A gun on every hip? Photographer: David Ryder/Getty Images
A gun on every hip? Photographer: David Ryder/Getty Images

I often focus on the dangers of reckless people with guns, rather than criminals with guns, for two reasons. First, reckless people seem very plentiful. Second, they are invariably ignored in gun-rights rhetoric. The gun-rights movement advances a Manichean vision of criminals and "law-abiding citizens," with the latter always and everywhere in need of heavy firepower to defeat the former.

National Rifle Association Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre's rhetoric about criminals -- "so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons" -- is basically pornographic at its peaks. But LaPierre is silent about the legion of gun-toting clods, bumblers, stoners, wife-beaters, fools and drunks who kill, or injure, Americans every day. (Once in possession of a gun, you don't need to be actively stupid to produce tragedy; you can be passively stupid.)

John Pierce, co-founder of OpenCarry.org, also tends to divide the world into responsible citizens you can trust with a gun on one side, and hardened criminals on the other, with little room for nincompoops in between. But he is intelligent, gracious and patient in explaining, for example, the political -- and surprising constitutional -- differences he perceives between open and concealed carry. Between April 9 and 14, we communicated via e-mail about his advocacy of the open carry of guns, which he views as both a right and a way to habituate society to gun-carrying. An edited version of our exchange is below. (I've included a link at the bottom for the even longer, unedited version.)

Question: Given that concealed carry is now an option in all 50 states, what is the rationale for open carry?

Answer: The rationale for open carry is multi-fold.

First, open carry is the right protected by the Second Amendment and most state analogs. Concealed carry is a state-granted -- and potentially revocable -- privilege. Trading a right for a state-granted privilege is not an acceptable transaction. It is analogous to the bigoted argument that, since civil unions are available, same-sex couples should not seek the right to marriage equality.

Second, in many states a concealed-carry permit is denied to certain segments of the population who still have the right to open carry. A good example of this is Virginia, where concealed-handgun permits are only available to those 21 and over.

Third, open carry is a politically visible sign that the right to keep and bear arms is still alive and is a wholesome part of American society. Concealed carry allows those who oppose gun rights to treat it as something unwholesome that must be hidden from polite society.

Our motto at OpenCarry.org is “A right unexercised is a right lost.” The goal, as Charles Springwood of Illinois Wesleyan University pointed out, is to “naturalize the presence of guns, which means that guns become ordinary, omnipresent, and expected. Over time, the gun becomes a symbol of ordinary personhood.” Open carry forces friends, relatives or neighbors to reconcile their preconceived notions and prejudices regarding firearms with the fact that you are exercising this right in a safe and responsible manner.

Q: Wow. That's a handful to digest in one sitting, so let me ask about distinct components. I am unaware of anything in the Second Amendment -- which is a pretty short amendment -- explicitly endorsing open carry or distinguishing it in any way from concealed carry. Likewise, I don't recall anything in District of Columbia v. Heller that suggests open carry is immune to government regulation. Can you expand on your thinking on those points?

A: As for the text of the Second Amendment itself, you are correct that it is a clearly worded amendment, which does not mention open carry. However, it also does not mention background checks, waiting periods, or any of the other statutory or legislative prohibitions that the courts have read into the text.

State constitutions are another story, with some distinguishing the right of open carry from the privilege of concealed carry. Here, for example, is New Mexico's:

No law shall abridge the right of the citizen to keep and bear arms for security and defense, for lawful hunting and recreational use and for other lawful purposes, but nothing herein shall be held to permit the carrying of concealed weapons.

As for Heller, the question before the court was mere possession in the home, and therefore the question of the meaning of "bear" was not a part of the final holding. However, the opinion cites state court decisions that are illustrative. For example:

"In State v. Chandler, 5 La. Ann. 489, 490 (1850), the Louisiana Supreme Court held that citizens had a right to carry arms openly: 'This is the right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, and which is calculated to incite men to a manly and noble defence of themselves, if necessary, and of their country, without any tendency to secret advantages and unmanly assassinations.”

Q: That seems to suggest that open carry is more "manly" or upstanding than concealed carry. Do you agree with that?

A: No. At one time concealed carry was seen as the act of a scoundrel; none of that applies today. However, I do believe that open carry is more politically advantageous than concealed carry because it serves the dual purpose of self-defense and public awareness of the right.

Q: Do you think the public is "unaware" of gun rights?

