Tag Archives: Open Carry

Ferguson, Open Carry, and the Ghost of Huey Newton

Two encounters on social media, and one news item; together, a bleak picture.

On Tuesday, there was a post in my Facebook feed, written by a tenured professor at a Midwestern university, a white man. In a few brief, blistering lines, he shared an article about supposed New Black Panthers directing traffic in Ferguson, denouncing them as being “governmental,” and insufficiently “revolutionary.” A few moments later, presumably realizing that this perhaps crossed a line even by his own bilious standards, he deleted the post, replacing it with a borrowed quote from a black anarchist writer, former Black Panther Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, calling upon black people to arm themselves and meet police in Ferguson with a show of force.

A few days earlier, in my Twitter feed, there was an announcement from CJ Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, that his group would stage an armed march in Houston’s Fifth Ward. The Fifth Ward is a predominantly black neighborhood, and members of the community there had not only made clear that OC Texas’s presence was unwanted, but that, if they were to show up, they should be prepared to encounter residents also bearing arms. When I asked Grisham whether, in light of events in Ferguson, he was reconsidering his group’s sortie into a largely black neighborhood, he replied: “What happened in Ferguson is exactly why People should be armed.” He then doubled down on questioning what I was referring to by events in Ferguson in the first place, asking: “You mean where a thug and criminal was killed after robbing and threatening a store owner?”

At that point it seems worth observing not only that what exactly happened in that store is now very much in question, but also that while Michael Brown had no criminal history whatsoever when he was shot dead, Grisham himself does have a criminal conviction, from a 2013 incident involving an altercation with law enforcement. Moreover, this episode arose while Grisham was carrying a weapon – unlike Michael Brown, who no one disputes was entirely unarmed when he was shot to death (or even during that alleged “strong arm” robbery). And yet Grisham, who is (no matter what you think of him) a criminal in the most precise legal sense of the term, appeared to see no contradiction in slandering the dead young man, who had no rap sheet or convictions to speak of. Grisham then proceeded to insist,“We won’t bow to the Black Panthers or Quannel X. We won’t be intimidated by bullies. This is America…All of it.” And then, a few days later, OC Texas called off its planned march in the Fifth Ward in favor of a “book drive” to benefit young students there.

Wednesday, news broke of a planned event by an organization in Texas calling itself the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. This group, made up of “black and brown residents of the city of Dallas” is named after the Black Panther leader who famously observed that “The gun is where it’s at and about and in.” The Huey P. Newton group is planning an “armed self-defense patrol” along Dallas’s Martin Luther King Boulevard, standing against police brutality and in support of its members’ own right to bear arms.

Stipulating – explicitly – that I do not begrudge the Supreme Court’s recognition of an individual right to bear arms, I admit that this development, like Grisham’s planned march, has left me deeply troubled. On the one hand, this escalation has a feeling of inevitability to it: as I have written elsewhere, once guns enter the public arena as a means of protest, once they are deployed as a kind of speech, it is arguable that the only equally powerful response is a countervailing display of arms. But the thing about shows of force is that they have a tendency to escalate without warning or plan. And I fear that, as events in Ferguson suggest, any intervention on the part of law enforcement in a confrontation involving armed black protestors will not favor the latter, no matter how well equipped or righteous they may be.

But I admit, too, that these developments also have a kind of all-this-has-happened-before, all-this-will-happen-again dimension to them. Indeed, the open carry protests of Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s were themselves largely responsible for a political backlash that more or less determined the shape of gun control politics going forward. Likewise, the role of guns in what many frequently remember as a solely non-violent Civil Rights Movement is also paradoxical and complicated (for an excellent history of this, see the work of Charles Cobb, Jr.). But much as differing voices today will by turns vilify and praise Black Panthers movements both New and Old, so too are the memories of black luminaries of the earlier Civil Rights Movement co-opted by unlikely, ideologically motivated figures, including Glenn Beck, who dedicates his book “Control” to “Martin Luther King, Jr. … who owned several guns but was subjected to the worst kind of gun control—and deprived of his basic right to defend himself and his family—when police in Alabama denied him a concealed carry permit in 1956.” Never mind the fact that I suspect that even Beck himself would admit that a concealed carry handgun license would likely not have saved Dr. King from James Earl Ray’s sniping at him from across the street with a .30-06 Remington rifle. For all these figures – for the anarchist professor in my FB feed, for CJ Grisham, for Glenn Beck – the image of armed black activists represents a malleable target to appropriate for their own dubious ends, whether they be furthering Leftist revolution, justifying threatening, racially coded displays of Right-Wing aggression in a black neighborhood, or just simply selling books.

