes, along with others by Mother Jones, Hartford Courant and Inside Higher Ed, that the stories of successful “good guys” that gun advocates trot out to support their call to throw more guns at the problem “fall apart under scrutiny.”
“Not a single one of these people carrying firearms out there in [Dallas] caught this guy in what he was doing,” Bob Gualtieri, of the Florida Sheriffs Association, told Reuters. “It drained law enforcement resources and subjected citizens to being unnecessarily taken into custody, and I think we should all be very grateful that nobody else got hurt.”
Even the “responsible American gunowners” the NRA likes to chime on about (meaning white gun owners, as if it weren’t obvious by now) who open carry might want to reconsider having their weapons on view once they know how it can heighten risk on multiple fronts. In addition to potentially being seen as a suspicious person by police, Stamper says having a gun out in the open in public increases the chances of a harmful interaction with both cops and other citizens. That could include being robbed of your gun at gunpoint by another open carrier, which happened to an Oregon man earlier this year, or far more serious, violent crimes.
“If those individuals would just think through the implications of being spotted carrying a weapon three minutes after an armed robbery, particularly given our acute sensitivity to rampage violence these days, to see somebody with a firearm is to focus attention on that somebody,” Stamper says. “It may not be a police officer. It may be another citizen, for example someone who is authorized to carry a concealed weapon viewing that person as a threat and exchanging words and maybe gunfire. It's just a matter of time before we start seeing cases like that. I'm convinced.”
If armed police officers are unnerved by open carry, the discomfort is multiplied for average folks. Stamper points out that even the NRA, in what must have been a fleeting moment of lucidity, posted an open letter questioning the wisdom of the practice back in 2014. At the time, pro-gun advocates in Texas were expressing their objections to an open carry ban by bringing their guns into public spaces. It’s safe to make some racial assumptions about those “protesters,” considering police managed not to kill any of them, despite the fact that they were openly flouting the law by peacocking with AK-47s in local diners and shopping malls.
“Let’s not mince words,” the NRA letter stated, “not only is it rare, it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself. To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one’s cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates.”
The missive rightly accused the protesters of “cross[ing] the line from enthusiasm to downright foolishness.” Gun nuts responded by having a tantrum, and within days, the NRA recanted its statements, going so far as to apologize for admonitions that veered too close to sanity.
Police in a number of cities have been less easy to shut down, pushing back on open carry when the issue arises. During the legislative debate over a proposed open carry bill in Florida last year, the Fraternal Order of Police expressed its unanimous opposition to the legislation, and the Florida Sheriffs Association made sure legislators were aware that 70 percent of its membership was against the law. The bill died earlier this year. When Texas was considering an open carry law last year, the Texas Police Chiefs Association pointed to a study that showed 75 percent of respondents gave the pending legislation a thumbs down. (In total, about one-fifth of the state’s police chiefs responded to the poll.) Perhaps most surprising, former Texas governor Rick Perry expressed apprehension about the pending law at the time, telling the Texas Tribune he was “not necessarily all that fond of this open carry concept.” That bill was signed into law by current Texas governor Greg Abbott in June 2015.
Despite speaking up about the problems they face with open carry and the expansion of other gun laws, cops have had difficulty getting conservative legislators to give their criticisms proper weight when deciding on firearms legislation.
“We’re advocating the safety for our police officers, but on the other side, you have the NRA and other special interest groups that say, ‘If you’ll do this, we’ll endorse you and make you look good,’” Ken Winter, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police, told the New York Times. “We don’t have anything to offer them other than good advice.”
