By Dan Griffin, Michigan Open Carry
With the recent activities of Open Carry Texas lawfully asserting their rights in an effort to get the Texas legislature to vote for the legalization of openly carried handguns, and counter protests to that—including the poorly attended rallies of the Bloomberg-funded Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America—the open carry of firearms has been in the news quite a bit. Those not paying attention might assume that open carry is something new, something rare, perhaps reckless at best and dangerous at worst, but that is far from the truth.
Open carry has been around since before the birth of this nation. Open carry has been legal in Michigan, my state of residence, ever since it became a state over 175 years ago and as a territory before that. In fact, open carry is currently legal in 44 states, and in 30 states you don’t need a license to openly carry a holstered pistol. Open carry used to be the norm, and one had to be licensed to hide your gun. Over the years various restrictive gun laws have been created state by state, largely in an effort to suppress the ability of minorities and criminals to carry guns. The ability to lawfully carry a hidden gun became a symbol of status and privilege. In some states it still is.
Today people carry their firearms openly for different reasons. Some people open carry as a political statement and to publicly show that “I have a right to keep and bear arms, and I accept that I am solely responsible for the safety of myself and my family.” Some open carry to normalize it among the populace and to show that good people can carry guns. Some just carry openly because it is easier and they think that works best for them.
Many people believe that open carry is a viable method of carrying a firearm for personal protection and one that they employ regularly, but should it be a preferred method? Below I’ll list some of the advantages, disadvantages, and arguments that some use for and against open carry.
“Open carry gives away a citizen’s greatest tactical advantage, stealth and surprise.”
Concealing one’s weapon as a tactical advantage is an offensive strategy, not a defensive one. The people who say they carry concealed so they can surprise an attacker are misguided. In most cases you will have only seconds to realize what’s happening, make a decision, and react. Consider this: you see a potential encounter coming. Is their intent to victimize you? If you draw your concealed pistol on an innocent person who just wants to ask you directions on how to get back to the interstate, you will likely be arrested and lose your firearm rights. If you wait until there’s an actual threat, you have to decide between complying and trying to draw your hidden pistol, if you think you can.
If you have to surprise someone, you’re already in deep trouble. After you’ve been attacked, surprising your attacker is ridiculous. They already have the upper hand.
“Open carry tips your hand. I want to reveal my gun on my own terms.”
Once you are attacked you are not on your own terms. Can a successful defense be made then? It is possible, but why appear to be defenseless and a soft target in the first place? People who want that “element of surprise” always assume that they will be a bystander instead of the target victim. Your element of surprise doesn’t work when you are the one being attacked for giving the impression that you are an easy target.
Transitions are always the most dangerous part of any journey: the transition from your house to your car, the transition from the store to your car, the transition from your office to your car. If someone is going to attack you, they are most likely to strike when you are between “safe” places. Parking lots and gas stations are two of the most likely places you’ll need your gun, places where you’ll be largely alone and the target of an attack. Chances are high you won’t be getting into a situation on your terms, but on those of your attacker.
If the bad guy is finding out about your gun on your terms, then you’re probably in a situation that would have been better avoided in the first place.
“Open carry sets you up as the first target to be eliminated by bad guys.”
No matter how many times I hear or read this, I am still amazed that people continue to spout this nonsense despite any evidence that it has ever happened. Again, the argument for concealed carry typically hinges on the assumption that the carrier will be a bystander and not the intended target, thus relying on the element of surprise rather than preparing for being surprised yourself.
Could it ever happen? Could you conceivably be taken out as the first threat in a robbery? Yes, anything is possible. But the fact is that criminals typically have tunnel vision and are focused on the object of their attack. Criminals are not skilled military tacticians. They are looking at the clerk behind the counter to make sure that he doesn’t pull a gun, not at the shopper getting ice cream from the frozen dairy counter. There have been instances where criminals have held up convenience stores with uniformed police in close proximity because they are focused on the cash register and getting in and out as quickly as possible. The probability of you being the target when you are alone is exponentially higher than if a criminal is walking through a convenience store shooting all the armed shoppers first before he robs the store. The myth that if you open carry a bad guy is going to shoot you first is just that, a myth.
“I don’t want the hassle from law enforcement for open carrying.”
Although it is true that in the past law enforcement has given law-abiding citizens a hard time for exercising their right to open carry, this now occurs far less frequently. Open carry has become increasingly popular, and because of that most law enforcement agencies have been or are being trained on how to handle encounters with open carriers. The fact is that most police do not bother open carriers at all. However, this is nothing more than a personal preference for the carrier.
“Open carry makes the average citizen very nervous.”
