How Not to Respond to Open-Carry Activists

Over at PQED, there’s a post entitled “How should people respond to open-carry gun-rights activists?” The piece is definitely worth a read, and offers some excellent reflections on the quandary of how to interpret what, exactly, someone toting a long gun at the ready in a public space intends to do with it (a dilemma captured succinctly in this cartoon by Ruben Bolling).

But the advice the piece gives as to how to respond to Open Carry activists strikes me as deeply problematic. It reads:

“My proposal is as follows: we should all leave. Immediately. Leave the food on the table in the restaurant. Leave the groceries in the cart, in the aisle. Stop talking or engaging in the exchange. Just leave, unceremoniously, and fast. But here is the key part: don’t pay. Stopping to pay in the presence of a person with a gun means risking your and your loved ones’ lives; money shouldn’t trump this. It doesn’t matter if you ate the meal. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just received food from the deli counter that can’t be resold. It doesn’t matter if you just got a haircut. Leave. If the business loses money, so be it. They can make the activists pay.”

Although the author states that this course of action “will protect people,” I think the opposite is the case. While settling your bill and leaving after telling a manager why you are doing so and then boycotting might be a good response, I do not think that actively fleeing a place of business without paying is prudent, especially if it has just been flooded by a group of armed people, some of whom may take it upon themselves to confront you, self-styled vigilante-fashion, for what they might perceive as an act of theft or robbery. After all, part of the very reason Open Carry activists patronize such establishments is because they claim their presence there stops crime – so why wouldn’t they try to stop you?

It’s especially worth stressing here, if court case outcomes are any indication, that in many states with Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws – all twenty-three of them – someone can arguably shoot you dead for stealing from someone else – even if that someone else isn’t present at the time and you yourself are unarmed. Don’t believe me? Here’s audio of 61-year old retiree Joe Horn of Texas shooting two men in cold blood from across his lawn because he saw them burglarizing his neighbor’s home. As Horn told the operator at the time, “I have a right to protect myself too, sir. The laws have been changed in this country since September the first, and you know it.” A grand jury declined to indict Horn. Also, please bear in mind that per SYG you can, in some states, be pursued and killed even after you leave the scene – and your killer can apparently do so with impunity.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, Open Carry protestors are emboldened by a particular and deeply troubling relationship of entitlement when it comes to imbuing public space with the implicit (or often not-so-implicit) threat of violence. So, yeah, don’t dine and dash or run out of your barbershop without paying around people with guns. The possibility that someone who’s decided to walk into a restaurant or other business carrying an assault rifle at the ready might then follow you out and confront you if you flee after committing an act of theft – particularly if the already agitated staff or other patrons don’t know what you’re doing – isn’t implausible in the least. Confrontations like that tend to escalate quickly, particularly if you code as someone the armed person is already liable to find threatening in the first place (IE, if you’re non-white). The problem of other minds cuts both ways. And when the person who’s puzzling over your own intentions is already primed to perceive other people as likely to be as ready for violence as they themselves are, the fact that they may perceive you as threatening based upon factors ranging from the speed of your exit to the color of your skin, combined with the fact that they’re packing heat and may have the law, however misguided, behind them, means that you might just wind up dead for trying to prove a point. That’s one of the double binds of Open Carry guntrolling: for now at least, folks have a right to do it, and it can feel intolerable to be held hostage in your daily life by them, especially since if you stick around they’ll claim you support their behavior. But the presence of guns on the scene changes the calculus such that fleeing is possibly the worst idea. Instead, better to be vocal in your counterprotest, settle your bill, leave, boycott – and then pressure your legislators to change the law.


9 thoughts on “How Not to Respond to Open-Carry Activists

  1. Nicholas J. Matzke

    No. The right reaction to seeing someone walk into an establishment with an assault rifle is to call 911 and run like hell. If the gun nut wants to try and citizens-arrest someone for “stealing” when said person is actually fleeing said gun-nut, they are welcome to try, but I don’t think there is a cop or a jury in the world that will take the gun-nut’s side.

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  3. davidyamane

    Interesting read on an important topic. A couple of reactions I have, both concerning some rather imprecise language you use to make the situation seem much worse than it is:

    (1) You say the idea that an open carrier might come after you for dine-and-dashing “isn’t implausible.” What exactly does that mean? There are alot of ideas that are not implausible, but that is a rather low bar. Rather than dealing at the level of plausibility, shouldn’t the question be whether we should take an idea seriously. In my view, the open carry demonstrators in Texas are harmless fools not vigilantes with happy trigger fingers.

