Real America: The Gunmen Among Us

permittedGuns kill people. That’s what they are meant to do. But do gun control laws kill people? Because they are generally not supposed to do that. Concealed carry permit holders claim that they do. To find out if they are correct, I became one of them.

Last year, U.S. states passed three times the number of laws that loosened controls on firearms than they passed laws restricting them. And you may have read a bit about forthcoming legislation around the country-referred to as “pro-gun measures”-on the front page of today’s New York Times. The result of the changes that have already taken place: a boom in permit applications-with at least nine million owners now licensed to secretly pack heat. Florida has seen the swiftest increase. Now, all but two states allow the concealed carry of a firearm.

Illinois is one of those two states; Wisconsin is the other. But maybe not for long. Cheese-headed governor Jim Doyle has shot down concealed carry supporters by swearing to veto any such legislation that crosses his desk. But Doyle will not be running for reelection this year. Republican contender Mark Neumann supports concealed carry-and it just might win him the election.

The concealed carry of weapons (CCW) elicits especially strong, often unreasonable, “debate.” Support for CCW can border on the pathological, while opposition is often specifically unsupported and inseparable from gun-control feelings in general. Drunk driving kills far more innocent people a year and is an unquestionably greater threat to society than those who lawfully carry a gun, yet liberals reserve far more scorn and ridicule for the latter. Meanwhile, maniacal CCW supporters can insist carrying a firearm is a duty of any real patriot serious about safety, like Arizona state senator Russell Pearce who, of proposed bill SB 1002, which proposed residents be allowed to conceal carry a firearm without any training or even a background check, said, “…our Founding Fathers expected it and demanded it.”

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But many CCW advocates are genuine activists, no different from free speechers or PETA. And some of the tactics of the CCW movement are way more Critical Mass than NRA. This is especially true of “open carry.” Open carry is the practice of holstering a sidearm “old west” style, where it can be easily seen. Wesleyan professor of anthropology Charles Springwood has perfectly summed up the goal of the movement: they aim 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.”

And in this omnipresence, open carry offers a deterrent that CCW does not-which is that crimes will become less common if criminals observe many around them are armed.

The official position of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is that “The open carrying of firearms in public places is inherently threatening and intimidating, and poses risks to those nearby, to law enforcement and to the community. For example, when open carry has occurred in retail stores, other customers quickly become alarmed and the police often are called to the scene, creating a volatile and potentially dangerous situation.”

This assumes that people are unfamiliar with the law allowing open carry. Should open carry become more common, it seems safe to assume that over time such instances would decline (along with the volatility of such “potentially dangerous situations”). And in communities where open carry advocates have been active, some police dispatchers have begun asking callers whether the person reported with the gun is acting threatening or if the gun is just securely holstered.

Mike Stollenwerk, co-founder of OpenCarry.org, told me that open carry has become more popular “because almost all gun owners want the freedom to choose their method of carry. But this depends on the individual and what scenario she thinks might happen to her, deterrence verses freedom to choose when to let an attacker know she is armed are the main tactical issues. But social issues arise as well. There is plenty of gun bigotry in the USA and many gun owners wish to avoid that by concealing. At OpenCarry.org we think that it’s time gun ownership came out of the closet and the best way to do this is for normal Americans to openly carry properly holstered handguns in daily life. In the end, the debate over form of carry is like that old Miller Lite commercial-less filling, tastes great; gun owners want their freedom to choose.”

But in many states with tough or no CCW laws (California, Wisconsin), open carry offers CCW activists a way to make a point: Give us a CCW law or get used to seeing guns. Not surprisingly, our society is not ready to see guns that are not on the TV.

After Ohio activists hosted numerous open carry gatherings, including one in front of the governor’s mansion, the state ended its 145-year CCW ban. This is what advocates in Wisconsin are aiming for. In the absence of a CCW law, an emboldened open carry movement has produced several legal black eyes for the police, who have a tendency to get a little testosterony when they observe an openly carried firearm. In one instance, a cop joked about shooting open carriers. After Wisconsin’s attorney general said that open carry was legal in the state, Milwaukee’s chief of police enraged everyone by saying “we’ll put them on the ground, take the gun away and then decide whether you have a right to carry it.” And then his force was sued for doing just that.

* * *

There are no advantages to Open Carry. And there are many disadvantages. Open carry is just that. Everybody knows you have a gun, including the bad guys. This can make you a target of someone planning on committing a crime. It just reduces options. Visualize a 7-11 scenario where the bad guy comes in to rob the place. He sees your gun, you are now a priority target that must be dealt with before he can proceed with his original plan… add to that, you may, because you are concentrating on a can of V8, not even be aware that he is there… Do you see a potential problem there?