While there are some people who have a genuine fear of guns, most don’t. Open carriers have had thousands of positive citizen encounters where people have either asked about carrying because they didn’t know open carry was legal, they want to get a carry license themselves, or they want to thank the carrier for exercising his right to self-protection. Open carry of a holstered pistol while going about your everyday life is a non-event. Most people don’t notice, and most people don’t care. If someone who is afraid of guns is bothered that you are carrying a gun openly, they will also be upset that you are carrying a gun concealed. If you really want to allay the fears of the public who are afraid of guns, educate them. Show them that they have nothing to fear from a peaceable citizen lawfully carrying a holstered firearm. Show them their fears are based on emotion, not fact. The argument that open carry scares the public is made by people who haven’t carried openly themselves. Those of us who do so on a regular basis have an entirely different experience.
“Open carry is bad pro-gun PR and will likely lead to stricter gun control.”
Where is the proof of this assertion? Each year open carry is becoming more prevalent and more widespread across the United States. With just a couple of narrow exceptions, most states are simultaneously enacting more pro-gun legislation every year. Although some do have limits, 44 states currently allow open carry, not including some rural open carry in California. Arkansas recently joined the ranks of full open carry states, and South Carolina had a bill working its way through the legislature that would have also allowed unlicensed open carry. Unfortunately it was killed last session. Texas is working very hard to legalize open carry and Florida won’t be far behind. As with the other spurious anti-open carry arguments, the facts prove just the opposite of what they claim. More states are expanding their “stand your ground” laws, slowly eliminating gun-free zones, and requiring CLEOs (chief law enforcement officers) to sign off on NFA items including short barreled rifles (SBR), short barreled shotguns (SBS), suppressors (silencers), and fully automatic firearms (machine guns). In the past few years, a number of state legislatures have crafted and passed “Constitutional Carry” bills where no license whatsoever is required to carry a firearm concealed or openly. Despite all of this, I have actually read arguments that people shouldn’t openly carry because then lawmakers will make open carry illegal and then they won’t be able to open carry. Somehow the logic is lost on them that if they refuse to open carry, it really doesn’t make much difference if it is outlawed.
The most serious issue here is that some people are afraid they’re going to offend others. This is entirely in the mind of the person making the argument. There is no negative impact on the community from someone carrying openly, minding their own business, obeying the law, and engaging in commerce or social activities.
“No well-known firearms instructor recommends open carry.”
Those same firearms instructors are also likely to recommend carrying spare magazines or speed loaders and to carry no caliber less powerful than 9mm. How many of those who use this anti-open carry argument carry the latest .380 wonderauto they saw on the cover of a gun magazine because they are small and easy to carry, or don’t carry a reload and say, “If I can’t get it done in six rounds…” If so, those people would seem to be picking and choosing which pieces of “professional” advice they want to follow because it fits their own agenda.
The fact is that this argument is not accurate in the first place. A number of nationally known self-defense firearms instructors were recently asked their opinions on open carry, and some of them said that in fact they were not against it. One instructor stated, “I fully support those who do responsibly open carry. I think more people should, but sadly most can’t handle the situational awareness required to do it properly.” He also noted the poor gear many firearms carriers select as being an issue.
Another instructor stated, “I like the debate of it. [Open carry] is a right, it should be done, but it should be done smartly. It’s kind of like the debate between 9mm vs. 45. Who cares, as long as the person is smart about it and responsible? I see no difference between the two arguments (CC and OC).” Still another said, “Open carry is one of our fundamental liberties under the Second Amendment,” but noted that it can be divisive in some places. In fact, instructors who advise against it often use the reasoning that it is not “normal” in many parts of the country and makes others “uncomfortable.”
While it is true that there are instructors who are against open carry because “tactically they don’t want to ‘show their hand’ and want to ‘surprise’ their attacker,” it is by no means a universal position. And as previously mentioned, there are people who lack situational awareness and fail to select the proper gear, so some instructors simply do not recommend carrying openly. While it is true that it is a bad idea to carry a pistol in a cheap, open top nylon holster loosely hanging from your belt and to pay absolutely no attention to your weapon or surroundings, I think it would be better if instructors took the position of teaching people the proper way to conceal carry and the proper way to open carry.
Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch doesn’t preach that you have to carry a certain type of handgun. Instead, he preaches that if you choose to carry a revolver, you should learn to be the best with it, and if you choose to carry a semi-auto, you should learn to be the best with that. This same mindset should be applied to open and concealed carry.
“Other than a desire to show everyone how big yours is, what is the advantage to open carry?”
