Handguns, the second amendment and the public safety

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Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

Two sides of the gun control debate squared off in San Francisco this week, focus of a mini-battle over the fully loaded question: Does your right to walk around with a loaded gun in public override my right to feel safe when I don’t know if you might go off your rocker? This writer discovered, thanks to a show of hands at the Commonwealth Club sponsored panel, that I was the only unarmed person within a back-of-the-house three-row section. This revelation guarantees discomfort but keeps you alert.

California is among the majority of U.S. states which allow anyone to carry unloaded guns in plain sight, or licensed individuals to carry loaded guns concealed. Variations of gun laws — can you have a few in the car? how about in a restaurant? suppose your taste is for machine guns? — are complex and mind-boggling. Gun proponents fall back on the second amendment; gun-control advocates tend to cite public safety and privacy rights. Reasoned debate is pretty much out of the question.

The tempest in the California teapot arose over gun folks’ dislike of the “may issue” state business. California is a “may issue” state, meaning a permit may be issued to a law-abiding applicant; as opposed to a “shall issue” state, meaning you (law-abiding citizen) will darned well get that permit once you apply. In protest over the “may issue” situation, California gun buffs recently took to the streets — or to the local Starbucks, as the case happened — with prominently displayed weaponry. Some latte drinkers were not amused. Gun buffs were defiant. Starbucks reportedly wishes they had picked Peets. Meanwhile, CA Assemblymember Lori Saldana introduced a bill, AB 1934, to ban “Open Carry,” and the battle was joined.

At the recent panel, Emeryville CA Police Chief Ken James, University of CA Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring and Executive Director Sam Paredes of Gun Owners of California restated most of the familiar arguments. Throughout, James was expressionless, Zimring frowned, and Paredes wore an expression that can generously be described as a not-too-friendly smile. There were assertions (thousands of lives are saved every year by people armed and defending themselves or their neighbors; police don’t need to be stopping people all over the place asking if that gun is loaded; police can’t do their crime-stoppers job without the help of law-abiding, armed citizens; it’s not easy to know when an armed citizen will misuse his arms…) that all have elements of truth and elements of fantasy.

Two details are worth noting, though. Zimring pointed out that in the 2007  Supreme Court decision (District of Columbia v Heller), Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the 5-4 majority, took things a little farther than they had been by specifically mentioning handguns, which had not been invented when the second amendment was written. It’s handguns in public places that tend to rile up both sides. Therefore the hoopla over open carry, Zimring said, is not where the discussion should be. Eventually, the right to bear handgun v right to public safety will need to be settled. In other words, when does your right to pack a gun interfere with my right not to be around you when you do?

At the end of the discussion, moderator John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, asked a question about whether panelists were packing heat during this event. Off-duty Police Chief James was not, because he feels guns invite problems. Professor Zimring was not, because he said if he tried to hit a target everyone around would be in trouble. Citizen Paredes was. A concealed weapon, because you never know if another citizen might need you to leap into action. Was it loaded? Yes.

Somehow, this did not make me feel safer.


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  3. Ms. Johns:

    Thanks for covering this issue, and offering your perspective.

    I’d like to comment on the way you contextualized this piece … that is, the debate regarding whether the right to carry arms trumps another’s right to feel safe.

    At first glance, the answer is unequivocally “yes.” That is because the right to arms is specifically enumerated within the bill of rights, while the right to “feel safe” is not. But at second glance, this is simply a disingenuous framing of a debate that does not exist. There is no constitutional right to feel safe. Why not? First, it’s not fundamental, and second, it would be impossible to enforce against infringement.

    Whether people are comfortable around guns is a very interesting a relevant social discussion. But this is not a question of two rights pitted against one another. As much as we all want to feel safe, it’s simply a frame of mind. The right you have is to think what you wish, and feel what you wish … but that compels no one, or the government, to ensure what you think or what you wish becomes reality for everyone.

  4. “Off-duty Police Chief James was not, because he feels guns invite problems.”

    Guns in the hands of lawful carry permit holders do more to defuse dangerous situations than cause problems.
    For example, when my sister lived in Tennessee she advocated gun control, and she stated that she supported a total ban on handguns. When she moved to Atlanta with its high rate of violent crime her views changed, and she got her firearms carry permit, took up shooting as a sport, and became an excellent marksman. In two separate incidents attackers tried to force their way into her car while she was stopped at a traffic lights, and both times, she brandished her Glock and both times the attackers to fled.

    “…and that most guns cause far more grief than good; and I wish they would all go away.”

