“When the Black Panthers marched armed in Sacramento [California] decades ago, they didn’t do the cause of the
Second Amendment any good,”

noted longtime gun-owners’ rights advocate Joe Tartaro. It was, some Panthers admitted, a show of force. But much of the public saw it as a menacing threat. To many, it made this activist group look more bad than good. Exposed carry of a sidearm in this society, by anyone not readily identified as police, on-duty military or professional security, scares people. In the late 19th century, a then-predominant expert on etiquette said that she didn’t care what people did discreetly “so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.” Packing in public, when you’re not readily identifiable as a good guy or gal “frightens the horses.”

The Bully Factor
Those who flaunt their power to do harm are often seen as bullies. This is why the Black Panthers earned no good will when they marched Sacramento’s city streets with conspicuous firearms. A common pattern of armed robbery is for the perpetrator to walk into the target establishment and pull up his shirt or pull back his jacket to reveal a gun in his waistband. Often, the victim hands over the money without the perp having to say a word. The obvious threat of violence is implicit and clearly understood. Even if he completes the theft without actually drawing the gun and does no physical harm, this perpetrator will be arrested for, charged with and probably convicted of armed robbery. A number of shopkeepers with whom you choose to do business may have already been robbed in this manner. They now see you walk into their place of business for the first time, with a gun conspicuously visible. Is it possible that they’ll get the wrong idea?

Years ago I was doing a story on a special NYPD unit and had left a city precinct house with one of its officers, who had just gone off duty. On foot, we stopped at a corner variety store so he could buy some chewing gum. His off-duty gun, a 2-inch .38, was in his trouser pocket along with his change. Groping for coins and finding the gun in the way, he casually removed the loaded Colt Cobra and placed it in the palm of his left hand while he continued to root around in his pocket for money. His eyes were cast downward to count the change, and he did not see what I saw: the look of absolute horror on the face of the clerk when she saw the revolver, even though its muzzle was in a safe direction and he was doing nothing hostile. She was starting to raise her hands when I caught her eye and mouthed, “He’s a cop.” The relief in her face was dramatic.

This officer was not a bully. I got to know him well. He was a fine man who devoted his life to the protection of the innocent. But he lived in a world of armed men and women. Holding the gun casually was as natural to him as breathing, but was absolutely terrifying to the clerk who didn’t know him or his intentions. The advocates of open carry are decent, well-meaning people, I think. But I don’t think they realize the potential for people, who don’t know them or their intentions, to be badly shaken by the sight of the gun on their hip.

When discussing this subject at a Gun Rights Policy Conference with a number of advocates of open carry, I kept asking them why they wanted to do it when most of them came from places where they could get concealed-carry permits. One answer I kept getting was, “Because I can.” Any schoolteacher can tell you of taking a bully aside and asking him, “Why do you do that to other kids?” and hearing in answer, “Because I can.” That is the language of a bully—and a show-off.

Showing Off
Most cops in this country see the guy who carries an exposed handgun when he doesn’t have to as a show-off, especially in a setting where the overwhelming majority of others don’t carry. Particularly when one of the citizens is alarmed and makes that clear to the officer, the cop may want to know why you felt a need to flaunt lethal force in a peaceful setting. While the act of carrying may be technically legal, a citizen’s complaint about it can create probable cause for arrest on a charge of disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct, particularly if you become argumentative with that officer. At least one state has a statute that prohibits “Going Armed To The Terror of the Public.”
Let’s say that you are arrested, and the case is assigned to a prosecutor. It is your misfortune to draw a prosecutor who adores Sarah Brady and all she stands for. The prosecutor decides to make an example of you. Given the fact that you are not breaking the law (assuming open carry is legal in the given jurisdiction), you may win the case in court. However, you won’t be paid back for the anguish, the time lost from work while you were in court and preparing for trial, and of course, legal fees and costs. Nor will you be compensated for the bad publicity that can cause suffering to you and your family.

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  • Paul O.

    100% agree. Open carry gives away too many tactical advantages. I only open carry at the range because I’m required to as a RSO.