In some cases, local municipalities might be prompted to change gun legislation, but simply don’t have the power to decide gun laws. In June, the largest police union in Cleveland issued a formal request that Ohio governor John Kasich suspend open carry laws for the duration of the Republican National Convention. Stephen Loomis, president of the city’s Police Patrolmen's Association, told CNN that Kasich “could very easily do some kind of executive order or something”; on the heels of Dallas and Baton Rouge the officer said he didn’t “care if it's constitutional or not at this point." Kasich turned down the request, saying the governor doesn’t have “the power to arbitrarily suspend federal and state constitutional rights or state laws." Reuters notes that all Ohio municipalities once were able to make decisions about local gun laws, but Ohio state lawmakers in 2006 ruled that only they could alter gun legislation. Cleveland attempted to sue the state to win back that right, but the state supreme court ruled against the city in 2010.
Similarly, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, police at every level have made multiple attempts to push back on open carry laws. The state has longstanding, lenient gun legislation, including open carry, though police were still disarming open carrying citizens and charging them with disorderly conduct as recently as 2009. In response, the state attorney general issued an advisory reiterating the practice’s legality, to the dismay of police across the state. “It's going to be like the Wild West, where they have the holster strapped down to their leg,” Detective Dala Milosavljevic of the Cudahy Police Department told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time.
Gun advocates and right-wing lawmakers were unmoved by officers’ fears. “We’re sympathetic to law enforcement being concerned about their safety, but that doesn’t mean we give up citizens’ rights just to make it easier to police large events,” John Pierce of OpenCarry.org told Reuters.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn remains opposed to the policy, and condemns Republican lawmakers’ refusal to listen to police objections.
“I wish more of our legislators could see past the ideology,” Flynn told Reuters last month. “They have no concern about the impact [of open carry] in urban environments that are already plagued by too many guns and too much violence.”
Even tragedy doesn’t seem to sway gun rights hardliners. In Colorado Springs last year, a woman called 911 to report a suspicious looking man walking around her neighborhood with a gun. The dispatcher told the caller the man was exercising a legal right, and neglected to flag the situation using the highest priority coding. The woman called 911 again shortly after; by then, the man had begun a shooting spree that ended with three people dead. The suspect died of injuries sustained in a gunfight with police.
Colorado Springs mayor John Suthers called the mass killing a “very, very sad situation,” but essentially refused to consider changing the city’s open carry law. "I personally do not have an appetite” for restricting open carry, he told the Colorado Gazette days after the shooting. The Huffington Post notes that Suthers had previously made a point of bragging that he “had an A rating from the NRA throughout [his] career.”
More recently, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards signed the so-called Blue Lives Matter bill into law, which increases penalties for those accused of offenses against law enforcement officers. (These include “damage to property,” “criminal trespass” and “institutional vandalism.”) "Coming from a family of law enforcement officers, I have great respect for the work that they do and the risks they take to ensure our safety," Edwards said, according to CNN. "They deserve every protection that we can give them."
They would likely be better aided by amendments to Louisiana’s notoriously lenient gun laws. Two months after the passage of the bill, just after the Baton Rouge police shooting, prominent local figure Lt. General Russel HonorÃ© penned an op-ed criticizing the state’s open carry policies.
The police chief asked citizens to remain vigilant and to report concerning or suspicious behavior. But in a place where the legislature has said you can stalk the streets with high-capacity, military-style rifles and be in full compliance with the law until you train your sights on your target and open fire, what is a citizen to do? It's a vision of an America where everyone is armed, but no one is safe....As an Army veteran who swore an oath to protect our Constitution, I know law-abiding Americans everywhere have a right to own guns for self-protection. But I also know the gun lobby's growing perversion of that right into the need to carry guns everywhere in public makes it harder for our law enforcement officers to do safely their dangerous job.”
HonorÃ© concluded by saying the way to honor slain officers in Louisiana and Dallas is “by having more responsible gun laws that protect them, not put them at risk.”
"We’re not against people carrying firearms concealed, but having them out, having them exposed, you’re opening a recipe for disaster," Javier Ortiz, president of the Miami Fraternal Order of Police, told Florida senators as they weighed an open carry bill. "Some people want to be police officers, like George Zimmerman did. We don’t need George Zimmermans walking around with firearms exposed."