REGION: Police officers eyes opening to 'open carry'
CARRYING UNLOADED GUN IN PLAIN SIGHT NOT ALWAYS ILLEGAL
In April, Escondido police stopped a man outside a grocery store because he had a gun holstered at his side.
The man wasn't arrested and he got his gun back at the end of the encounter, but he still filed a complaint with the department alleging his constitutional rights had been violated.
That's when officers ended up receiving a tutorial on the legal issues of "open carry."
Escondido officers aren't the only ones getting an education. Police training memos have been circulating throughout the state regarding what has become known as "the open carry movement" ---- citizens wearing unloaded firearms in public, either individually or as part of group demonstrations.
In February, dozens of people wearing unloaded weapons in holsters attended a beach cleanup event in San Diego. A similar group took to the Village Faire area of Carlsbad last month and Carlsbad police said their gathering went off without a hitch.
The gatherings are part of a larger trend ---- in recent years other states have been home to "open carry" demonstrations, including Ohio, Washington and New Hampshire. The demonstrations often protest restrictive gun laws.
In California, people who want to carry a firearm frequently cite the difficulty of getting a permit from local law enforcement to carry a concealed gun. Without a permit, carrying a concealed firearm is illegal.
But in California, holstering an unloaded gun in plain view is not necessarily illegal. There are rules, including that the gun cannot have a barrel longer than 16 inches ---- no rifles or shotguns allowed.
Officers are allowed to check a gun to make sure it's not loaded, but an officer who goes further than that without either consent or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity may be the one running afoul of the law.
The man involved in the Escondido case, who in an e-mail identified himself only as "Nathan," alleged on his blog that one of the officers involved took not only his gun, but his wallet, the ammunition he kept separate from his gun, and a tape recorder he carried to record encounters with law enforcement.
Nathan also sent a complaint to the department.
In a response dated July 21, Escondido Sgt. Robert Healey didn't address whether the man's rights had been violated.
But he wrote that an internal investigation "revealed the need for more training for our officers regarding citizens who open carry."
"The training has been conducted and if you are contacted again, the officers should be aware of the laws surrounding open carry," Healey wrote.
Valley Center resident Bill Laird, a member of the Escondido Fish & Game Association, said the primary goal of carrying a weapon is personal safety.
"Somebody up to no good is going to look at you and say, 'There's a guy farther down the street that's going to be easier to rob than this guy,'" Laird said.
But some gun owners are choosing to wear unloaded guns in public to create awareness about gun laws in California, which has a national reputation for strict ownership restrictions, he said.
Laird said he has concealed weapons permits and he hasn't felt the need to carry a gun in plain sight ---- but he might consider it as part of a group demonstration.
Tom Kendall, assistant chief range officer at the Escondido Fish & Game Association, said he didn't see much sense in carrying an unloaded gun for protection ---- though it could be used as a club ---- but he did see a political use for it.
"If someone wants to practice open carry, I don't get any heartburn over it," Kendall said. "Sometimes we have to get a little bit noisy before people will really listen."
What people need to listen to, Kendall said, is the argument that some firearms legislation infringes too much on Second Amendment rights of citizens and puts other rights at risk.
"I'm sure somewhere there's a middle ground," Kendall said.
In March, San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Robert Amador sent a memo about "open carry" issues to every law enforcement agency in the county. As long as officers understand the law, there won't be an influx of "open carry" cases going to court, he said.
"When law enforcement knows about the open carry movement itself, then law enforcement follows the law and makes the contacts they're allowed to make," Amador said.
A year ago, a Marine did end up with a court date after he was arrested on suspicion of illegal "open carry" at the Oceanside Fourth of July celebration, Oceanside Sgt. Kelan Poorman said.
He said the man was arrested because there was a bullet chambered in the slide of the semi-automatic weapon, making it a loaded gun.
None of the law enforcement agencies involved in the arrest could provide additional details about the case this week, but according to posts on a popular California gun owner's Web site, the Marine was never charged with the misdemeanor offense and the statute of limitations expired last month.
Open carriers present more than legal issues for officers to contend with, Escondido Lt. Bob Benton said. "Man with gun" calls can tie up police resources.
"Anytime we have a person out in public with a gun, we get calls," Benton said. "We don't send just one officer ---- we send multiple officers because we don't know what this person's intention is. We may get multiple calls, which drains our dispatcher resources."
Benton said the public is increasingly anxious about public acts of violence, such as shootings and bombings.
"We also have to ask people (who are stopped for open carrying) to be patient with us. They don't know the call we got. We may have gotten the call as a robbery and we are going to respond accordingly," Benton said.
One way open carriers can minimize the chance of tense encounters with police is by letting agencies know where they intend to carry, officials said.
Benton also recommended checking with local law enforcement agencies to determine eligibility for "open carry." Felons, even if they have served their time, may not carry. The same is true for people convicted of domestic violence.
There are also places, such as school campuses, that are subject to additional restrictions.
"Some people don't realize the complexity of the laws," Benton said.
Call staff writer Colleen Mensching at 760-739-6675.