That is William Schmitz, a certified multi-state firearm instructor and the chairman of Wisconsin Concealed Carry Association. Schmitz spoke with me about CCW in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

A concealed carry permit is not the ticket to inevitable shooting crime. But while liberals often unfairly lump CCW permit holders in with pro-assault weapon extremists, many CCW proponents do their cause no favors by denying a reasonable boundary between a licensed person carrying a small handgun for personal protection and an untrained nincompoop amassing an arsenal of weapons designed solely for war. The group Wisconsin Gun Owners is the perfect embodiment of this problem; the group’s website boasts a tactical assault rifle superimposed over the state itself on a banner just above a terrorism-esque color-coded “gun control threat level” meter (always “high”). And this frames the biggest issue facing CCW.

“The perception of CCW is really the biggest issue. People who don’t know what concealed carry is all about perceive it to be dangerous. They have no experience with it,” Schmitz said. He claims that a lot of this has to do with a media environment that is largely loathe to print stories of instances where a concealed firearm saved a life or prevented a crime. And he’s not completely wrong. The uncomfortable truth for those who are against the practice is that there are many instances of CCW doing exactly what CCW-proponents claim.

conceal tieA larger part of CCWs perception problem may be CCW holders themselves. Many liberals judge CCW advocates by their language alone. For example, in my talks with Schmitz, he talked about “bad guys,” “target rich environments” and “tactical situations.” My reaction is to roll my eyes. For those who never use it, this lingo and posturing can come across as comical and creates an instant disconnect. It seems those who exercise CCW permits often enter a whole new culture where the very act of walking around with a gun comes to consume them. For the outsider, it seems a culture of constant paranoia, not just regarding the potential for having to use the weapon, but of just having the weapon at all. This phenomenon appears universal, as those that one would expect to be more nuanced about gun ownership display the same behavior. This includes groups like Pink Pistols, a gay CCW-advocacy group.

After pouring over literature, message boards and talking with proponents, it’s challenging not to see those who carry a handgun as dweeby 15-year-old kids who carry a condom everywhere. They’re “prepared,” “just in case,” because “you never know,” “it could happen.” Equally, they both seem to fantasize about situations when they might actually use it. It’s this way that some CCWers emphasize rare or unlikely “tactical” scenarios that will never materialize that make it a test for a rational person to take the movement seriously. And yet, the effort should be taken seriously because the driving force behind much of it is a genuine desire to be safe and protect oneself because “the system” is failing at this responsibility (see Pink Pistols above).

concealed scenerioSchmitz generally agreed with this assessment about the movement’s language, saying that words like “tactical” are taken negatively. But, he said, “In the broader picture, however, everything is tactical. From the board room to the bedroom. Tactical, in reality, means nothing more than an assessment of probable outcome. However folks, many times, do not look at [this].”

For those sympathetic to the cause, CCW faces some non-perception-based, honest-to-god real-scenario hard questions. Maybe the hardest of which is: suppose many people at one of America’s more iconic shootings (be it Virginia Tech or the Nebraska Mall) were concealed carrying. While it is true that these armed citizens might have quickly ended the situation by shooting the shooter, it is just as likely that, in the mass confusion of “a shooter!” everyone would be aiming at (if not shooting at) everyone else with a drawn weapon.

I posed the question to Schmitz. “Way too many scenarios to go into all here,” he said. “Suffice to say this: you have never heard of an attacker accosting an armed group. The fact that a certain percentage may be armed will tend to reduce the occurrence of these incidents. Setting up a gun free zone is the same as setting up a safe, for the active shooter, target rich environment.”

Whether or not that answers the nightmare CCW hypothetical is unclear. But one thing Schmitz can agree on is training. Even as pro-gun rights as Schmitz is, he cannot get behind movements such as the “Vermont style” movement.

Disturbingly, “Vermont-style” right-to-carry, which allows citizens to carry a gun with no permit, fee or any kind of waiting period or background check whatsoever, are growing in popularity. “There are many reasons for a state to adopt [this] genuine right to carry law,” claim proponents. One reason: “A comprehensive national study in 1996 determined that violent crime fell after states made it legal to carry concealed firearms.”

And you can’t argue with numbers, right? Right? That “comprehensive” study? It was done by John Lott. Spend some time in the gun debate and you will undoubtedly get to know John Lott’s gun-rights research. You might also get to know Mary Rosh, the fictional Wharton School student Lott pretended to be to defend and justify his work on numerous online reviews and message boards. A murderers’ row of experts, including Yale Law School professors and the authors of “Freakonomics” (who Lott sued for defamation), have shot holes in Lott’s work. (On the Freakonomics blog, they wrote of one of Lott’s studies that “Virtually nothing in this paper is correct.”) Still Lott is still regularly used not only by the NRA and concealed carry proponents, but also by state legislators seeking to convince colleagues to pass increasingly permissive gun bills.

