Guns near Obama fuel ‘open-carry’ debate
Second Amendment activists divided by public displays of firearms
By Mike Stuckey
Senior news editor
updated 6:49 p.m. ET, Tues., Aug 25, 2009
Gun owners may be arguing among themselves and with gun-control activists about it, but for Mustapha Kassou, there’s no debate over the “open-carry” movement, which created a furor this month when pistol- and rifle-packing citizens showed up near several public appearances by President Barack Obama.
Kassou was working the cash register in the Richmond, Va., market he owns on July 11 when a gunman stormed the store with robbery on his mind. In an incident captured on surveillance video, the bandit ordered the eight customers to the floor and pumped two bullets from his snub-nosed pistol into Kassou, who fell to the floor behind the counter.
As the store’s patrons prayed and screamed, one of them drew a .45-caliber revolver from a holster in plain view on his hip and ordered the robber to drop his gun. In the shootout and hand-to-hand struggle that followed, the customer managed to wound the robber three times and prevent him from shooting anyone else. By the time police responded to a 911 call, the robber lay mortally wounded in a pool of blood; he died three days later in a hospital.
“Thank God he had his gun that day,” Kassou said of the man with the .45, a friend of his and a member of the loosely organized open-carry movement who has declined to be publicly identified and eschewed any notion that he was a hero.
“He saved many lives that day,” Kassou told msnbc.com in a telephone interview. “If it wasn’t for him, probably I would not be here.”
Kassou and other open-carry advocates say the case is an example that supports their notion that openly armed citizens can deter and stop crime effectively.
Reason to cringe
While the outcome of the gunfight at Kassou’s Golden Food Market is perhaps the best publicity the open-carry movement could hope for, some in its ranks are cringing at the far greater coverage given to the recent open-carrying activities of others. Outside presidential town hall meetings from New Hampshire to Arizona, these gun owners have worn their loaded revolvers and semiautomatic pistols for all the world to see. One man slung a military-style AR-15 rifle over his shoulder.
One of the biggest attention-getters was William Kostric, who strapped a 9 mm Smith & Wesson in a SWAT-style leg holster and wore it to Obama’s Aug. 11 town hall meeting on health care in Portsmouth, N.H. “I wanted people to remember the rights that we have and how quickly we’re losing them in this country,” he told msnbc-tv's Chris Matthews.
The White House, hoping to allay fears of a security threat, has said that people are entitled to carry weapons outside such events if local laws allow it. "Those laws don't change when the president comes to your state or locality," spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
The incidents have stirred fear and anger among some Americans, and contempt from gun-rights activists for what they see as overreaction and unfair spin by the national media. They have also exposed a subtlety and nuance in America’s ongoing debate over firearms that are often lost in the predictable, shrill arguments between gun-control advocates and Second Amendment defenders.
As much as any issue, open carry reveals divisions within the gun-rights community, often characterized by gun-control advocates as a monolithic force that is led in lock-step by the powerful and well-heeled National Rifle Association. But you won’t find the NRA weighing in on this issue; the 4-million-member group did not respond to msnbc.com’s requests for an interview.
“They’re obviously avoiding taking a stand on this one,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the nationwide advocacy group for “sensible” gun laws. “It’s a no-win for them.” If NRA officials criticize those who open-carry near Obama events, they run the risk of irritating their “rabid membership,” Helmke said. If they support the behavior, “they’re going to lose all credibility not only with the public but with the elected officials who usually vote their way.”
Other gun-rights groups, however, have not shied away, offering a range of reaction.
'It's their right'
“We do applaud them for being a positive example of responsible gun owners,” said John Velleco, director of federal affairs for the Gun Owners of America, probably the loudest voice of support for those who have displayed firearms near Obama events. “We’re not calling for people to do that but if they’re doing so legally it’s their right to do it,” said Velleco, who has said he would have no concerns over thousands of citizens openly carrying firearms to an event at which the president was speaking.
But Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, another staunch defender of gun rights, was not applauding. Gottlieb said the open carrying of firearms near presidential town hall meetings on health care “is not the time or the place for it. I’m not for disallowing them to do so, I just don’t think it’s politically intelligent. … I would like to see gun owners think twice before they go to a rally like that with a firearm strapped on. It doesn’t necessarily put our best face forward.”
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John Pierce, co-founder of OpenCarry.org, a social-networking Web site for gun owners that catalogs weapons laws across the nation and chronicles efforts to loosen and remove restrictions against the public carrying of firearms, praised the low-key response of the White House and the Secret Service to the incidents. But he also worried a bit about the actions of those who wear guns near presidential venues.
A 'very mixed message'
“I absolutely believe open carry should be legal anywhere that a citizen can legally be,” he explained. “Having said that, one of the things that I find a little bit less than perfect about the recent situation is not the fact that citizens were open-carrying, but rather that they were there as a form of open conduct to disagree with a political position that the president has taken, whether it’s about health care or the economy.” Doing so with a gun strapped on sends a “very mixed message,” said Pierce.
