Growing Pains

Open carry is the law in a lot of places, but that doesn't mean it's accepted.

A meeting of four-like minded people laid the groundwork for Michigan Open Carry Inc., which holds events to try to remove the public stigma on open carry.

One day last November, Mike Stollenwerk ran several errands near his northern Virginia home, as he always does--while openly carrying his Beretta 92F 9mm handgun in a hip holster.

"I went to the library and got some books," Stollenwerk, a retired Army lieutenant colonel says. "Went to Home Depot. Bought an air filter there, then came back to my house, walked through my neighborhood. Nobody noticed or, if they did, they didn't care. That's the big secret about open carry: It's very uneventful."

Well, it can be, if people and the police accept it. That's not always the case. In Wisconsin, for example, open carry became an issue in 2009 when police ticketed a man for openly toting a handgun while doing yard work on his property. Wisconsin's attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen, issued a memo to prosecutors explaining that open carry is allowed under state law.

That didn't matter to Milwaukee police Chief Ed Flynn, who told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "My message to my troops is if you see anybody carrying a gun on the streets of Milwaukee, we'll put them on the ground, take the gun away and then decide whether you have a right to carry it."

That's open carry's potential double-edged sword: Though legal in most states, public officials often don't like it, and it's not just law enforcement. Once Wisconsin's attorney general, for example, let it be known open carry was legal, one state representative began work on a bill to ban open carry.

Currently, open carry is legal in all but seven states and the District of Columbia. Regulations, of course, can and do vary by state and other jurisdictions. For instance, more than a dozen states require a license to practice open carry. Open carry's legal in Kansas and Missouri, though some municipalities ban it.

"In states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, you have to have a concealed carry permit in order to open carry while in your vehicle," says Stollenwerk, who co-founded OpenCarry.org in 2004 along with fellow Virginian John Pierce.

The group's website has a series of maps showing where open carry is allowed or not (as well as maps detailing regulations on carrying in vehicles, restaurants, on college campuses and more). The site also includes documents and links detailing specific carry requirements.

Open carry is taking off in Michigan. In 2007, four open carriers met at a McDonald's in Brighton, sidearms visible, and from that meeting came Michigan Open Carry, Inc. Last summer, says president Brian Jeffs, the group hosted more than two dozen open-carry events, each attracting between 30 to 75 people in most cases.

"We had nearly 300 people show up at one gathering," Jeffs notes. "We're trying to bring firearms out of the closet, so to speak, and into the mainstream. When law-abiding people practice open carry, it helps get over this stigma that guns equal bad."

The media attention these events draw, Jeffs points out, also inform the larger public and law enforcement of open carry's legality.

Yet in Connecticut, open carry practitioners still find themselves being arrested at gunpoint and charged with breaching the peace, though those charges are routinely dropped.

"There's still not a standard acceptance across the state by police chiefs, and especially the state police, on open carry," says Scott Wilson Sr., who heads up the Connecticut Citizens Defense League.

A freedom of information act request filed by Wilson's gropu discovered that Connecticut's Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state police, will forward a bill to the state legislature to ban open carry. The bill would make a first offense punishable by a fine up to $2,000 and a year in jail.

"It's going to be a fight," says Wilson. "We're gearing up for it."

Surprisingly, open carry is not the law in pro-gun Texas. A bill to allow it was being drafted, but the Texas legislator working on the bill withdrew it under vigorous attack by anti-gunners.

He probably could've used some help from the pro-gun side.

"We didn't see a ground swell of support for open carry," notes Alice Tripp, legislative director for the Texas State Rifle Association.

With 400,000 licensed concealed carry holders, she adds, Texans simply may not have seen the need.

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