Packing in public: Gun owners tired of hiding their weapons embrace 'open carry'
Those who wear their guns in full sight are part of a fledgling movement to make a firearm a common accessory.
By Nicholas Riccardi
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 7, 2008
PROVO, UTAH — For years, Kevin Jensen carried a pistol everywhere he went, tucked in a shoulder holster beneath his clothes.
In hot weather the holster was almost unbearable. Pressed against Jensen's skin, the firearm was heavy and uncomfortable. Hiding the weapon made him feel like a criminal.
Then one evening he stumbled across a site that urged gun owners to do something revolutionary: Carry your gun openly for the world to see as you go about your business.
In most states there's no law against that.
Jensen thought about it and decided to give it a try. A couple of days later, his gun was visible, hanging from a black holster strapped around his hip as he walked into a Costco. His heart raced as he ordered a Polish dog at the counter. No one called the police. No one stopped him.
Now Jensen carries his Glock 23 openly into his bank, restaurants and shopping centers. He wore the gun to a Ron Paul rally. He and his wife, Clachelle, drop off their 5-year-old daughter at elementary school with pistols hanging from their hip holsters, and have never received a complaint or a wary look.
Jensen said he tries not to flaunt his gun. "We don't want to show up and say, 'Hey, we're here, we're armed, get used to it,' " he said.
But he and others who publicly display their guns have a common purpose.
The Jensens are part of a fledgling movement to make a firearm as common an accessory as an iPod. Called "open carry" by its supporters, the movement has attracted grandparents, graduate students and lifelong gun enthusiasts like the Jensens.
"What we're trying to say is, 'Hey, we're normal people who carry guns,' " said Travis Deveraux, 36, of West Valley, a Salt Lake City suburb. Deveraux works for a credit card company and sometimes walks around town wearing a cowboy hat and packing a pistol in plain sight. "We want the public to understand it's not just cops who can carry guns."
Police acknowledge the practice is legal, but some say it makes their lives tougher.
Police Chief John Greiner recalled that last year in Ogden, Utah, a man was openly carrying a shotgun on the street. When officers pulled up to ask him about the gun, he started firing. Police killed the man.
Greiner tells the story as a lesson for gun owners. "We've changed over the last 200 years from the days of the wild, wild West," Greiner said. "Most people don't openly carry. . . . If [people] truly want to open carry, they ought to expect they'll be challenged more until people become comfortable with it."
Jensen and others argue that police shouldn't judge the gun, but rather the actions of the person carrying it. Jensen, 28, isn't opposed to attention, however. It's part of the reason he brought his gun out in the open.
"At first, [open carry] was a little novelty," he said. "Then I realized the chances of me educating someone are bigger than ever using it [the gun] in self-defense. If it's in my pants or under my shirt I'm probably not going to do anything with it."
As Clachelle pushed the shopping cart holding their two young children during a recent trip to Costco, her husband admired the new holster wrapped around her waist. "I like the look of that low-rise gun belt," he said.
The Jensens' pistols were snapped into holsters attached to black belts that hug their waists. Guns are a fact of life in their household. Their 5-year-old daughter, Sierra, has a child-sized .22 rifle she handles only in her parents' presence.
Clachelle is the daughter of a Central California police chief and began shooting when she was about Sierra's age. She would take her parents' gun when she went out and hide it in her purse because the firearm made her feel safer.
"I love 'em," Clachelle said. "I wouldn't ever be without them."
Kevin Jensen's first encounter with guns came when he was 11: His grandfather died and left him a 16-gauge shotgun. The gun stayed locked away but fascinated Jensen through his teen years. He convinced his older brother to take him shooting in the countryside near their home in a small town south of Salt Lake City.
"I immediately fell in love with it," said Jensen, a lean man with close-cropped hair and a precise gait that is a reminder of his five years in the Army Reserve. "I like things that go boom."
Jensen kept as many as 10 guns in the couple's 1930s-style bungalow in Santaquin, 21 miles southwest of Provo. In January 2005, he decided to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon, mainly for self-defense.
"I'm not going to hide in the corner of a school and mall and wait for the shooting to stop," he said.