But not only are these images of actual people, people who can speak and do speak for themselves, and who don’t need white people to ventriloquize them, the power of those images in the media derives from a history that is very real and far from settled. Indeed, one way or another, it is the events of the 1960s and 1970s, and their consequences – from race riots to white flight to police militarization to mass incarceration to the war on drugs – that have led us to our present situation. And that present situation is a continually unfolding tragedy that encompasses, among other things, what is happening in Ferguson, pervasive racial violence, uncounted and overlooked acts of police brutality, and a nationwide body count due to gun violence that reveals stark racial disparities, particularly among children.

And so while I do not know what happens next, I do not see how repeating the same brew of escalating gestures of further political violence can lead any of us anywhere good. I hope that in spite of the joy that trigger-happy radicals of whatever persuasion may take in the increased presence of guns in our political landscape, we can de-escalate, step back, and find another way forward.

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.


Walking Backwards on a Slippery Slope

Last Friday, at the close of a month full of gun-related news, including a mass shooting in California and a series of high-profile Open Carry protests in the Southwest, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action issued a truly remarkable statement. Entitled “Good Citizens and Good Neighbors: The Gun Owners’ Role,” this press release struck a rare note not only by addressing gun owners directly, as opposed to legislators or the media, but also by reprimanding some of them:

“As gun owners, whether or not our decisions are dictated by the law, we are still accountable for them. And we owe it to each other to act as checks on bad behavior before the legal system steps in and does it for us.  If we exercise poor judgment, our decisions will have consequences… Let’s take just a couple of examples.  In each case, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done.  In each case, gun owners would do well to consider the effect their behavior has on others, whether fellow gun owners or not. “

This document was remarkable not only in its own right, but because of its aftermath, which is breaking news. But before I get to that, it’s worth looking very closely at what the NRA originally had to say. The first example the NRA chose was the escalating brouhaha over the availability of so-called “Smart Guns.” The issue of Smart Guns is extremely complicated, both in terms of the technological specifics and the relevant legislative landscape, and it’s something I will write about in more detail another day. Suffice it to say for the moment that the advent of guns with increased safety features, like the Armatix iP1, which only fires when held by a user who is wearing an RFID-enabled wristwatch, has provoked a backlash among certain gun enthusiasts – to the point that the weapon’s designer has received death threats and retailers were driven to withdraw it from their shelves. The reason for this backlash is that certain gun enthusiasts worry that once smart guns become available, all non-smart guns will be outlawed. It’s a fear that has intensified in no small part due to poorly conceived legislation in New Jersey, passed in 2002, that would mandate all firearms merchants to carry only smart guns once they became generally available. Although the legislator who sponsored that particular bill has indicated that she is willing to repeal it, the NRA has nonetheless steadfastly opposed the sale of any such smart guns, citing its concerns with laws like New Jersey’s. Last week’s press release doubled down on that opposition: “The lesson with ‘smart’ guns is that you can’t always evaluate the long-term consequences of a new ‘innovation’ in firearm technology or regulation at a glance… Before you embrace whatever schemes are being pushed by the self-described ‘gun safety advocates’ who’ve never met a ban or restriction on guns or ammunition they didn’t like, acquaint yourself with the facts.”

The NRA press release then turned to its second example of how “just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be”: the Open Carry of long guns in public spaces, which has entered the public eye in the wake of a series of high-profile Open Carry protests in Texas. With a caveat of praise for the “robust gun culture” of the Lone Star State, the NRA’s presser observed that a “small number [of Texans] have recently crossed the line from enthusiasm to downright foolishness.”

“Now we love AR-15s and AKs as much as anybody, and we know that these sorts of semiautomatic carbines are among the most popular, fastest selling firearms in America today.  Texas, independent-minded and liberty-loving place that it is, doesn’t ban the carrying of loaded long guns in public, nor does it require a permit for this activity.  Yet some so-called firearm advocates seem determined to change this…While unlicensed open carry of long guns is also typically legal in most places, it is a rare sight to see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest, much less a whole gaggle of folks descending on the same public venue with similar arms. “

Why are these “firearm advocates” – like those “self-described ‘gun safety’ advocates’ – only “so-called”? It’s because, as the NRA sees it, their guntrolling “hijinx” threaten to ultimately work against gun rights – a suspicion that’s clearly justified given that several businesses have moved to ban Open Carry on their premises. With uncharacteristic candor, the NRA press release explicitly condemned this behavior:

 “Let’s not mince words, not only is it rare, it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself. To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one’s cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates…Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners.”

Here’s why all this is particularly interesting. As an essentially conservative organization, at least in its current incarnation, the NRA can’t call for an outright ban on anything or demand restriction on its member’s behaviors; it can only enjoin “responsibility” and “neighborliness.” In this sense, the NRA’s statement parlayed the values associated with classic American conservativism at its best: self-restraint and persuasion instead of compulsion, community consciousness and responsibility instead of regulation.

