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Growing Movement to Carry Guns Openly is Playing Out in SD

Audio

Aired 4/20/09

The battle over the right to own guns is turning into a movement to wear them -- openly.  And the local campaign is playing out at San Diego beaches, malls and restaurants. KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma has more.

"Wow look there's three guys with guns and they're not shooting anyone,"

That's the voice of a guy videotaping his friends as they enter Nordstrom at the UTC shopping center near La Jolla. All four college-age people in the video are wearing holsters packed with guns. And it's legal.

"The law is pretty clear on this," says Paul Cooper, attorney for the San Diego Police Department.

"You cannot carry a loaded firearm, either concealed or unconcealed. But you can in fact openly carry an unloaded firearm," Cooper says.

But what's the point of wearing a gun in plain sight if it's only legal to do so when the weapon is unloaded? The question as it turns out, is the answer says John Pierce, co-founder of Open Carry dot org.
 
"I think the reason is that in many parts of the state, law abiding citizens are completely denied the right to protect themselves and the only option they have is unloaded open carry if they want to exercise the God given right of self-defense," says Pierce.

To drive that point home, up to 60 open carry advocates gathered at Mission Beach last month. San Diego Police Captain Shelley Zimmerman says there were also about 90,000  people on the sand, in the water or on the boardwalk that Saturday.

"They had come to the beach that day because it was a beautiful day and it was. It was very warm," she says. "And they're in their bathing suits and jogging outfits.  They were very intimidated. They were shocked. They were concerned. They were angry. Many of them said they had brought their families…their young children here.  They never thought they would see individuals carrying guns up and down the boardwalk,," says Zimmerman.

Captain Zimmerman says she told some of the open carry people that day that many, especially children, were frightened by their display.

"The ones that I spoke to said that what they were doing was legal and actually they would see it a lot more because they expect to come back to the beach and they should expect to see it because it's not against the law and maybe they'll be desensitized to it if they see more guns."
 
For now though, the public isn't used to seeing people walk down the street bearing guns. Critics says there's always a chance that an onlooker - not knowing the weapons are unloaded -- could feel threatened and act against the person carrying the gun putting everyone in danger. It's an argument Open Carry dot org's John Pierce says he doesn't understand.

"Are you then saying that it's also a danger to the public if an African-American person walks through a predominantly white neighborhood and someone is intimidated. That's not a danger it's bigotry. If what the person is doing is legal behavior, the intimidation that another person feels to that person…is not a danger it's a misunderstanding. And that's part of the misunderstanding that we feel open carry helps to dispel," says Pierce.

But Captain Zimmerman says police can't tell whether a gun openly carried is loaded or not.

"No officer is going to assume that that gun is unloaded. Anytime you would get a person with a gun call, man or woman with a gun. It is going to tie up resources.  That is not a one-officer call so it is going to tie up multiple police officers," says Zimmerman.

That is exactly what at least one open carry blogger proposed recently. He wrote, "If we are going to get the reform we want, the police have to have their resources continually diverted and the dispatchers slammed."

And there is little police can do about it says lawyer Paul Cooper.

"These are gun activists who have found this provision in the law that allows them to openly carry an unloaded firearm and that seems to be what they're doing," he says.

Mission Beach resident Kat Ohlmann wants the law changed to prohibit gatherings of people openly wearing unloaded guns. She says parents with children are starting to return to the beach now that alcohol has been banned.

"It's great. It's good for our businesses. It's good to have families back on the beach. If you have people in Mission Beach and Pacific Beach carrying guns, they're not going to come back," she says.

Amita Sharma, KPBS News.

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