Ignoring the double-entendre nature of this all-too-frequently asked question, I’ll just answer it as best I can because some people really don’t know or haven’t thought about it. Of the many people I personally know who open carry and the many more I have met online who open carry, not a single one carries openly to show off either their gun or their manhood.
The deterrent value of open carry
Carrying a concealed firearm suggests to a criminal that you are unarmed. Every study says that criminals will avoid an armed person or home when selecting a victim. I do not understand the advantage of appearing to be unarmed. As Ed Levine, founder of Virginia Open Carry, has stated, the probability of me being a victim of a violent crime is completely unchanged by the fact that I have a gun hidden beneath my shirt. My goal is not to be a victim in the first place.
I don’t want to have to shoot someone. Few people will attack an open carrier. If you feel better concealing, that’s fine. If I can, I prefer to stop the threat before it turns into a physical reality. If you think that it’s better to stop a threat using your surprise tactics once you’re on your back getting your head smashed in, then that’s your decision.
Concealing your firearm is like having a “No Guns” sign on a business when in reality all the employees are armed. It might be robbed, but you can then surprise the robber with your guns which may lead to a shoot-out. Or, you could put up an “Armed Personnel on the Premises” sign. That would deter most criminals. Why wait until the threat is physical and poses a danger to you before you act?
There is well-documented and thoroughly researched analysis by criminal profilers and psychologists that says criminals will look for a soft target. As with everything there are exceptions to the rule, but most criminals are indeed opportunistic and will run when facing something that will keep them from accomplishing their goal. There is no good way to prove when or how often it does occur, but there are people who have experienced specific instances of open carrying deterring criminality. Let’s face it, what are you going to do, ask someone if he was going to rob you until he saw your gun? Unlikely.
Simply put, there is a deterrent value to openly carrying. Truthfully, many don’t notice but if a criminal does he will pick another victim. Statistics are hard to come by here, but there is much anecdotal evidence. One of the most famous cases that made the news was the Kennesaw, Georgia, Waffle House robbery that was avoided simply because there were armed citizens sitting in there eating. What is not so well known is that there are many police reports in which criminal suspects who were taken into custody stated that they saw people openly carrying firearms in a business and postponed their attack until they left.
I’ve read many stories on state gun forums and firearms blogs of open carry criminal avoidance encounters. One story that sticks in my mind was a father and his daughter returning to their car in a Target parking lot when a man approached them. His approach “line” was asking for a light, but when he got close enough to see the father was openly carrying a holstered pistol, he quickly turned around mid-sentence and left. Maybe innocent? We’ll never know for sure.
In another encounter, a man who had been hanging around a gas station pay phone approached a husband and his wife when they pulled into the gas station. While the husband was out of his truck, the man began heading in his direction and picked up his pace slightly as he drew near. The husband didn’t look directly at him, but instead raised his arm up to appear to be checking the straps holding their cargo. When the man saw his openly carried pistol, he immediately changed his direction and began walking down the street away from the truck instead of toward it like he had been. Do we know for sure the man had evil intent? No, but his actions indicated it was likely.
A similar thing happened to a woman at a gas station. She was running low on gas and stopped to fill up in a small town. As she was pumping gas, two men approached her from different directions. When one got to within twenty feet she yelled, “Stop!” but the man just laughed. However, when he saw her openly carried pistol he turned and ran toward the street as the other man ran in the opposite direction.
Again, this story was repeated with another open carrier at a gas station. A group of guys were approaching the armed citizen as he was out of his car pumping gas with the intent to rob him until one cried out, “****, he’s got a gun!” At that point they all ran back to their car, jumped in, and took off in a hurry. The fact is, there are many stories like these. You don’t hear about them for the same reason you don’t hear about all the other successful uses of guns to protect oneself against crime on CBS/NBC/ABC/PBS/MSNBC/CNN. That’s not news, or at least it’s not news they want to broadcast. Also, most people probably don’t read gun forums and blogs where gun owners share their experiences while going about their lives open carrying daily.
Some anti-gun or anti-open carry people claim that if a criminal sees a gun, he will either just wait until the gun owner leaves, or he will go elsewhere to commit his crime. They then conclude that there was no “real” deterrent value to openly carrying. To that I say, “Good.” Remember, my goal is not to be a victim in the first place. I carry to protect myself and my family. If a business or citizen happens to benefit from crime avoidance because I am nearby, that’s fine, but it is not my job to protect them and it’s not why I carry a gun. If they choose to go about their lives defenseless, that is a choice they made. I carry not to prevent all attacks, I carry to prevent all attacks on me.