But in another sense, that press release leveraged a more contemporary feature of American conservativism – a sense that citizens’ rights are embattled, teetering on a slippery slope towards destruction. In both cases – with Smart Guns and Open Carry – the NRA statement appealed to a consequentialist logic: doing X might likely lead, someday, somehow, to Y. Allowing for the sale of Smart Guns might lead, down the line, to the outlawing of all other guns. Brazen Open Carry of long guns in fast food restaurants might lead, down the line, to pro-gun control backlash among otherwise undecided voters. However realistic each specific scenario might be, the same slippery-slope logic underwrites both.

But the problem is that the NRA doesn’t have a monopoly on that kind of logic. Open Carry advocates themselves argue that not bearing their weapons encourages an “anti-gun” atmosphere that would inevitably result in yet further limitation of their rights. As Open Carry.Org puts it: “A Right Unexercised is a Right Lost.” Just because you can do this doesn’t mean you should, said the NRA to the Open Carry movement. Because we can, we have to, was the response.

The tragic irony here, of course, is that the NRA has been relying on slippery-slope logic for decades, not least by constantly hyping fears of a (highly unlikely) renewed Assault Weapons Ban to sell guns and by invoking the specter of a (pretty much impossible) government confiscation of all guns to drive up membership. The NRA has been pushing the slippery slope angle for years, cultivating extremist gun owners for the worst case scenario. But now suddenly the NRA finds itself beholden to those extremists, and the target of their paranoid fears. Because when some Open Carry activists cut up their NRA membership cards and accused the NRA of “losing its relevance” and siding “with the gun control extremists and their lapdog media,” it was only a matter of time before Chris Cox, Executive Director at the Institute for Legislative Action, was obliged to perform a backtracking mea culpa: “Now, the truth is, an alert went out that referred to this type of behavior as weird, or somehow not normal. And that was a mistake. It shouldn’t have happened. I’ve had a discussion with the staffer who wrote that piece, and expressed his personal opinion. Our job is not to criticize the lawful behavior of fellow gun owners.”

Listening to Cox flail uncomfortably and pin blame on some unfortunate staffer, it was hard not to recall the opening words of Friday’s press release, about people taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions, good and bad. “In ways small and large,” that release ran, “We are all in this together, and we all have a role to play in preserving our cherished freedoms for ourselves and future generations.” What does that future hold if preserving those freedoms now no longer carries even the minimum obligation to enjoin responsibility and restraint in exercising them?





Guntrolling, Chipotle Edition

This weekend, a bunch of folks affiliated with Open Carry Texas went into a Dallas Chipotle carrying loaded assault rifles. On the heels of a recent incident in which Open Carry activists brought weapons into a Fort Worth Jack in the Box – reportedly prompting some terrified staff to lock themselves in the restaurant freezer – this weekend’s scene in that Dallas Chipotle prompted substantial pushback, and ultimately resulted in the chain requesting customers not open carry long guns in its franchises.


Naturally, Open Carry Texas is shocked, shocked at the response. As OC Texas founder CJ Grisham told Forbes “We don’t go there just to carry guns into a restaurant,” he said. “We always let the manager know we’re coming. We try very hard to make people feel comfortable.”

Of course they didn’t go to Chipotle just to carry their guns there. They went for the barbacoa bowls and watery margaritas, and like all good foodies, they had to take a few selfies of their meal and post them online. Of course, they just happened to have their assault rifles with them at the time. But that’s not the point. Stop getting so sensitive and stuff, people. Open Carry Texas is trying very hard to make you feel comfortable.

Let’s call this what it is: trolling, pure and simple. It’s doing something outrageous that clearly codes one way – threatening and aggressive – and then throwing hands up in the air, protesting-too-much, disowning all responsibility, and claiming victim status. We’re not threatening you, say the gun trolls. In fact, it’s you who is threatening them by questioning the appropriateness and prudence of their walking around the local strip mall locked and loaded for World War III. And if you do feel threatened, well, it’s your problem, not theirs.

But of course it’s objectively threatening, and they know it. As a veteran friend who now works in law enforcement pointed out, carrying a long gun slung across your chest is called “at the ready” for a reason – and it’s not because you’re ready to eat tacos. I’ve been in plenty of places where people do openly carry weapons – Switzerland, for starters, and those rifles were fully automatic, in point of fact – but whenever I’ve seen it it’s always been done with extreme caution, responsibility, and restraint, and never at the ready. Open Carry Texas’s trollishness is obvious and reasonable pro-gun folks aren’t happy about it either.

Some people troll Internet comments sections with lame gifs and snark; others troll Twitter with sock puppets and vitriol; and still others troll fast food joints with assault rifles. As a rule, you shouldn’t feed the trolls. But it’s crucial to assess Open Carry Texas’s veneer of good faith, recognize the insane troll logic that underwrites it, and then stop feeding them — denying them attention and, if needs be, burritos, too.