This tragic adherence to any data regardless of accuracy in an attempt to make a point is tragic. Still it doesn’t mean pro-CCW arguments are bunk. The concealed-carry debate is rife with misinformation on both sides. Misinterpretation of data and assumptions made and press-released to the public, much of it based on typical correlation/causation fallacies, is commonplace. And too often, passions of CCW are inseparable, (again, by both sides) from the whole expansive range of gun control and gun freedoms debates, which aren’t really debates at all.

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To find out just how educated a CCW permit-holder must be, I went through the process to get my North Dakota concealed carry permit.

red gunsThe only weapon I’ve ever owned is a 1986 Bo Jackson-signed Louisville Slugger. But growing up on a farm and with several gun-obsessed friends, I’m familiar with guns. With rifle-style firearms I would rate myself “intermediate.” But with handguns, I’m about a “total beginner.” While I’ve fired a revolver, I have never even handled, for six seconds, a semi-automatic pistol.

I tested for the easiest North Dakota permit to get, a class 2. And, oh, was it ever easy.

For most of its statehood, North Dakota allowed no commerce of any kind to be conducted on Sunday. These “blue laws” largely disappeared in the 1980s. But not fully in Grand Forks, where several are still observed. (This is why Home Depot is closed until after noon on Sundays.) So the fact that I took the a test to exercise my constitutional rights on a Sunday at 9:00 AM in a city that maintains these unconstitutional laws is fairly amazing.

The two-hour test, all written, took place in a serviceable conference room at Grand Forks’ Hilton Garden Inn. I had found a certified testing professional online and joined one of the dates he had scheduled. Throughout the test he read a Tom Clancy novel. The only other tester was my local mechanic.

The test is open book and almost exclusively true/false. It is required that test-takers score 100% correct. The instructor will “advise” you about your answers. When I turned in my test with two incorrect answers I was allowed to correct them; I scored 100%. The ND permit to carry test is a test if you consider that it only tested the ability to show up at a predetermined destination at a certain time. Other than that, it is not a “test” in the sense that it could be used as a means of evaluating the abilities, aptitudes, skills or performance of an individual’s knowledge or proficiency with North Dakota’s conceal carry laws or firearms in general. I left knowing more than I entered knowing but I would say, at best, the four-page test assesses literacy.

On the section that requires you to identify the parts of a firearm, I copied the words directly from the book. The page struck me as missing a critical piece, can you identify it?
conceal carry test no safety

After certifying my perfect score, the instructor signed my sheet. I paid him. I took the sheet down to the sheriff’s office and filled out the application with two passport photos. I was fingerprinted by the nicest old lady on earth. Approximately $100 and 6 weeks later I was licensed to carry a concealed pistol in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia.

Not once, however, did I touch or even see a gun. Yet, thanks to the CCW permit serving as my background check, I can buy one tomorrow and be carrying around a loaded pistol in nearly half of all states despite never once learning how to load, store, clear or, very importantly, fire it.

I asked Schmitz about this seemingly alarming hole in the CCW process. “Training is an absolute issue,” he said. He believes that CCW permits should have an attached education element that includes hands-on firearm training. But. “People who have a permit to carry have one because they have a high degree of personal responsibility,” he said. “Permit-holders are, almost as a whole, the most law-abiding citizens there are.”

Odd as it sounds, he’s right. How many street criminals are going to go through the process of finding a class, paying $100, jumping through the application hoops and then waiting at least six weeks to legally carry and handgun? Like so many things, anyone who is responsible enough to go through the process and cost of obtaining a concealed carry permit is probably not a threat to the public.

fingerprinted 3The real problem with concealed carry is that it continues to be a debate about constitutionality and “facts” when, really, it hinges upon one’s individual feelings about the fundamental indecency and helplessness of human beings in a threatening world. And it’s those individual feelings about the personal safety that make CCW unique in the gun-control debate. When CCW proponents claim their rights are being denied, what they’re really claiming is that their feelings are being denied. It’s a communication failure.

And that’s a shame because here is another uncomfortable truth about guns: the total gun ban many seek is not only nearly impossible, it really is unconstitutional. Regardless of what the so-called “Founding Fathers” intended, Americans do have a constitutional right to own guns. No matter how anti-gun one is, the Second Amendment cannot be denied anymore than the First. And much like freedom of speech, the only argument to be had revolves around defining terms. In the CCW case, the tricky words up for debate are “arms” and “bear.” But without an ability to see even some of the opposing side’s actors as reasonable, the two sides are likely to continue to define nothing but their own mutual contempt.



And now Abe Sauer is armed.