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“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.

OK, you’re not a show-off. You know it. I know it. But, unfortunately, a lot of other people don’t know it. And some of those people might be genuine show-offs themselves. Let’s say Joe Hotshot is out on the town with a couple of beers in him, with a new girlfriend he wants to impress. They spot you having a cup of coffee in the same café they just entered. His new lady says, “Ooh, look, that guy has a gun.” Now, Joe Hotshot sees his chance to be the big man. He saunters over to you and snarls, “Hey, scumbag, who do you think you are, scaring people with that piece? Think you’re tough?” Next thing you know, you might be in a rough and tumble with this old boy, maybe even fighting to keep your weapon out of his hands.

To drive home the point, in the mid 1990s, I attended the National Tactical Invitational at Gunsite with a good friend from the Midwest. Each of us carried a fully loaded, cocked-and-locked, .45 ACP 1911. However, we were carrying differently. I was representing my department there, assigned to attend, and carrying my credentials as a sworn police officer, so I was legal to carry concealed in Arizona; my Para-Ordnance P14 was in its Leather Arsenal holster under a Cabela’s concealment vest. My buddy, however, was from one of those states that didn’t yet have the concealed-carry privilege, and Arizona had not yet put in place the mechanism that would reciprocate a nonresident permit. He chose to exercise his rights under Arizona’s famous rule allowing open carry, and his custom Colt Government Model was uncovered in a holster on his hip. On the way from Prescott to the Gunsite facility in Paulden, we stopped at a convenience store for some road coffee. He got into line at the checkout ahead of me. I was approaching when I saw a tall man a few steps away pause, do a double take and stare at my companion’s pistol. He actually extended his arm, pointed at the gun and whispered something to another patron. Then, intently staring at the gun, he came in behind my friend and began to reach his hand out toward the holstered .45.

I stepped between them, facing the show-off with my non-gun-hand palm up in the universal “stop” gesture. He froze, looked back and forth at my friend and I, and stepped away. My buddy would have done the same for me. None of us has eyes in the back of our head. Uniformed cops learn to constantly be aware of their exposed sidearms and are constantly, subconsciously guarding them. Many private citizens haven’t learned that yet, because open carry is new to them. But some show-off making a scene, starting a fight or even reaching for your gun is an absolute possibility. And it can get worse.

Gun Grabbers
The guy who reaches for your gun may be more than a show-off, and much deadlier. In another case, a Midwestern gun-shop owner chose to wear a Colt .45 ACP on his hip, in hopes of intimidating potential robbers and preventing bloodshed all around. The day came when a man entered the store and asked him for a box of ammo on a shelf located behind the shop owner. As the gun dealer turned to reach for it, the man deftly snatched the gun out of his holster from behind. The merchant turned to see his own pistol pointed at him by a man who was pulling the trigger.

What saved the gun dealer’s life was that he carried cocked and locked, and the bad guy hadn’t yet realized that he needed to release the safety catch before he could shoot. The store owner dove for a concealed revolver under the counter, and by the time the bad guy figured out how to operate his stolen gun, the good guy was already returning fire. This incident had a happy ending, but you can imagine how much uglier it could have been.

Already Armed Criminal
Long ago, in my book In the Gravest Extreme: the Role of the Firearm in Personal Protection, I wrote that, if a shopkeeper wore a visible handgun, it might indeed ward off lightweight criminals, but the hard ones would be forewarned and come armed—and might just come in shooting. At the end of that Gun Rights Policy Conference I mentioned, one of the other speakers told me about another incident. Two business partners carried guns, but differently, and they had even argued about the difference. Partner A believed in the deterrent effect of a visible gun and carried a full-size autopistol in an exposed holster. Partner B wanted the advantage of surprise and chose a smaller gun, a J-frame, snub-nose revolver concealed in his trouser pocket. The day came when multiple armed robbers entered the store with guns of their own. Seeing the exposed pistol on the one owner’s hip, they opened up on him.

The man who was practicing open carry went down in a hail of bullets. He courageously drew and returned fire from the floor, but having been hit multiple times could not shoot as effectively as he might have otherwise. Meanwhile, his partner, ignored by the gunmen because he didn’t appear to pose a threat, drew his concealed revolver and opened up with a deadly barrage, taking down a couple of the perps and neutralizing the threat. Partner A survived, his life saved by Partner B.

Don’t Feed the Liars
In the February 2005 issue of Combat Handguns, one “KK” from Arizona told us of a case in which he was falsely accused of having threatened his ex with a gun. After what he described as “nine months of hell,” he finally was exonerated and got his confiscated guns back. It was to his advantage that he could show the officers he was not armed on the day in question.

What if the complainant, who bore false witness, had been able to catch him on a day when he was carrying and to exactly describe the gun she claimed was pointed at her because he had been wearing it openly? Case in point: A man in the grip of road rage called in a false report to police, saying another motorist had menaced him with a gun. As was eventually proven to a jury’s satisfaction, this never happened. The false allegation apparently came because the complainant had noticed an NRA sticker in the window of his victim’s car and perhaps concluded that he might have a gun in his vehicle. The defendant did indeed have a pistol in the car, but it was in a locked GunVault security unit. The complainant, who described himself as a gun expert, said the gun he was threatened with was a “two-tone,” 9mm automatic. The pistol that was locked in the gun safe at the time was a .40-caliber Glock 27 finished in flat black. This was one of the many discrepancies expertly pointed out by gun-wise defense attorney Penney Dean, which led to the acquittal of a man falsely accused of aggravated assault.

Suppose this poor guy had been carrying openly? The false complainant could have gotten a good look at his pistol and said, “He pointed one of those baby Glocks at me.” The police arrive and find the good guy armed with, guess what, a baby Glock. It might have made the false accusation seem more plausible to the jury.

Final Advice
If you are in the rare situation where you have no option of legal concealed carry, but open carry is allowed under the law and you want a gun accessible to protect yourself in public, then open carry is the only way to go. However, there are few jurisdictions where both these situations are simultaneously in place.
But discreet concealed carry is what you want, and the past several years have proven that it’s worth fighting for.

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