Are armed mobs becoming socially acceptable? Watching television coverage of gun owners eager to brandish their firearms in public spaces, that appears to be the desired goal of "open-carry" advocates.
Exploiting loopholes in state laws that don't explicitly ban the open carrying of handguns and other firearms is an omission of default rather than design -- who would think people would actually want to live out their Wild West fantasies in real life -- open-carry advocates take delight in thumbing their noses at societal norms by brandishing their firearms.
Some go much further, portraying their display of weaponry as a visual warning shot against perceived enemies.
At a "Restore the Constitution Rally" held in April outside the nation's capital, one speaker warned the tiny crowd of fellow "patriots" of those "pushing the country toward civil war" and declared "they should stop before somebody gets hurt." In May, white supremacists openly carried guns at a small counter-event to a peaceful protest of Arizona's new immigration law. One armed protester, who characterized Hitler as a great white civil rights leader, asked, "Where on the planet is there one country that's for white people? There's not. See, we have nowhere to go." The protesters insisted they needed their loaded guns for protection and that they were prepared to use them if necessary.
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Surprisingly, the willingness of open-carry advocates to test the boundaries of common sense and geography has even brought rebukes from pro-gun leaders.
Following the appearance of open-carry advocates outside town meetings on health care with President Barack Obama, Second Amendment Foundation head (and convicted felon) Alan Gottlieb stated, "I would like to see gun owners think twice before they go to a rally like that with a firearm strapped on. It doesn't necessarily put our best face forward."
Yet open-carry advocates -- from nose-thumbers to anti-government activists to white supremacists -- all share a common belief that guns make them safer. Carrying guns may make them feel safer from the demons that populate their world, but what about the rest of us? The reality is that their bumper-sticker logic quickly fades in the light of real-world facts.
Despite promises that those who carry guns in public are uniquely law-abiding citizens who protect public safety and aid police, a Violence Policy Center research project available on the Web at www.vpc.org/ccwkillers.htm reveals that since May 2007, concealed handgun permit holders have killed at least 157 private citizens in addition to nine law enforcement officers.
And just last month, Jesus Gonzalez, an avid open-carry activist, was charged with homicide and attempted murder in the shooting of two men on Mothers' Day. Gonzalez claims he shot the men in self-defense. The surviving victim, paralyzed from the waist down, says he and his uncle were unarmed and merely walking to a friend's house when Gonzalez threatened them and then opened fire.
On a larger scale, empirical data reveals that exposing oneself and others to guns only enhances the likelihood of firearm-related death and injury.
Recently released federal statistics show, as they have historically, that states with high rates of gun ownership have higher rates of overall gun-related death. For 2007, the most recent year available, gun-loving Louisiana, Mississippi and Alaska led the nation in overall gun death rates.
The same federal data also shows that in states where gun ownership is low and exposure to firearms limited, overall gun death rates are far lower. That same year, Hawaii had the lowest gun death rate in the nation followed by Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. Louisiana's overall gun death rate of 19.87 per 100,000 was seven times higher than Hawaii's rate of 2.82 per 100,000.
When the issue is life and death, feelings should never trump facts -- even when there's an armed mob arguing otherwise.
Sugarmann is executive director of the Violence Policy Center, a national nonprofit educational organization working to reduce firearms violence in America; Web site: www.vpc.org.