A: There is a great deal of misinformation out there, even among gun owners. Are you aware that in the majority of states (30) any law-abiding citizen can open carry without any government permission being required? Did you know that only six states have any sort of gun registration? Did you know that in all but eight states machine-gun ownership is possible?

One of the goals of the gun-control movement is to make the playing field so uneven that otherwise law-abiding citizens fear to even try.

Q: Here is a link to government data stating that about one quarter of the adult U.S. population reports binge drinking in the previous month. Let's say this is wildly exaggerated -- by 100 percent -- and the actual figure is about 12 percent. That's still more than one in 10 Americans who binge drink. Obviously some percentage of those binge drinkers are alcoholics, and some are drug abusers as well. In addition, many young males have trouble controlling aggression and impulses. And I'm not even going to go into the number of people with mental-health problems. Now, why is it a good idea for all these people to be walking around with guns on their hips?

A: You really seem to be stretching. When we started, the debate was about the relative constitutional, legal and practical benefits of open carry. Now we have apparently transitioned into a discussion of whether or not our society is even worthy of rights because too many citizens engage in risky behavior.

Second, in the framing of your question you are engaging in the age-old game of asking "Have you stopped beating your wife?" No one is advocating for those who have been adjudicated mentally unstable to be armed. However, the key word in that sentence is "adjudicated." We have this key concept in the American judicial system called "due process" that guarantees that someone will not lose his or her rights arbitrarily.

Finally, I should point out that, if there truly are that many aggressive, impulsive, drug-addicted and mentally unstable people wandering the streets, then shouldn't the rest of us be equipped to defend ourselves?

Q: I don't think I'm stretching, John. It's no secret that some people in society drink too much, others take drugs and others are prone to act aggressively. (And some people exhibit all three traits.) After all, that's why many bars spend money to employ bouncers. So this falls pretty clearly under the practical considerations of expanding open carry. Given that you can't just wish away such people (many of whom may be perfectly pleasant under some circumstances, and out of control under others), what is the price you are willing to pay for such people to carry guns on their hips? Or is it your contention that there is no price to arming people who are prone to intoxication and/or aggressive behavior?

The same question holds for the mentally ill -- unless you are suggesting that all Americans who are mentally ill have been adjudicated as such. (But I don't think you are saying that, are you?) In other words, is it your position that a little extra bloodshed will ensue every now and then due to open carry, and that that is an unfortunate but acceptable price to pay for maximum freedom? Or are you suggesting that arming one and all will result in some sort of ballistic equilibrium, in which a large increase in gun carrying in public will not yield more violence precisely because so many people are armed?

If I'm restricting your options when I present that choice, just disregard it and explain. I'm trying to follow the logic of your position: What happens to violence in society when the majority of the public is armed?

A: In your argument you are making several assumptions that I question.

First, you are assuming that open carry is something new. Nothing could be further from the truth although I do understand why you might have such an opinion living in the echo chamber that is New York City.

As you can see on our website, in 30 states any law-abiding citizen may open carry today without any government permission being necessary. That is a MAJORITY of the U.S.! In an additional 14 states those who have a state-issued carry permit (which has no way to test for the nebulous attributes you are discussing) may open carry or carry concealed as they see fit. Together, that is 44 states. We are advocating for our fellow citizens to regain rights in the remaining six states that have deviated from the freedoms on which this nation was founded.

Second, you are assuming that those who meet your definition of undesirables are not currently carrying firearms legally or illegally.

Third, you assume that those you consider undesirables would even be willing to open carry.

If open carry were available in the last six rights-restricted states I would expect a net reduction in violence. Why? Because those who are prone to acts of violence are already carrying weapons (probably illegally), and the law-abiding are the only ones to obey any gun-control laws. If more law-abiding citizens were free to visibly carry the tools of self-defense then it would deter some crime.

Q: Unless I totally misunderstand your position, you don't simply want all Americans to have the RIGHT to open carry, you want them to EXERCISE that right. Obviously, if more people exercise that right, more people with poor judgment and shallow impulse control will be in the expanding pool of gun carriers. The world is not neatly divided into criminals who use guns for bad purposes and "law-abiding citizens" who deter crime.

My question does not concern responsible, law-abiding citizens. It does not concern criminals with malice aforethought. It concerns the reckless, insecure and irresponsible (mostly young men) who live among us. Is there a social price to encouraging young men like that to carry guns? If so, what is it and why should I want to pay it? Or is it your position that no such price will be necessary because no such reckless people exist?