    That said, if I was in Chipotle (or elsewhere) and two clowns came in carrying rifles I would get my food and leave and lodge my complaint not with the business but with my local open carry advocacy organization.

    (2) More significantly, you write, “if court case outcomes are any indication, that in many states with Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws – all twenty-three of them – someone can arguably shoot you dead for stealing from someone else – even if that someone else isn’t present at the time and you yourself are unarmed.”

    The language here is a bit unclear — “in MANY states” as well as “ALL twenty-three of them” — so I am not sure if you are saying many of the SYG states or all of the SYG states. Whichever you intended, the truth is you seem to have found the one state (or one of the few states, not sure as I have not been able to check all 23 SYG states) in which lethal force is justifiable in defense of personal property (much less someone else’s personal property): Texas.

    My understanding is that most states that even allow force in defense of property require that the force is proportional. That means far from being able to “shoot you dead for stealing from someone else,” lethal force would only be allowable if the theft was accompanied by a threat of death or grave bodily injury. The same as in any self-defense scenario.

    North Carolina is a SYG state and just this past weekend in a concealed carry course I was told in no uncertain terms that it is not legal in North Carolina to use lethal forcw in defense of property (your own or anyone else’s).

    I have written recently about Andrew Branca’s framework for understanding the law of self-defense and the place of SYG laws in it.

    SYG laws are badly misunderstood and I’m afraid this post doesn’t do anything to make them better understood.

    1. Pat Blanchfield Post author

      Thanks for your thoughts on this and engagement with this post, David. I’m traveling for the month, and have been for a while, so won’t be able to respond more in depth, but for now I’ll jus say that I’m familiar with the wide variations between SYG / self-defense laws on a state-by-state basis, and so I am indeed generalizing. That said, at least as far as implausibility is concerned – I think at this point five years ago the idea of people carrying long guns into eateries would have seem pretty implausible, too – and yet, here we are. And from my interactions and correspondences with members of some (but not all) local Open Carry groups, I do have the distinct impression that some (again, not all) of the folks at these protests *do* see themselves as de facto keepers-of-the-peace and quite likely *would* take it upon themselves to pursue someone they felt had committed a crime. That plus being agitated already (an assessment again based on my interactions with some, but not all OC activists) could lead to ugly consequences indeed. As to the issue of those activists properly understanding the law or not, I should add also that while some of the people affiliated with Tarrant County in particular seem to have a grasp of what they can do in terms of Open Carry, their understanding of their rights and prerogatives w/r/t to things like stalking and making threats are distinctly less on-point (viz. their apparent claim, on occasion, that they have a right not to be photographed Open Carrying in public spaces when they do not want be, and the episode in which they chased down someone who had been filming them). At which point I don’t quite put so much faith in their grasp of the niceties of self-defense law, either – which is why I advise people not to dine and dash. Because, again, if they’re confronted by someone Open Carrying, and that escalates, and they’re shot, the fact that the person with the gun in that equation may not have acted entirely lawfully doesn’t mitigate the fact that (1) they’re the person left standing to tell their story, and (2) the other person is dead to begin with. Which I think goes to the broader point – sometimes, more guns on the scene don’t de-escalate the atmosphere – they can do just the opposite.

      Anyway, more from me soon – perhaps a more specific post on SYG is in order. In the meantime, I look forward to reading your pieces, and hope you are well!

  4. nifflersghost

    A thoughtful post. I agree that it is crucial not to agitate an armed person who has entered an establishment for the express purpose of displaying a firearm; that person is necessarily invested in fantasy scenarios involving guns, and you do not want to appear to be playing the role of a miscreant in need of killing, as the armed person may imagine it.

    On the other hand, let us look at two simple facts. All people carrying loaded guns are equipped to kill you. And guns outside of a shooting range have no other purpose but to kill. Claiming they are only a deterrent is specious because firearms are a deterrent because they are intended for killing. We’re back to square one.

    So in a nation in which gun murders occur absolutely every day, the only way to escape the possibility of being murdered by a person with a gun is to get away from that person as fast as you can. If you are afraid for your life, any other response is suicidal. The difference between a person who intends to kill you and a person who just happens to be prepared to kill you is impossible to guess until they do or do not kill you.

    While you’re deciding which is which, I will be exiting via the kitchen.

  5. Kate W

    Personally, I think the best response to an unholstered gun would be for everyone (including employees) to put their hands up until the activist leaves, making them feel uncomfortable. If they have to order an employee to put their hands down and serve them, it’ll feel even more like a robbery, even if they’re paying.


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