And if by some chance a criminal doesn’t notice you are carrying and begins to attack you, who do you think would have the advantage then, someone openly carrying his pistol or someone concealing his pistol?
As one open carrier said, “I’m not a ninja. By concealing you have to attempt to ambush your ambusher in order to use your weapon, and that is just something I’m not interested in doing.” I will never claim that openly carrying a firearm will deter all criminals. The world is not that simple. I am of the opinion that open carry is one tool in a vast arsenal that can help reduce your chance of being selected as a potential target.
Ease of carry
Another advantage of open carry is that it is extremely comfortable. You can carry a full-sized gun easier than carrying it concealed. A concealable handgun is often a compromise in size and caliber. So many people today carry small, low round capacity pistols (even tiny .380 ACPs) because it is easy and they can throw one in their pocket almost as an afterthought. To them carrying a concealed medium or full-sized pistol or revolver is harder and uncomfortable. They don’t want to dress around it. Many don’t even carry extra magazines or speed loaders. Not only does a larger gun have a higher round capacity as in the case of semi-auto pistols, but it is also easier to shoot and is more controllable. You’re going to be more accurate both on initial and follow-up shots should you ever have to use it.
There exists a subset of concealed carriers who will take hacksaws to perfectly good Glocks and cut the grip of a G19 down to a G26 size or a G23 down to a G27 size so it doesn’t “print.” Not only have they decreased their round capacity, but they now also have the disadvantage of a harder to control pistol due to its abbreviated subcompact grip length. Brilliant.
As an aside, there is also something to be said about people who make life decisions based on some absolute bare minimum requirement. One would hope that these same people don’t have a similar mindset regarding training and understanding of the law. A “minimally sufficient” mindset is a measure of how serious someone is taking the subject. You need to ask yourself, how does your carry measure up to a threat if you are attacked?
Ease and safety of use
Because of safety issues, it has always been pointed out in training that learning the draw strokes and duplicating them over and over again with an easily accessible, good quality, outside the waistband holster is preferred. Talk to some trainers who actually teach concealed carry gun manipulation, not just self-defense tactics using openly carried holsters on the range during training. Listen to their stories. They are frightening. That’s not to say that drawing from concealment under stress can’t be mastered because it certainly can. It’s just another element to consider when your fine motor skills deteriorate in a high stress situation.
The right to open carry and the right to keep and bear arms
Stated plainly, it is your right. A right not exercised is effectively a right lost. You don’t need to justify it. Limits on fundamental rights have to be justified, not the other way around. Let me say it again: exercising a fundamental right requires no justification, limiting it in any way is what has to be justified. As Dave Champion has asked, how does concealed carry where you hide the exercise of your right possibly promote the right to keep and bear arms? Who would respect your right of free speech if you were similarly restricted from exercising it?
Open carry as a public statement
By open carrying, it shows the general public that bad things don’t mysteriously happen when a gun is present, and it helps to dispel the various gun myths that have been promulgated by the government, the police, Hollywood, and the media. As long as armed Americans are forced to conceal their firearms, the people who would deny them their natural, civil, and constitutionally protected right to keep and bear arms can maintain their anti-gun belief system thinking they’re winning, even when they’re not. They will not change their minds.
Alternatively, anti-gunners who regularly and routinely encounter guns openly carried by their fellow Americans will gradually shift their perspective towards respect for gun rights, much as they did for civil rights.
There is a saying among backpackers: “Each person has to hike his own hike.” It is the same with self-defense. If some choose to carry concealed, that’s fine. It’s up to each person to provide for his or her own self-defense in the way best suited to that individual. This may be carrying a firearm, pepper spray, employing martial arts, or using nothing at all, simply choosing to rely on law enforcement for protection.
Stopping a violent crime before a criminal injures a citizen is practically unheard of. It simply is not humanly possible, no matter how dedicated the police force. In the end, you must take responsibility for your own safety, and you are the only one who can guarantee that safety. How you choose to do so is up to you. Open carry is one option for carrying a firearm for self-defense, concealing is another. Finding the balance is an exercise for the reader. To those gun owners who are anti-open carry and overly vocal on the subject, I say to them that I choose to open carry, but I do not begrudge you to carry however you wish. Please allow me the same courtesy. As far as I’m concerned, you are either pro-gun and pro-liberty or you’re not. If you are, then stop drawing division lines and let people enjoy their liberty and choose for themselves.
As someone once said, I am not a vigilante, I am not a hero. I simply want to protect myself and my family. There will always be predators, and there will always be prey. But not me. Not today.
Dan Griffin is an engineer, project manager, and primary author and editor of the Michigan Open Carry Newsletter. He can be reached at email@example.com.