Legal in 44 states. Photographer: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Legal in 44 states. Photographer: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Employees of a Jack in the Box restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, got a glimpse last week of an America where the more extreme element of the gun-rights movement has its way. Their reaction? They hid in the freezer. Parents in a public park in Georgia, confronted by another display of gun rights, called 911.

Both the employees and the parkgoers were reacting to the presence of armed men in their midst. Police, however, could do nothing to ease their anxiety: These hair-trigger scenarios are precisely what such open-carry states have written into law. Indeed, in the 44 states with open carry of handguns, 31 of which don't even require a license or permit, almost anyone can walk down the street carrying a loaded gun. In all but 11 states, those running for cover can safely assume that many a neighborhood gunslinger lacks training in firearm safety and may have even purchased his weapon without a rudimentary background check. (Let's just skip the whole discussion about drugs and alcohol and guns. Too messy.)

As hunting has declined, and the crime rate in the U.S. has plummeted over the past two decades, the gun-rights movement has increasingly rallied around guns for their own sake rather than as a tool to achieve an end, such as sport or safety.

As public policy, open carry is pretty much indefensible. Listen to National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre, speaking after the slaughter in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012: "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun." Yet how do we tell one from the other? Should good guys don a red star to distinguish themselves in a crowd? What about sorta good guys with long insecurities and short tempers? Should they wear yellow for "caution"? Only when they're feeling angry? Please do advise, Wayne.

Social norms long discouraged open carry even where it was legal. The gun-rights movement wants to change that. As it happens, there may be no better advocates for sensible gun regulation than the jittery men who treat guns as toys to be paraded in public. A witness in Georgia claimed the armed man in the parking lot had announced: "See my gun? Look, I got a gun and there's nothing you can do about it." His social etiquette may have been lacking, but the guy had Georgia law down cold.

The more such acts of intimidation take place, the more they will make manifest the divide between responsible gun owners and zealots. Dangerous laws have nothing to do with the Second Amendment, which has always enabled regulation of guns and still does. They have everything to do with cultivating a culture of fear that benefits both the NRA and the gun industry. A parent at the Georgia park, Karen Rabb, explained the distinction. "I own a gun. I have no problems with the Second Amendment," she told Atlanta's WSB-TV. "But they do not belong in a parking lot where we have children everywhere. If you want to make a statement, go to the Capitol."

As it happens, Georgia lawmakers had already thought of that. The state capitol building employs metal detectors at every entrance. Guns are prohibited.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.