It’s time to close the books on open carry.
Kyle Rittenhouse, who is all of 17, became the latest poster-child for everything wrong with open carry laws when he allegedly killed two people in the middle of the street with his military-style, AR-15 semiautomatic rifle during peaceful protests of Jacob Blake’s police shooting in Kenosha, WI.
The former police youth cadet was emboldened by Wisconsin’s open carry laws to go out and play deputy sheriff, a role that Kenosha’s police department never asked him to perform and warned other local armed citizens not to. An impressionable teen who became enthralled with right-wing memes and toxic gun culture, Rittenhouse fell into the armed-citizen-as-the-last-line-of-defense trope that the National Rifle Association pushed at the heart of its lobbying for open carry laws. And the NRA’s response about this fatal outcome? Crickets from its inside-the-Beltway headquarters in northern Virginia.
The NRA’s successful campaign for open carry laws nationwide dumped more fuel on our current tinderbox of national protests by letting armed citizens roam about freely with semi-automatic, military-style rifles. It happened during the Ferguson protests in late 2014 when theOathkeepers militia deployed and conducted self-styled peacekeeping missions in the St. Louis suburb, uninvited. These predominantly white militia groups act as if they are law enforcement officers or members of the National Guard but have no legal status as such and add too much uncertainty and tension to already volatile situations. They showed up again as the so-called “Boogaloo” movement, armed groups that claimed to protect protestors or local property at Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
In some cases, these groups flouted the law with tacit approval from local police, their race being the only badge needed to serve as deputized enforcers of white supremacy. In Chicago, policelet a heavily armed white man with an AR-15 and tactical gear leave a George Floyd protest without arrest, even though he had violated the state’s open carry law. Even the Kenosha Police Department’s SWAT teams let Rittenhouse walk away from the scene of his alleged crime, rifle in hand, in plain sight, possibly because he was in an open carry state. In short, the last 20 years of gun lobbying has greatly undermined public security and the country witnessed the deadly results of that night.
Open carry advocates claim that it is a form of free expression, but more often than not, it is used to intimidate minorities. For instance, hundreds of armed racist militiamen descended upon Charlottesville, Va., in the run-up to the ignominious “Unite the Right” pro-Confederacy rally in 2017. Last year, 30,000 armed gunmen occupied Richmond for an open carry rally on the Martin Luther King holiday as a flagrant slap in the face to his nonviolent legacy and violent death. But when the Black Panthers openly carried shotguns in the California capitol in 1967, the state quickly repealed its open carry laws with the endorsement of the NRA, back when it was a sensible gun safety group.
Fortunately, open carry advocates’ outlandish attempts at normalizing guns everywhere has reached its limits. Fast food places such as Chipotle quickly banned the open display of firearms once patrons who were more concerned with fighting ISIS than eating well started showing up with loaded long guns. There has never been a terrorist attack at a Subway, so what is these advocates’ justification for pairing an AK-47 with a five-dollar footlong for lunch?
How can America find its way out of this nightmare? It’s simple. First, responsible gun owners — I think of myself as one — have to take aim at the toxic gun culture that is at the heart of the open carry movement. Responsible gun ownership has always been a part of American life, but the reckless flaunting of loaded guns everywhere hasn’t. Shifting attitudes among gun owners will go a long way to making our communities safer for all.
Second, Washington has to intervene. Forty-five states allow handguns to be carried openly, and 44 allow the same for rifles and shotguns, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Fortunately, Massachusetts is not one of them, having some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation. Fixing the states’ patchwork of open carry laws one-by-one won’t be enough. Congress, or more likely, the next president, Congress and Senate in January, must step in and kick open carry back to the days of the Wild West.
Chip Goines, who was born near Ferguson, Mo., is a Boston-based community writer and activist. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post and on the Reuters wire service.