When Jensen bought a Glock and the dealer threw in an external hip holster, he began researching the idea of carrying the gun in public and came upon OCDO.
Its website, run by two Virginia gun enthusiasts, claims 4,000 members nationwide. It summarizes the varying laws in each state that permit or forbid the practice. People everywhere have the right to prohibit weapons from their property, and firearms are often banned in government buildings such as courthouses.
According to an analysis by Legal Community Against Violence, a gun control group in San Francisco that tracks gun laws, at least eight states largely ban the practice, including Iowa and New Jersey. Those that allow it have different restrictions: In California, people can openly carry only unloaded guns.
Utah has no law prohibiting anyone from carrying a gun in public, as long as it is two steps from firing -- for example, the weapon may have a loaded clip but must be uncocked, with no bullets in the chamber. Those who obtain a concealed-weapons permit in Utah don't have that restriction. Also, youths under 18 can carry a gun openly with parental approval and a supervising adult in close proximity.
Most of the time people don't notice Jensen's gun. That's not uncommon, said John Pierce, a law student and computer consultant in Virginia who is a co-founder of OCDO.
"People are carrying pagers, BlackBerrys, cellphones," Pierce said. "They see a black lump on your belt and their eyes slide off."
Sometimes the reactions are comical. Bill White, a 24-year-old graduate student in ancient languages at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wears his Colt pistol out in the open when he goes to his local Starbucks. Earlier this month a tourist from California spotted him and snapped a photo on his cellphone.
"He said it would prove he was in the Wild West," White recalled.
But there are times when the response is more severe. Deveraux has been stopped several times by police, most memorably in December when he was walking around his neighborhood.
An officer pulled up and pointed his gun at Deveraux, warning he would shoot to kill. In the end, eight officers arrived, cuffed Deveraux and took his gun before Deveraux convinced them they had no legal reason to detain him.
Deveraux saw the incident as not giving ground on his rights. "I'm proud that happened," he said.
Cases like this are talked about during regular gatherings of those who favor open carry. At a Sweet Tomatoes restaurant in the Salt Lake City suburb of Sandy, more than 40 civilians with guns strapped to their hips took over a corner of the restaurant, eating pasta and boisterously sharing stories.
Hassles with law enforcement were a badge of honor for some.
Travis White, 19, who has ear and chin piercings, congratulated Brandon Trask, 21, on carrying openly for the first time that night. "Just wait until you get confronted by a cop," White said. "It'll make you feel brave."
Having pistols strapped around their waists made Shel Anderson, 67, and his wife, Kaye, 63, feel more secure. Longtime recreational shooters, they began to carry their pistols openly after a spate of home-invasion robberies in their neighborhood. The firearms can serve as a warning to predators, they said.
"I decided I want to have as much of an advantage as I can have in this day and age," said Kaye Anderson, a retired schoolteacher.
Nearby, Scott Thompson picked over the remains of a salad, his Springfield Armory XD-35 sitting snugly in his hip holster.
The gangly graphics designer grew up in a home without guns and didn't think of owning one until he started dating a woman -- now his wife -- who lived in a rough neighborhood. One night last year, a youth had his head beaten in with a pipe outside her bedroom window. The next day, Thompson got a concealed-weapons permit.
Thompson found out about open carry last month while reading gun sites. He's become a convert. He likes the statement it makes.
Glancing around the restaurant, as armed families like the Jensens dined with men in cowboy hats and professionals like himself, Thompson smiled.
"I love this," he said. "I want people to be aware that crazy people are not the only ones with guns. Normal people carry them."
The Jensens' daughter, Sierra, and newborn son, Tyler, began to get restless, so the couple bundled up the children and pulled the manager of the restaurant aside to thank her for hosting them.
A patron appeared at Jensen's side and began to berate him. "What you guys are doing here is completely unacceptable," he said. "There are children here."
Jensen said that everyone in the restaurant had a legal right to carry. The man didn't back down and the Jensens left.
Days later, Jensen was still thinking about the reaction and the man's belief that guns are unsafe.
"People can feel that way and it doesn't bother me," he said. "If they have irrational fears, that's fine."