Oct 31, 2012 No Comments ›› Chuck Biscuits
OKLAHOMA CITY — Bryan Hull will soon strap his Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolver to his hip and meet his armed friends at Beverly’s Pancake House here. They have no interest in the cash register. They just want a late-night breakfast.
A new law takes effect on Thursday in Oklahoma — anyone licensed to carry a concealed firearm can choose to carry a weapon out in the open, in a belt or shoulder holster, loaded or unloaded. Five minutes after midnight Thursday, Mr. Hull and his friends — supporters of the Oklahoma Open Carry Association, a gun rights group — will mark the occasion by wearing their unconcealed handguns while dining at Beverly’s, a 24-hour restaurant.
“It’s just a peaceful assembly,” said Mr. Hull, 44, the association’s co-director. “We’re all licensed by the state to carry. We’ve all been trained and vetted. Why wouldn’t somebody want to have that kind of a group do business with them in their establishment?”
In a state with 142,000 men and women licensed to carry concealed weapons, the scene at Beverly’s will most likely become commonplace as Oklahomans take advantage of the law by displaying their handguns while they shop for groceries, eat at restaurants and walk into banks.
Advocates for gun rights said the ability to “open carry” would deter crime and eliminate the risks of a wardrobe mishap, such as when someone carrying a concealed weapon breaks the law by accidentally exposing the firearm. But the new law is a symbolic as well as practical victory. Supporters said there was no better advertisement for the Second Amendment than to have thousands of responsible adults openly carrying their weapons in a highly visible fashion.
“This enhances Oklahomans’ ability to exercise their Second Amendment rights,” said the Republican state senator who wrote Senate Bill 1733, Anthony Sykes. “I think the evidence is clear that gun owners are some of the most responsible people, and they’ve shown that in not just Oklahoma, where we’ve had conceal carry for quite some time and there’s never been an incident, but in these other states as well.”
When the law takes effect, Oklahoma will become the 15th state to allow people to openly carry firearms with a license. Those 15 states include Utah, Iowa, New Jersey and Connecticut. Several other states, including Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada, have even more permissive laws that allow the carrying of unconcealed firearms without a license. All but six states and the District of Columbia allow some form of open carry, said John Pierce, founder of OpenCarry.org.
Though common around the country, these laws in several states have posed legal and logistical problems for municipalities and law enforcement agencies seeking to balance gun owners’ constitutional rights with maintaining order.
Even in Western and Midwestern states where support for gun rights is strong, the laws have often passed after lobbying efforts lasting years, and have led to confusion and debate about where it is appropriate, let alone legal, for people to openly display their handguns.
In Mason City, Iowa, officials debated seeking an ordinance making it illegal to open-carry in city parks after two people displaying their firearms showed up at a children’s playground. To avoid potential litigation, officials decided to not pursue an ordinance. They instead started a marketing campaign last month asking residents to keep their weapons concealed in public parks.
On the East Coast, open-carry laws generate little controversy because several states make it hard for average citizens to acquire the permits necessary to display unconcealed firearms.
Oklahoma is considered a “shall-issue” state, meaning that once a resident meets the legal requirements, officials must issue a license. Others states, including New Jersey and Connecticut, are known as “may-issue” states, meaning that even if a resident satisfies the requirements, officials may or may not issue the license because they have the discretion to consider other factors.
Last year, Iowa expanded its gun rights and switched from a “may-issue” state to a “shall-issue” one, over the objections of the Iowa State Sheriffs and Deputies Association.
In Oklahoma, some police officials, merchants and residents have expressed varying levels of concern and unease with the law. In 2010, a similar bill was vetoed by the governor at the time, Brad Henry, a Democrat, in part based on law enforcement concerns that such a law would make it difficult for officers to sort out the good guys from the bad guys at a crime scene. This year, the bill was signed into law in May by Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican and a gun owner.
The governor and the bill’s supporters say those who will be openly carrying are law-abiding citizens, all of whom received their concealed-carry license after taking a firearms training course and passing a criminal background check by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. The average age of a license holder is 51.
The new law has illustrated the ways in which the state’s image as a bastion of rugged outdoorsmen and gun-toting cowboys is as much fact as it is fiction.
Beverly’s Pancake House is not exactly located in the Oklahoma prairie, where firearms turn few heads. The diner is in a strip mall off a busy expressway, behind a Starbucks and across the street from a Marriott hotel. Michael Rodriguez, the general manager, said he supported Mr. Hull and his other armed guests, but he planned on asking them Thursday to show their handgun licenses. Downtown, managers at the Bricktown Brewery plan on posting a “no weapons allowed” sign.
“I see our city with an opportunity to continue to be a modern, upscale city,” said Charles Stout, the brewery’s managing partner. “I think we have to be careful of the message we’re sending.”
In recent weeks throughout Oklahoma, there has been a flurry of activity and debate as the date has approached. Businesses and property owners have been figuring out their policies, and law enforcement agencies have been conducting trainings on the law for officers and dispatchers. Police officials in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and other cities said they anticipated receiving an increased number of “man with a gun” calls, but they did not expect widespread problems.
In Stillwater, about 65 miles north of Oklahoma City, the owner of the Stillwater Armory gun shop said the new law has brought about a subtle change in buying habits. Customers with small handguns that are easy to conceal have been buying larger weapons, with longer barrels that hold additional rounds, as they prepare to wear their guns unconcealed.
“The old saying within the community is, ‘It’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it,’” said the owner, Tom Smith, 42, who openly carries a Springfield XD-S pistol while in his shop.
The law prohibits concealed or unconcealed firearms in a handful of places, including government buildings, schools and bars. Most businesses, however, must decide on their own how to handle those openly carrying.
People entering one of Bank of Oklahoma’s 85 branches in the state need not leave their weapon in the car. They can bring it inside. Similarly, customers of American Eagle Towing in Oklahoma City will find that they and their holstered handguns are welcome. Mr. Hull is the general manager, and he openly wears a Ruger LC9 pistol while at the office. Last year, he said, a group of would-be robbers whose car had been impounded saw his pistol and quickly left.
“I never saw a weapon,” Mr. Hull said. “I never drew my weapon. There was no need to. My openly carried firearm deterred whatever it was they had in mind, and I’m sure it wasn’t to bring me a thank-you card.”