Open Carry: Doing it right

We’ve discussed the downsides of open carry in the last couple of weeks primarily as a means of getting people to think hard about the choices they are making and the practical realities that their choices bring. As is always the case when someone says anything that can be interpreted as less than absolute glowing approval of open carry, some folks got offended. It’s rather frustrating to spend hours coming up with a couple of thousand carefully chosen words only to watch even a relatively few people ignore most of them. So goeth the internet, I suppose…

Since we’ve discussed the drawbacks, how do we do open carry right?

1. Pay attention

I know the internet is filled with people who really do believe they’ve got razor sharp situational awareness, but it’s just not so. Complacency and inattention are as much a part of daily life for human beings as breathing. You combat this with deliberate effort. Situational awareness properly defined is actively searching out your environment to see what’s going on around you. You’re looking for people who are paying too much attention to you, people giving off pre-attack indicators (if you don’t know what those are, get ye to training post haste), and circumstances that favor an ambush. A common example is the door of practically any Wal-Mart. They tend to have a doorway that juts out of the building creating a couple of nice blind spots on either side that ne’er-do-well can use to conceal his presence, especially at night.

You’d be amazed at how useful a flashlight is for ruining locations for ambush. When someone lying in wait gets a beam of light in their face from 20 yards out it communicates very effectively that the jig is up and often just that action will be enough to encourage them to be elsewhere. In our Wal-Mart example, if I’m forced to exit on the side of the doorway most exposed to one of those darker corners I’ll just hit it with my light and see if anyone is hanging out there.

Now is this the sort of thing people should be doing anyway? Absolutely…but it takes on even greater urgency when you are openly carrying a handgun.

2. Use a proper holster

A “proper” holster means that it can’t be easily ripped off your belt, and that it has some sort of positive retention mechanism (some device that actually holds the weapon in the holster) to keep the gun where it is if someone does go after it. At a bare minimum, a thumbsnap…but I much prefer something like the Safariland holsters with the Automatic Locking System. The ALS system is relatively unobtrusive, doesn’t impact the draw very much, but does do a marvelous job of complicating an attempt to snatch the weapon out of the holster. This isn’t to say that it can’t be done, but it is going to slow the effort down considerably. If someone is trying to take your gun more time on your side is better than less…trust me.

Pulled from a post on a forum, this photo illustrates what happens when someone applies even moderate effort to a Serpa. They're sub-par holsters, folks...
Pulled from a post on a forum, this photo illustrates what happens when someone applies even moderate effort to attacking a Serpa. They’re sub-par holsters, folks…

I know what you’re thinking, but the answer is no. The Serpa doesn’t count. It’s a bloody terrible holster with more issues than National Geographic.

3. Get some training on weapon retention

This really isn’t optional. If you’re carrying a gun to protect yourself and yet have put no effort into learning how to defend the gun in case of a grab, you’re not helping yourself. I know some guys out there believe that their gun will scare away bad guys, but I’m telling you flat out that not all bad guys are scared of your gun. The ones who aren’t scared of your gun are probably going to require more persuasion to stop trying to kill you. This doesn’t mean you need to become a BJJ blackbelt, but it would probably be a fantastic idea to try and defend your gun in the training environment for the first time rather than in the real thing.

4….well, 4 is where we go into the territory of those who insist they’re carrying a gun as a political/social statement, and I fully expect that people who were mad at me for the previous posts will hate me all the more for the statements I’m about to make. They need to be said, however…

4. Be nice

If you’ve never heard of the Westboro Baptists, stop reading for a minute and go google them. I’ll wait.

(Author hums the Jeopardy theme music softly)

Welcome back! Now before you say anything let me ask you a question: What’s the first thought you had about the Westboro Baptists? Mine was “What a bunch of ***CENSORED***” In the United States we have, for now at least (that’s a whole other rant), the right of free speech and that guarantees the Westboro people the right to make absolute jackasses of themselves if they so choose. Look beyond that and ask yourself this, though: How effective do you think they are at turning their policy preferences into reality? Not very good. Partially because much of what they say is just ridiculous, but the American body politic has proven over and over again that ridiculous isn’t a disqualifier for public policy. One of the reasons why they don’t achieve anything is that their general behavior with 1st amendment freedoms makes it clear that they’re just a gaggle of jackasses. You have to be some special breed of jackass to hold up a sign that says “Thank God for IEDs!” at the funeral of a soldier who lost his life serving his country.

Now to unleash the hate: Mimicking their jackass demeanor and behavior doesn’t do our side any favors. If you’re going to open carry as a political statement then you’re making a political statement. Think really hard about what you’re doing and the message it’s sending. If you know you’re going out into public and you intend to open carry, try dressing nicely. A clean-cut person dressed in business casual or better will often find that they’re mistaken for a police officer. I’ve seen it happen to others and I’ve experienced it myself. Believe it or not, it’s a good thing to have the public at large take a look at you and assume you’re legally entitled to be carrying around that pistol. If someone assumes you are a police officer because you’re dressed presentably, have a polite public demeanor, and happen to be carrying a handgun it rather defeats the caricature of the wild-eyed nut with a gun.

