Packing heat in plain view
Surprise. In Pennsylvania and 43 other states, any law-abiding resident 18 and older can carry a loaded handgun on his hip in plain view to shopping malls, restaurants and on strolls down the street. No permits required, no questions asked. You thought you needed a permit for that? Nope, only if you conceal the gun.
By AD CRABLE, Outdoor Trails
Lancaster New Era
Published: Apr 24, 2007 12:18 PM EST
LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa - The security guards at Park City mall don't carry guns, but [OCDO member] Patrick Miller packs heat on his hip in plain view when he strolls amid the shoppers with his family.
Miller, 30, of Atglen, has a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but he has worn his loaded semi-automatic 9 mm handgun in the open to dozens of restaurants, sporting events, his church, movies — almost everywhere he goes in his leisure time.
Most people who even notice the gun on his waist assume he's a law enforcement officer.
Most don't know — and many likely will be shocked — to learn that any law-abiding citizen over the age of 18 in Lancaster County can wear a loaded firearm in public.
No permits are required — you only need one if you plan on concealing your gun.
That's a throwback to pioneer and Wild West days when only people thought to be cowardly or up to no good hid their guns in public.
"Open carry," as it's called by guns-rights advocates, is a long-established basic right that's existed since frontier days.
Only six, mostly Southern, states have moved to restrict that right — and those were largely racist actions to keep African-Americans from arming after the Civil War, open-carry groups say.
There are a few places in Pennsylvania where you can't walk around with a visible, loaded handgun, such as in schools, courthouses, state parks and the Capitol. In Philadelphia, you can open carry if you have a license to carry a firearm.
Though there is hardly a gun-carrying shopper in every supermarket in Lancaster County, open-carry gunholders may be increasingly exercising their right here and around the country.
There are between 18,000 and 20,000 Lancaster County residents with permits to carry a concealed firearm — that's about one in every 25 county residents.
However, many permit holders don't carry — they just want to exercise their right, observes Mark Reese, chief deputy Lancaster County sheriff.
Since there are no records kept, no one knows how many people open carry guns in public here. Reese thinks not too many "because they know they would be hounded every step of the way."
Even those that do carry often have the guns on their hips mistaken for cell phones.
The right to carry firearms issue has been spotlighted by last week's shootings at Virginia Tech.
Guns-rights advocates, including former Mountville resident Michael Stollenwerk, have pushed bills in the Virginia legislature the last couple years that would forbid colleges from preventing students 21 and older with permits to carry concealed handguns on campus.
Virginia Tech officials, in particular, successfully lobbied to beat back such bills and to keep guns off campus. Tech promises to expel any students who bring their handguns to school.
After the defeat of one of the bills, Virginia Tech vice president Larry Hincker told the Roanoke Times, "I'm sure the university community is appreciative of the General Assembly's efforts because this will help parents, students, faculty and visitors feel safe on campus."
In a letter to the editor chastising a Virginia Tech student graduate student who thought his basic rights were being abridged, Hincker said, "The writer would have us believe that a university campus, with tens of thousands of young people, is safer with everyone packing heat. Imagine the continual fear of students in that scenario. We've seen that fear here, and we don't want to see it again."
Would the scenario have been any different in Blacksburg last week if students with permits hadn't been barred from having guns?
"By lobbying against a common sense bill...the Virginia Tech administration virtually ensured that students would be caught in a victim disarmament zone," offers Stollenwerk, 44, co-founder of the OpenCarry.org Web site and now studying to be an attorney at Georgetown University.
"There's a good chance that somebody in that building, had the rule not been so draconian, might have been carrying that day and been able to disrupt that attack.
"We shouldn't have gun bans anywhere where there isn't real security."
Adds John Pierce, Stollenwerk's Opencarry.org co-founder from Bristol, Va., "The (mass murderer) Cho's of this world are already going to be armed. The real question is what can we, as good guys, do to protect ourselves."
So why do people like Stollenwerk and Miller insist on carrying a gun in public?
Miller, who is co-owner of a pole barn manufacturing company in Atglen, grew up a Mennonite, a religion well known for its pacifism. He has since switched churches.
When he started a family, Miller says he felt a duty to protect his family. "I really feel there's no one as responsible as I am for the well-being of my family," he says. "The police can't be at all places at all times.
"I'm confident it's a deterrent to have an armed populace."
The shootings of the Amish schoolchildren at Nickel Mines also weighed on him.
Last fall, the father of two went through a background check and obtained a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
Sometimes he carries his handgun — one very similar to the one used by the Virginia Tech mass murderer — under a jacket or in an ankle holster.
But many times he carries his gun in plain view on his hip, something he needs no permission for.
He uses a holster that's designed so that only the wearer can lift out the gun. A person diving for the gun from an angle, for example, would be foiled.
He says he's not trying to make a statement or make people around him uncomfortable. But he thinks carrying a weapon is a prudent thing to do and it's his basic right.
Occasionally, he gets some strange stares while standing in line at a store, "but mostly people don't say boo about it because they assume I must have some reason.
"People up to no good don't walk around with a weapon on their hip," he reasons.
He's never been stopped and questioned by a cop.
Miller doesn't wear his gun into banks. He doesn't open carry in crowded places where he would be rubbing up against people.
At work, he usually wears his gun concealed because he doesn't want to risk offending a customer.
But most of the time he prefers to open carry. If he is told by someone that they object to him wearing a loaded gun, he attempts to speak clearly and calmly about his beliefs.
"I'm certainly not a guy with a bad case of paranoia," he says, "but I do recognize we live in a kind of unpredictable environment."
He says he has never come close to drawing his gun and would go out of his way to avoid using it.
"I decided early on that property in general is not worth a life," he says. "I would not draw on a guy stealing my car, for example. But if someone comes into my home..."
Opencarry.org co-founder Pierce is a software developer with three children.
He has been open carrying for about 10 years "for self defense — even the safest areas still have crime."
A second reason he open carries, he says, "is because it actually is a right in many states, most of whose residents have no idea it exists."
The group sells a t-shirt that says, "Oops, my civil rights are showing." Seeing people carrying guns in a nonconfrontational way gets people to recognize the practice as legal and encourages them "to think about the liberty and foundation aspects of our country," Pierce says.
"We are not vigilantes. We are not looking to be any kind of heroes. We advocate personal responsibility."
Adds Stollenwerk, "It's one of those rights if you don't exercise it, sooner or later someone is going to take it away. Open carry is about getting your gun rights out of the closet."
CONTACT US: email@example.com