The ‘open carry’ debate is about privacy, not guns

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I don’t think Connecticut should allow gun owners to carry sidearms openly in public spaces. Like it or not, the sight of a gun on any person who is not a police officer or a member of the armed services is unnerving to everyone who is not carrying a sidearm, which is most of the people most of the time.

Yes, things might be different if we all were openly armed, but we don’t live in that world. We live in this one.

Lawful gun owners should be at least skeptical. We don’t want just anyone walking around conspicuously armed. You don’t have to properly respect your weapon in order to buy a permit and pass a background check.

That said, the debate currently underway in the General Assembly is not about whether we should allow open carry. That’s settled for now, like it or not.

The current debate is about whether to allow police to ask gun owners to see their open carry permits. As it stands, you are required to keep your permit on your person, but you don’t have to show proof of having one.

Reasonable people are saying state lawmakers should just give police what they need to do their jobs. After all, they are often caught in the middle between law-abiding gun owners permitted by law to carry openly and the majority of people unnerved by the sight of a gun.

But the debate so far has only two sides: between gun rights advocates and public safety advocates. The former say asking for permits violates the Second Amendment. The latter say the bill currently before the legislature does no such thing. It would instead clarify the open carry law and ease the burdens of law enforcement.

There is, however, a third side. Dontrell Brown’s side.

A widely reported incident involving Brown is often cited as reason for clarifying Connecticut’s open carry law.

Brown, who has an open carry permit, knew he was not required by law to show his permit even when police ask for it. The incident in question took place in a Bridgeport sandwich shop in 2016. Brown’s sidearm alarmed management, who called police, who asked for his permit.

He lawfully refused, tensions flared, and police called for backup. The episode ended peacefully after Brown left without his lunch. Proponents of the pending bill say such incidents could be avoided if police were allowed to ask to see permits and if gun owners simply complied.

The Brown incident indeed underscores a problem with open carry, just not the one we usually talk about. Brown is African-American. Most people, as I said, are unnerved by the sight of a gun. Other people, we should make no mistake, are also unnerved by the sight of a gun on a black man.

So gun rights advocates are right but for the wrong reasons. Granting police the power to ask for open carry permits may not violate the Second Amendment, but it might violate the Fourth Amendment, the right to privacy. You have the right to conduct business without agents of the government asking to see your papers. In the Brown incident, police illegally harassed one black man. Changing the law would empower police to legally harass any black man.

Fortunately, there’s a solution. It’s so easy and practical there’s no reason to change the law even if, like me, you don’t think Connecticut should allow open carry in the first place. The state allows businesses the right of refusal. They can ban guns if they want to. The Bridgeport sandwich shop should have posted a big sign that read: “No guns allowed.”

That’s all anyone needs to know.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in political science at Yale and a New Haven resident.

What do you think?

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