    Studies have found that citizens use firearms for self-defense between 150,000 and 3,052,717 times a year. The lowest estimate comes to about 410 times a day, and the highest estimate is 8,363 times a day. Of course, firearms are used thousands of times a day for other lawful purposes like recreation shooting, sports and competition shooting, hunting and collecting.
    Ms. Johns, if you had your way and all firearms went away, at least for law abiding citizens, than the 150,000 to 3,052,717 survivors of crimes would be victims.
    Moreover, in the year 1900, years before a single so called “Commonsense gun control” law was enacted the U.S. murder rate was 1.2 per 100.000. Today after all those gun control laws were put on the books the murder rate is 5.4 per 100,000. Obviously, they were doing some things right in 1900, and gun control was not one of them.

    “I’ll still take my chances with what I know about being cautious, aware, informed (about things like posture and eye contact etc) for self-protection, and believe I’m a lot safer (and less likely to kill or maim someone who didn’t deserve it) armed with those than with a gun.”

    Being armed does not preclude you from being cautious, aware, informed (about things like posture and eye contact etc) for self-protection or even using a non-lethal weapon if attacked, but so many times non of those precautions fail. As with my sister, the vast majority of cases where firearms are used for self-defense the gun is never fired, and criminal is either captured or flees. Firearms are like fire extinguishers and first aid kits. It is much better to have it and not need it than it is to need it and not have it.

    1. I’m glad your sister avoided harm, willbill, and especially that she trained to became a good marksman. You are right that being armed doesn’t preclude the other ways of protecting oneself. But I still plan to stick with those other ways, which have served me well including through several instances in Metro Atlanta, and skip the armament. Thanks for your comments.

  5. How many times has an open carry proponent shot someone? If you use statistics rather than “from the hip” anti gun rhetoric, you will find legal gun owners are not the problem. Illegal gun owners are the problem.
    Do you think the unlawful owner of an illegally obtained gun will ever open carry? I doubt it.
    The facts make sense. Gun bans and restrictions increase crime. The bad guys know the populace is unarmed.

    I carry a gun legally everyday. No one knows I have it, I have never hurt a sole with it, nor do I intend or want to. I am well trained, and I take the responsibility with the seriousness it deserves.

    BTW, Glocks do not use clips, they use magazines.
    A clip is what is used to put on the “Ban Guns” name tag.
    I find it interesting, people always wish someone has a gun when they are in danger.

    When seconds count, the police are just minutes away. And remember, they have no legal obligation to protect you.

    1. Also, an automatic Glock 18 is illigal in all but a few atates (Like Nevada, where they have no problem with them)
      A Glock the average citizen can purchase is a semi-automatic. There is a very big difference.

      1. I applaud your training, caution and law-abidingness, airtechjr. People like you don’t make me nervous (except when I found myself surrounded by three rows of gun-carriers at last week’s panel, which felt like too many weapons in an otherwise peaceful room.) But I still stand by my response to mike above.

  6. Mrs. Johns,
    You seem to want to look at both sides of the issue. There is no argument for this from a public safety standpoint. Can you point out any cases of someone legally open carrying and then performing a crime. Unless I missed one there has not been such an incident. Second all the laws currently on the books only effect the law abiding so they are truly ineffective. Conceal carry permits are great but if your local sheriff doesn’t issue them because the only people worthy of self protection are famous, in politics, or carry large sums of money then that is wrong but it only leaves people the open carry option for self protection. I think there is little argument that most women of smaller stature can not stop a full size man. And your need to feel safe does not override her right to be able to defend herself. What you fail to point out is any felon in possession of a firearm is going to conceal it, why because if he doesn’t he will draw attention to himself and he doesn’t want that. So the only people that open carry will truly be the law abiding citizens. Another fact you might consider is California is one of the few States that requires people to carry unloaded pistols when open carrying almost every other State that allows open carry allows citizens to carry fully loaded pistols and again there have been no cases I have seen of misuse in open carry situations. Your discomfort stemming from someone else being armed also sounds like a small phobia and a maybe a little projection. Since your statements point out you seem to fear even learning about firearms. Also a pistol is a pistol no matter if it is a flint lock or a semi auto it should not matter which you have. Just like your freedom of speech covers printed press and now computer blogs so does the 2nd amendment protect all types of firearms.

    1. I do try to look at both sides, Mike, though I clearly favor one. My gun sentiment is more of a large phobia than a small one. I grew up in the semi-rural south and actually had hunter-type friends try to teach me stuff, but learned early on that guns and I don’t get along well. I defer to others like Chief James to cite instances of open carriers turning deadly, but I think anyone can Google up cases of law-abiding, legal possessors of guns killing or maiming people who did not deserve being killed or maimed. I am a woman of small stature, and a geezer to boot, who constantly walks alone in cities, sometimes in not-so-safe areas. I’ll still take my chances with what I know about being cautious, aware, informed (about things like posture and eye contact etc) for self-protection, and believe I’m a lot safer (and less likely to kill or maim someone who didn’t deserve it) armed with those than with a gun.