Velleco of Gun Owners of America dismissed that. It “might be a different story” if the town hall open-carry incidents were organized. “You have to remember, this is a leaderless action,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it a movement. I don’t know of anyone who is coordinating people to show up at these events armed. … Gun Owners of America would not call for an armed rally. These people are doing it on their own.”
'Setting the table'
But some gun-control activists said they see a clear link between the recent open-carrying actions and past campaigns by the NRA and other groups.
“Leading into the election last year, the NRA spent something like $15 million saying if Obama is elected he’ll take your guns away,” said Helmke of the Brady Campaign. “That whole lead-in from last year is really kind of setting the table for some of what we’re seeing with this open carry at Obama events.
“When you’re seeing some of the NRA language from the ads last year being parroted by some of … the picketers and protesters, you start realizing there’s consequences to what they’re saying.”
Jim Kessler of Third Way, the successor organization to the gun-control group Americans for Gun Safety, said openly carrying firearms near the town halls is the sort of thing done by “a very tiny faction of the extreme right wing that’s a real paranoid conspiracy theorist group.”
While he does not believe the NRA is behind the open-carrying, he said it could work to the gun group’s advantage. “I think they (NRA leaders) think these people are whack jobs, to be honest with you, but they love a fight. What the NRA is interested in the most is raising money and increasing membership. They love having Obama as president. It means their membership is going to go up.”
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An unseemly image
The “whack job” image is a big concern to Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation. He does not like provocative open-carry actions just as “I don’t like gun owners running around with the T-shirts saying, ‘Kill Them All and Let God Sort Them Out.’ If someone from the media is at a gun show, that’s the kind of person they’re going to put on TV.”
And that collides harshly with the image that Pierce and others are trying to craft for the open-carry movement, which he said is “normal law-abiding citizens being able to exercise their rights as they go about their everyday lives.”
In rural Virginia, where he grew up, “every corner had a rifle or a shotgun in it,” Pierce said. “It was simply a part of life. Everybody hunted. Firearms were just a part of life, a noncontroversial part of life.” He’d like all Americans to feel the same and sees the work of OpenCarry.org as largely educational.
One positive of the current controversy, Pierce said, “is that it does make open-carry very visible. A lot of people living in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, the Northeast, basically … when they see this, it’s a real wake-up call that there are rights that are exercised in the rest of the country that are so far outside their experience. It makes people begin to wonder about the limits that laws in their states have placed on their rights.
“Open-carry IS the Second Amendment,” Pierce said. “If you believe in the Second Amendment, you believe in open carry.”
A call for more laws
But the Brady Campaign’s Helmke has a different take. “They’re showing the rest of the country how weak our gun laws are,” he said. “When you open-carry, you don’t have a permit, no one has checked you out, you don’t have to go through any training in a lot of places. You can carry a .50-caliber sniper rifle down the street. When folks see that, then maybe they’ll wake up to the fact that we really don’t have many laws on the books with regard to guns.”
Third Way’s Kessler said that despite last year’s landmark Heller ruling by the Supreme Court that upheld individual rights to own guns, “There is no constitutional right to carry a firearm. This is not even close on the constitutional scale — I have a right to carry a firearm wherever I go — it’s just not.”
Kessler and Helmke caution that gun-rights advocates, who have enjoyed years of legislative and legal success on issues from relaxed concealed-carry laws to the expiration of the 1994 federal assault-rifle ban, could push too far.
They cite the Senate’s failure, albeit by a narrow margin, in July to pass an amendment that would have made a concealed-weapon permit from any state valid in all.
“I think the gun lobby is starting to lose its clout,” Helmke said.
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As for open-carry, which, although at least tacitly supported by most in the gun-rights community is still criticized by many as less tactically shrewd than concealed-carry, Kessler said, “You have to decide what kind of society you want to live in. Do you want to live in a society where the person next to you is openly carrying a firearm? Does that make you happy? I think for most people it disturbs them. It would for me.”
It shouldn’t, said Velleco of Gun Owners of America. “These people, if anything, are contributing to public safety, not endangering it. … Lawful gun owners use firearms over a million times a year successfully in self-defense. And they make our streets and neighborhoods safer than they would be otherwise. That’s what people don’t understand.”
Kassou, who has recovered from his wounds and returned to work in his Virginia store, said his attitude has changed. “Nobody likes to carry a gun,” he said, and before he was shot he didn’t. “We’re not here in a war zone, we’re just trying to make a living, but sometimes you have to defend yourself.”
So now Kassou straps a gun on each day when he heads for his market. Does he wear it openly, as lawful firearms owners are allowed to do in Virginia?
“Yes sir, I do.”