'Open Carry' Gun Laws Turn the Country Back into the Wild West

What's next? Shoot-outs over bungled coffee orders?

By + More

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy is a seven-term congressional Democrat serving New York's 4th District on Long Island.

There are only three states, Florida, Texas, and Illinois, and the District of Columbia that outright prohibit the open carrying of handguns. Only three! Now, contrary to public perception, I have never been against people owning guns for protection, hunting, or sport. But there are days when I read the newspaper or am watching the news and it seems as if our country is back in the Wild West. Brazenly carrying firearms into restaurants and bars and schools and churches creates a situation that is intimidating to families, and poses risks to law enforcement and to the community.

In the summer of 2009, a man stood just outside a venue in New Hampshire with President Obama inside talking about healthcare reform. He had a gun openly strapped to his thigh. Another time while the president was giving a speech at the convention center in Phoenix, a dozen people were openly carrying guns, including one who walked around with an AR-15 assault rifle strapped to his back. In this session of Congress, laws were passed to allow guns on Amtrak trains and in our national parks. Where does it end? When will people realize that we are moving backwards in reducing gun violence? And now it is happening throughout the states.

For example, Virginia recently passed a bill that will allow people to carry concealed guns in bars and restaurants as long as they do not consume any alcohol. According to a October 2009 Christopher Newport University poll, 68 percent of likely voters in Virginia answered "no" when asked if they thought people with concealed weapons permits should be allowed to bring their guns into restaurants that sell alcohol— 68 percent! What happened to listening to what the voters want? I further agree with the State Association of Chiefs of Police, who sent a letter to Gov. Bob McDonnell asking that he veto the law because the combination of firearms and alcohol is similar to drinking while driving. Shouldn't we at least listen to those whose job it is to keep us safe: our law enforcement officials?

When it comes to open carrying of guns, which most states allow, California's San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, in a Jan. 14, 2010 press release, described the challenge best, stating that, "It's all well and good in hindsight to say [a] gun carrier was simply 'exercising their rights' but the result could be deadly. Simply put, it is not recommended to openly carry firearms."

A lot of businesses have banned guns in their stores, which under some open-carry state laws is allowed. But some have not, like Starbucks. Are people going to have a shoot-out at their local coffee shop if their grande latte order is incorrect? If somebody walked into a Starbucks and started pouring and drinking bourbon with their coffee, I am sure families, especially those with children, would be concerned. And I am sure the authorities would be called. I realize that is an extreme, but when open carry has occurred in retail stores, other customers generally become alarmed and the police are called to the scene. This, as noted by the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office, creates a volatile and potentially dangerous situation. Everyone should be able to sit in a coffee shop or a local diner with their families without being confronted with the threatening presence of openly displayed handguns.

Once again, I am not against people owning and carrying their guns, nor am I attacking an individual's Second Amendment rights. But there need to be limits. We need to come together and have a national conversation on guns. If we don't, we will continue to see guns be a part of all aspects of society, with more dangerous weapons on the streets. We can respect the rights of gun owners while at the same time doing more to keep illegal guns off the streets and reducing gun violence in our nation, such as by closing the gun show loophole, enforcing the laws on the books, and preventing terrorists from being able to buy guns, instead of allowing guns in our cherished parks and on our trains.