26 April 2010

Support Is Growing For Openly Carrying Permitted Weapons

Hartford Courant

April 18, 2010

An eruption in a simmering dispute over gun rights occurred when James Goldberg, wearing camouflage clothing and a holstered — and licensed — pistol on his right hip, walked into a Chili's restaurant in upscale Glastonbury, where he intended to pay for a takeout order.

According to Goldberg, a college-educated, occupational safety engineer, a restaurant employee, concerned by the sight of an armed customer, called the town police department. A goggle-eyed luncheon crowd watched three officers roll up, confront Goldberg and handcuff him.

"What can we get him for?" Goldberg, 32, says one of the officers asked his colleagues.

The answer, as it turned out, was nothing.

A state Superior Court judge dismissed the breach of peace charge police ultimately filed against Goldberg, forcing law enforcement experts to concede that, absent extenuating circumstances, there is nothing in Connecticut law to prohibit licensed gun owners from conducting their lives visibly armed.

The judge's decision was treated as a vindication by some gun owners in traditionally gun-shy Connecticut. They are joining groups elsewhere in asserting, as Goldberg does, what they say is the right to carry sidearms openly, in public, for protection.

The "open carry" movement is growing at a time when the federal courts have been looking more favorably on the rights of gun owners than on the authority of governments to restrict gun ownership.

There are three federal lawsuits pending in Connecticut that challenge the way the state enforces gun laws. In one, Goldberg is suing Glastonbury over his arrest three years ago, claiming he was charged even though there is no state law against openly carrying a sidearm.

In the other two, Goldberg and M. Peter Kuck, a member of the state Board of Firearms Permit Examiners, argue separately that arbitrary enforcement of state gun laws by biased police officers has denied or delayed the issuance of handgun permits, resulting in a denial of due process rights to gun owners.

Kuck, as a member of the board that hears appeals from gun owners who have been denied permits or whose permits have been revoked, is indirectly attacking the work of his board. Goldberg argues that he was wrongly denied a pistol permit for nearly two years after the dismissal of his arrest.

A federal judge in Hartford dismissed both permit suits. But in late March, a federal appeals court in New York overturned the dismissals and sent the cases back to Hartford for further review.

Balancing Interests
Goldberg's arrest, the success of the lawsuits and an increasingly vocal open-carry movement have attracted the attention of state law enforcement experts and policymakers who are concerned with balancing the potentially conflicting interests of openly armed gun owners against those who may become alarmed by the sight of guns.

"I think people have the right to bear arms," said state Rep. Stephen D. Dargan, D-West Haven and co-chairman of the legislature's public safety committee. "How they bear those arms in public is another issue. If I'm a store owner and I see someone walk in with a gun, maybe I pull out the gun I keep under the counter. Maybe I call the police. Maybe they come running in with their guns drawn, because they don't know what's going on."

In the past two years, open carry has become part of the national gun discussion. The Starbucks coffee chain put the issue before a broad audience earlier this year when it decided to allow obviously armed customers into its stores in states that permit open carry. Virginia, Tennessee and Arizona have enacted laws allowing openly armed patrons to drink in barrooms.

Student gun clubs at Connecticut's state universities joined a national push earlier this month to compel public universities to permit armed students to attend classes.

Also this month, Connecticut gun owners staged a Second Amendment rally at the state Capitol.

No one in Connecticut is predicting that the suits or the evolving discussion of gun rights will result in a spike in the number of armed shoppers at suburban malls. But the talk alone has law enforcement officers and policymakers re-examining the existing law and how it should be enforced.

Even through it may be legal for a permitted gun owner to carry a pistol or revolver in public in Connecticut, the officials say every case is not necessarily legal and they will closely examine those brought to their attention.

"There is no law that expressly prohibits the open carrying of a firearm by somebody who has a permit to carry it, in and of itself," said Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane. "But there are statutes that could very well be violated, depending on the evidence and the circumstances. And that could lead to arrest, confiscation and forfeiture of firearms that are displayed in violation of those statutes."

The circumstances to which Kane refers involve how gun owners carry weapons and how members of the public react to an openly carried weapon. If citizens panic and call the police, Kane said, there will be an investigation.

