Last weekend in Charlottesville, the dangers of our nation’s lax gun laws – specifically open carry – were on display yet again. We saw how the most hateful among us can take advantage of our weak gun laws to use guns to intimidate and silence free speech and marginalized communities. Open carry laws, combined with racism and anti-Semitism, are a toxic and terrifying mix.
After the crowds dispersed, we heard from public officials like Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and public safety secretary Brian Moran, both of whom noted that the presence of protesters openly carrying firearms made the job of law enforcement even more difficult at a time when the stakes were already high.
The presence of armed extremists at protests and rallies – including the white supremacists in Charlottesville – highlights a loophole in the laws of most states. This loophole allows people to openly carry guns in public without a background check, permitting or training. In nearly every state, including Virginia, open carry is typically legal by default; there is no law forbidding it, but also no law permitting it. A factsheet on open carry is available here.
Now is the time to editorialize against the open carry loophole. Time and again, Americans openly carrying guns have posed a threat to public safety. Last summer in Dallas, when five police officers were shot and killed, police said that they couldn’t tell which gunman was firing at them because protesters were openly carrying firearms. The Dallas Police Chief David Brown said: “The presumption is that a good guy with a gun is the best way to solve some of these [shootings], but we don’t know who the good guy is versus the bad guy.”
In October 2015 in Colorado, where open carry is legal, a gunman killed three people. Before the shooting, a neighbor saw the gunman openly carrying a rifle as he walked down the street and called 911, but because the behavior was legal under state law, police did not immediately respond. Jacki Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office said, “Is this person exercising their rights or about to start a very serious situation in which someone is going to be killed? We just don’t know the difference.”
Recently, the NRA’s rhetoric has turned increasingly violent – going after the media and people of color with a so-called “#ClenchedFistofTruth” – and the behavior in Charlottesville is a logical outcome of that rhetoric. The expression of the Second Amendment by some civilians with semiautomatic rifles infringed upon the First Amendment rights of peaceful protestors to express their opposition to white supremacy.
White supremacists have long embraced open carry as a method of intimidation to suppress the Constitutional rights of others. In fact, white supremacists have used guns in 70 percent of domestic terror attacks, and are responsible for more deaths than any other domestic extremist movement. It is time that states end the unacceptable and un-American practice of open carry, and pass common-sense gun laws that would strengthen public safety.