Human beings make snap judgments based on appearance because it’s a useful skill. You can take full advantage of that by presenting a good public face that gives the person glancing at you every reason to assume “Normal guy.” If someone approaches you and asks about the pistol, be polite and professional when dealing with them. Look at it as an opportunity to educate. If someone does get hysterical and calls the police, (and you should absolutely be prepared for that eventuality if you’re openly carrying) be exceptionally polite and professional with the police officers. Cooperate. Be friendly. A well-dressed, friendly dude in Wal-Mart who just happens to be openly carrying is a non-issue to most police officers. Believe it or not, most police officers really do appreciate it when someone is polite and cooperative…especially if that person is carrying a gun.

The first time I got pulled over while carrying a gun was also the first time that particular officer had pulled over someone who was legally carrying a handgun. At the end of the stop after all the business had been concluded he said “You know, when I saw your permit I was a little bit worried about how this stop could go…but as traffic stops go this was one of the most pleasant interactions I’ve had with a member of the public.”

If your purpose in open carrying is to make a political statement, that’s how you make the statement, folks. You want people who interact with you walking away thinking “He wasn’t at all what I was expecting.” rather than walking away muttering “What a jackass!” to themselves. You don’t accomplish anything useful by living up to the caricatures painted by slimy media figures…so just don’t do it. You can be polite and professional and still exercise your rights.

One of the commenters on a previous article went to great lengths to get upset about being considered an “ambassador” for 2nd amendment rights just because he was carrying a gun. Well I have news for you, pal…when you make the decision to open carry you are an ambassador whether you really want the job or not. You’ll be the thing in the mind of the lower-information voter when they consider gun issues from that point on. If you have even a scintilla of concern for protecting 2nd amendment freedoms you’ll comport yourself accordingly. Attempting to inflict oneself on the world around them rarely produces positive results.

The VCDL, an organization I’m proud to belong to, recently did a series of protests on college campuses in favor of policy changes that would allow faculty, staff, and qualified students to carry on college campuses. The membership of the VCDL who attended these functions were openly carrying. The head of the organization, Phillip VanCleave, organized the events in careful coordination with the rules of the college campuses and gave out careful instructions about how members should dress and how they should conduct themselves at the event. It’s not a coincidence that one of the most effective pro-gun organizations in the country is deeply concerned with presentation and politeness. There’s a lesson to be learned there for those inclined to care about achieving something…


  1. As my primary purpose for open carry is to make a political statement, I mostly agree with point four. Dressing well and being polite is essential. I am often mistaken for a police officer. Much of that is being confident in yourself, and not being confrontational. It might help that in my career I have been both a law enforcement officer and a military officer at different times.

    Having said that, polite and cooperative does not mean that you give away the store. Sometimes you have to be politely assertive of your rights. You may have a legal fight after the fact, but if you do not assert your rights, you tend to lose them.

    If you are going to carry for political purposes, it is a good idea to carry a decent digital voice recorder. Know the law in your state. It is legal in most states for one party consent to recording conversations. The First Circuit Court of Appeals has said that it is a First Amendment right to unconcealed audio/video record police officers in the performance of their public duties. Know the law in the area you will be carrying in. The First Amendment and the Second Amendment reinforce each other.

    I mostly carry a Sony PX-312. The current price on Amazon is $47.99 with free shipping. It is a relatively inexpensive and reliable piece of gear, and it can eliminate the “he said/she said” that sometimes happens.

    I have only used the recordings to reinforce my memory… so far, and that is the way that I hope it will be in the future.

    I have seen a considerable change in the culture during the last 15 years that I have been open carrying in Arizona.

    When we began, few people open carried, and the courts were hostile. Now it is an accepted part of the culture. It took the efforts of people who were willing to assert their rights to make this change.

    It has been well worth the effort.

  2. @Dean: I’ve seen the same thing happen here in Western Washington state. For the first couple of years I lived in Bellingham, which is like a mini version of Boulder, Colorado or Portland, Oregon (read: hippy-ville). In a few short years, it’s gone from police drawing down on an open carrier and getting MWAG calls to becoming an accepted part of the culture, as you said. Before, people could just ignore the fact that people carried guns and continue in their bigotry. With open carry, it brings that topic of conversation up. Combine that with a well-dressed, polite OCer and you gain ground and break stereotypes of gun owners just being hillbilly nutjobs.

  3. #4 is absolutely key. Whether you are doing for a political purpose or not, it is one. You will be seen as a representative of not only the open carry movement, but of gun owners in general. Be respectful and look put together. Do no insult but be forceful of your rights.

    “I know what you’re thinking, but the answer is no. The Serpa doesn’t count. It’s a bloody terrible holster with more issues than National Geographic.”

    Sorry, but this is completely wrong. Serpa’s are fine holsters provided you are not an idiot. Finger off the trigger til you are ready to fire, and nothing will happen.

    1. Pat, you are an idiot. By any objective measure, Serpa’s are junk, even if the release wasn’t an issue, the fact a large child can rip one off the mount is enough. IT IS A FRAGILE, POOR DESIGN! Stop investing your manhood in a cheap, shity piece of plastic. Look at the picture in the article and click on the hotlink then educate yourself.

  4. I am a huge fan of your writing and this series is no exception. Great job man. Still not open carrying.

  5. RE: #4. By all means, be polite when encountering law enforcement. Note that “Being Polite” does NOT mean reliquishing all of your rights and allowing searches of your person or effects (including serial number checks) , giving ID when not required, etc.

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