27 June 2010

Open-carry gun activists laud N.C.

The Sun News

Randy Dye will sometimes carry a gun on his hip, right out in the open, no jacket pulled over it, no inside-the-belt holster. It draws funny looks, and Dye doesn't much care.

One time, Dye explains, he was standing in line for a money order when the guy behind him asked, "Are you a police officer?" Dye said no, and the guy kept staring, so Dye stared back. "We good?" Dye asked, and the conversation stopped.

"I wasn't trying to intimidate," says Dye, a retired trauma nurse in Chatham County. "He approached me. If you don't understand your constitutional rights, you need to go read them."

In North Carolina, a grass-roots segment of gun rights advocates increasingly calls for firearms displayed as blatantly as a ballpoint pen in a shirt pocket. A national pro-gun Internet group, opencarry.org, ranks the state among the friendliest to those who wear a weapon for all the world to see. The state, like Montana, Arizona and Kentucky, gets a gold star.

Unlike concealed weapons, plain-sight guns are almost totally unregulated in North Carolina, where only a misdemeanor "going armed to the terror of the public" speaks to the issue. In contrast, gun-friendly states such as Texas and South Carolina are rated as relatively hostile to carrying unconcealed handguns in public even though they, like North Carolina, are among at least 48 states that have concealed handgun carry permit laws.

In the Triangle, more than 100 people have joined an Internet "meetup" group dedicated to open-carry firearms, getting together at a Raleigh Five Guys and a Cary Chik-Fil-A, encouraging even the skittish to attend. A similar group has formed in the Triad, and backers, including Dye, will hold a rally in Greensboro in August.

"It's gaining momentum," said Paul Valone, president of nonprofit firearms group Grass Roots North Carolina. "These are perfectly normal people. These are not gun nuts."

1995 restrictions

Before 1995, firearms advocates note, it was legal to carry a gun openly almost anywhere in public. But when the state's concealed weapons law passed that year, ending a 116-year-old ban on hidden guns, it also set up restrictions for guns of any kind - concealed or otherwise. Firearms are not permitted inside schools or government buildings, for example, and private businesses have the right to post prohibitions on their premises.

A recent Rasmussen Reports poll shows that 47 percent of Americans oppose open-carry laws, citing safety concerns, compared to 41 percent who are in favor. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has lobbied against overt firearms display. Even among gun owners, the question of open versus concealed carry creates a division, with varying degrees of eagerness or dismay about wearing a loaded pistol on the hip.

"I think a lot of people would have problems with that," said Hilton Cancel, a retired police detective who has a concealed carry permit and sits on the board of North Carolinians Against Gun Violence.

In arguing against openly packing a handgun in public, Cancel echoes one of the Old West lines used during the debate about North Carolina's concealed handgun permit law: "Parents with children, and seeing folks carrying guns out in the open, just kind of gives you the feeling you're in Dodge City."

Still, there is nothing on the books that outlaws overt weaponry, short of that misdemeanor that bans going armed "to the terror of the public," which generally doesn't apply to simple gun display.

For some gun rights advocates, carrying an unconcealed gun is an opportunity to vigorously exercise their 2nd Amendment guarantees and for self-defense. In May, Harris Teeter grocery stores faced a huge backlash from gun-carrying customers when the company posted signs banning guns, concealed or otherwise. The signs came down quickly. In 2005, Charlotte contemplated an open-carry ban, but later balked. Nationwide, Starbucks has won plaudits from gun owners for refusing to ban firearms in its stores within open-carry states, unlike stores such as California Pizza Kitchen, which allows only uniformed officers with open guns.

"The Constitution doesn't say I have the right to keep and bear arms if I keep them concealed," said Eric Shuford, an instructor at the Wake County gun range, who reports seeing more interest in open carry. "It says I have the right to keep and bear arms."

Armed, not ordinary

For Bubba McDowell, a blogger in Zebulon who considers the 2nd Amendment the most important part of the Bill of Rights, owning a gun is both a right and a serious responsibility.

He started open carrying 33 years ago and only got a concealed permit last year. People ask him about his gun every day, he said. When a Best Buy employee asked whether he was a police officer, a military man or an ordinary civilian, he replied, "I'm not an ordinary civilian. I'm an armed civilian."

"The usual question is 'Are you an undercover police officer?' because I have long hair and a beard," he said. "It's part of my wardrobe. As I put my belt in the loop. The pistol holster is part of the loop."

There is nervousness about open-carry, even among lifelong gun folks. Shuford will wear a gun in a grocery store, especially in the summer when it's harder to conceal. But the possibility of someone reacting badly to the sight of a gun is always there, so he limits the habit.

At Perry's Gun Shop in Wendell, Barry Perry reports heavy interest in concealed handguns, showing off rows of pistols designed for that purpose in his display case. Most gun owners don't want people to feel intimidated by a weapon out in the open, he said. Others worry that open carry is too extreme and likely to generate a backlash that cuts into other firearms laws. More, even passionate gun advocates, doubt open carry's effectiveness as a crime deterrent.

Even Valone, who advocates removing many of the restrictions attached to North Carolina's concealed carry law, has doubts. If somebody were robbing a convenience store in which he were buying a soda, Valone said, he'd rather they not know he was carrying a gun. It takes away the element of surprise.

Regardless, he advised, an open carrier needs to know the law. You can't take a gun anyplace where admission is charged or alcohol is served.

And when Dye led a protest last week outside Rep. Bob Etheridge's office in downtown Raleigh, he carried no piece on his hip - verboten at a public demonstration.

"We do our best to follow the law," Dye said. "We don't always agree with it.

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