  7. The question of “open carry” was posed a month or so ago in the Redlands Daily Facts, a small town daily newspaper for well over one hundred years. We have a Thursday night farmer’s market that has grown to include street bands, venders of every description, and several local produce stalls. The downtown business owners love it because the foot traffic spills over into shops and restaurants. Thursday night also attracts a lot of sketchy types – skinheads, gangbangers, stoners – I like to think from out of town. The “open carry” crew are big at Market Night, hugging heavy metal – impotent as an unloaded gun can be – and otherwise distracting the police who are trying to keep an eye on crowd control. If someone has a permit for a concealed weapon then they are “on the books.” Obviously, if they do not have a permit they are breaking the law – a pretty heavy crime. Besides looking really stupid, having a gun visible – even if unloaded – is scary! Do you know how fast you can jam a clip into a Glock Automatic? 3 seconds. Tom Medlicott

    1. Actually, Tom, Chief James several times said that one problem with open carry is that an unloaded gun can be loaded, charged and ready to fire in 1.3 seconds. Which doesn’t give rational people much time to get out of the way if someone with an unloaded gun happens to get irrational. I greatly enjoy street fairs and events like Market Night, but — call me squeamish — I would not stick around if I saw anyone not in uniform with a gun.

  8. I have no problem with concealed carry permits for individuals. If you were a battered spouse and you feared for your safety, wouldn’t you want the option of carrying a weapon to defend yourself?

    I understand your trepidation concerning accidents. I agree with you. I am not even beyond insisting that someone demonstrate good marksmanship and good handgun safety before issuing a concealed carry permit for use in a city. The last thing anyone needs is some nitwit who hasn’t fired the gun in years, and who couldn’t make a clean shot to save anyone’s life, least of all their own.

    Assuming people DO know how to shoot accurately, however, I see nothing wrong with carrying a handgun in a city.

    1. I know there are those who carry concealed weapons for legitimate reasons such as you mention, and I can’t argue with that. But as I said to majstoll above, I just believe there are more guns floating around than the peace-loving public deserves, and that most guns cause far more grief than good; and I wish they would all go away. Not holding my breath on that. Thanks for weighing in.

  9. Let’s get a few things straight.

    First, California is the only state of 43 states which allow open carry which also requires the guns to be unloaded, and even that only applies strictly speaking to cities – loaded open crry i allowed in unincorporated terretories where the Ciounty has not banned shooting (arguably much or most of California).

    Second, pistols were around at the time the Second Amendment was enacted – and modern revolvers were around at the time the 14th amendment was passed to give the freedmen gun rights against state laws restricting such rights, so the Second Amendment was effectively “re-blued” to include what we have commonly today – functionally – one shot per trigger pull guns.

    And third, the only side citing “privacy rights” are the pro-gun side who want the right to conceal guns, and to carry openly without being detained by police for load checks.

    Learn more at OpenCarry.org

    1. Thanks for those corrections, majstoll; I thought I had linked to opencarry.org, but kept making corrections of my own and apparently left it out. I’ve now corrected that! As to those nuances and exceptions and details and specifications of the zillions of gun control laws around, I probably should never have mentioned ANY of them because I couldn’t figure them all out. Somehow, today’s handgun doesn’t seem to me the same as those early pistols, but again I defer to those who know guns, which I do not now and hopefully never will. For those who genuinely need protection and are licensed (and I hope trained,) I do not argue with their possession rights; they will always make me uncomfortable in otherwise peaceful public places. I am simply among those who believe there are too many guns, too easily obtainable and too often used for less than noble purposes. And I wish they’d never been invented.

      1. “As to those nuances and exceptions and details and specifications of the zillions of gun control laws around, I probably should never have mentioned ANY of them because I couldn’t figure them all out.”

        That should just go to show you that gun control is not the answer. With over 20,000 gun laws on the books across the nation, somehow, criminals still manage to get guns and use them for nefarious purposes.

      2. Seems to me anybody who wants a gun in the U.S. can get one, criminal or good guy. I don’t know if gun control is the answer, but what we have now (the 20,000 laws you mention, and I’m sure you’re right) just makes everyone unhappy. I wish we could have one federal law making guns available for legitimate purpose to background-checked, law-abiding, gun-registering citizens. Then I wish those citizens would keep them away from me while they’re roaming around. I don’t expect this to happen, though.

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