"Depending on the circumstances, it could constitute a breach of peace, or it could constitute a threatening or it could constitute a public disturbance," he said.

Business owners can also post signs prohibiting the carrying of weapons on their premises.

State Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven and co-chairman of the legislature's judiciary committee, acknowledged inconsistencies in the way gun laws have been enforced.

"People come into this with very doctrinaire views on guns," he said, "and I think that leads to problems with enforcement. I think sometimes people on both sides overlook things that should not be overlooked. They have preconceived notions of what is right and wrong and they act on those."

When Connecticut gun laws are correctly enforced, Lawlor said, they are among the nation's best in terms of balancing the right to own and bear arms against the maintenance of public order.

He said the "mature" use of a handgun, something implicit in the law, should protect against public panic.

"What about people who push this right and they go into a McDonald's wearing a camouflage outfit and a gun?" Lawlor said. "There are people who do this. The criminal law says it is a crime to either intentionally or recklessly create alarm in public. For the same reason it is against the law to stand up in a movie theater and cry 'Fire,' you should be arrested."

Knowing The Law
Glastonbury Police Chief Thomas J. Sweeney, in a deposition he gave last month as part of Goldberg's suit, said the arrest at Chili's was the result of concern raised by restaurant staff.

"You want to walk in, have an open carry, but if people get upset by the manner in which you act and comport and carry yourself, you run the risk of being arrested for it," Sweeney said in the deposition. "I think there are issues when you're inside buildings where you're running a risk of a reaction of other individuals, I think that's problematic, and you may scare people, frighten people, cause alarm."

Goldberg called his arrest an overreaction by a police department unfamiliar with state handgun laws, something he said happens regularly in Connecticut.

"In my circumstance, no one pressed any charges, no one was interviewed," he said. "The woman who called 911 called to ask what the concealment law is in the state of Connecticut. And the dispatcher didn't know. If the dispatcher was educated or trained, and answered that you can carry openly or concealed in Connecticut, it should have ended right there. It was unfortunate that what happened to me had to happen to me."

Goldberg said he is a trained firearms instructor, sells guns at a Newington gun retailer and runs a business that provides security for business executives and entertainment industry celebrities.

He said he needs a gun for his work and believes he needs to carry it every day, for a variety of reasons: to maintain his familiarity with weapons, for protection, for business reasons and to "stand up" for something that is permitted under the law.

"I think if you are going to carry a firearm, you should go all the way and carry the firearm so you are comfortable with it," he said. "It becomes something that is a part of you. It's not foreign. If you do it every day as a daily mantra, it's something that becomes an extension of your body.

"To me, guns are not dangerous. It is an inanimate object. It won't do anything until someone with either good or negative intentions picks it up. We live in a state where we can carry openly or concealed. I don't have a problem with civilians carrying firearms or seeing civilians with firearms."

Goldberg said his arrest and the arrests of others in similar circumstances show a misunderstanding of the law by members of the public, who think it is illegal to openly carry a weapon in public in Connecticut. He also blamed police officers who are "just uncomfortable with civilians having firearms and people having the right to carry."

"The state needs to be educated and the people who live in the state need to be educated and know that you can carry openly or concealed and just because you see a firearm doesn't constitute that person breaking the law," he said. "There are a lot of great arguments for open carry in Connecticut."

On the other hand, he said, anyone who uses a gun incorrectly or uses one to intimidate or frighten people, should be arrested.

"This was really upsetting to me because in my career I dedicate myself to protecting other people," Goldberg said. "To be construed as someone who is deemed to be unsuitable to carry a pistol, just because someone happened to see it, was very disheartening."

In past years, the state police have pushed for revisions to state handgun laws that would allow the concealed carrying of weapons but outlaw open carry. The efforts have failed, and there is no similar legislative effort this year.

Key lawmakers said they will wait for the resolution of the pending gun cases in Connecticut before deciding whether the law needs to be revised.

"It is definitely opening up a hornet's nest when you try to add on to or modify the laws that govern gun ownership in Connecticut," Lawlor said. "And I think, on paper, we have the most sensible system in the country. I think it is appropriate to have this discussion. And maybe the legislature should weigh in. Maybe not."

Copyright © 2010, The Hartford Couran

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