A: We want people to have the RIGHT to open carry, and we want them to be FREE to exercise the right without fear of persecution from law enforcement. However, we do not advocate forcing anyone to do anything.

As I said before, it is my belief that any of those dangerously reckless people you fear who want to carry arms are already doing so (illegally in many cases) and would not choose to open carry even if it were an option.

Therefore, securing the right to open carry for law-abiding citizens will not change the number of dangerously reckless people who are armed among us.

Q: At the top of your website is this quote: “A Right Unexercised is a Right Lost.” I assume that means you encourage people to open carry. (If not, I'm confused about the purpose of your organization.)

On human recklessness, I still feel my question hasn't been addressed. There are reckless people in the world. Again, I am not talking about criminals. I am talking about people who are aggressive or impaired or reckless or otherwise dangerously irresponsible. We do not currently live in a society in which it is the norm for adults to carry guns in public. Unless I am mistaken, you are advocating a society in which that is the norm. ("A Right Unexercised is a Right Lost.") So how would the expansion of open carry to more people, including more reckless or aggressive or irresponsible people, affect society? When I consider the question, I assume there would be costs, in life and injury, to that expansion. Not because criminals would somehow change their stripes and grow more aggressive. But because more reckless people would have a gun at their fingertips.

A: Our constituents are those who CHOOSE to carry daily for personal protection and who furthermore agree that there are both political and social benefits to doing so open carry versus concealed carry.

The motto you quoted "A Right Unexercised is a Right Lost" is directed toward those who advocate concealed carry versus open carry because they say that if we exercise the right to open carry we will lose it. The quote exposes their circular logic since, if you are afraid to exercise a right for fear of losing it, it is already lost. It is not a call for every single person in the country to be required to open carry.

I agree that there are reckless people in the world.

I agree that those who drive drunk should be punished criminally. But I do not believe that we should stop making cars for fear of those people.

I agree that those who carry firearms while drunk should be punished criminally. But I do not believe that we should strip the rights from everyone for fear of those people.

As for your assertion regarding whether daily carry is a societal norm, in the majority of the U.S., it IS the norm for a large percentage of the public to carry a firearm for personal protection as they go about their daily lives. It just isn't always visible because, for every open carrier, there are dozens carrying concealed.

Q: I have one last question. Here's a line from an Associated Press story about an open carry rally last October, at which Texans carried firearms at the Alamo. "Volunteers walked through the crowd placing red plastic straws in rifle chambers, a visible assurance they were not holding a round." The logical (to me) inference is that the open-carry activists tacitly understand that walking around with guns is an action that scares people, and the reason it scares people is that guns are lethal and not everyone who carries one is a responsible citizen who can be trusted. Why do you think open carry activists felt it was important to put straws in the chambers?

A: There are several reasons why the Alamo event was not representative of open carry in general.

First, when we talk about open carry, we are talking about the open carry of properly holstered handguns in daily American life. We do not promote the open carry of long guns. Long guns are great! I own quite a few. But due to issues including muzzle control, lack of trigger-guard coverage and the fact that the long gun carry issue distracts from our main mission to promote the open carry of handguns in daily life we do not advocate long-gun open carry.

We don't condemn the practice, and we DO think it is a constitutionally protected activity. But we at OpenCarry.org do not host long-gun open-carry events.

The event in Texas featured long guns because Texas is one of the six states that still prohibit the open carry of handguns. So when that group chose to hold an open-carry event, they were legally limited to long guns.

Second, as the linked article clearly states, there is a local ordinance [in San Antonio] prohibiting all open carry. The red straws were a visible acknowledgement of the good-neighbor attitude that you will always find among gun owners.

None of that supports your premise that America is comprised of untrustworthy men and women undeserving of civil rights and the concomitant responsibilities. The key phrase from that article was: "The rally proceeded peacefully without incident." Despite the shrill, hysterical cries from the anti-gun crowd, as gun rights have been liberalized across the nation violent crime has dropped as well.

I am not suggesting a correlation or causative effect because there is no data showing such relationships. Rather I am pointing out that the opposite is clearly not true. As the number of firearms carried daily on the streets of our nation continues to skyrocket, violent crime continues to fall.

P.S. If you ever get out of New York I would love to invite you to the range someday.

Full, unedited text of Wilkinson/Pierce Q&A here.

To contact the writer of this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net.