Man with rifle scares at airport: How important is civility to open-carry?

Now that some states have decided that residents can carry weapons even at the airport, Americans have watched a steady stream of primarily white males testing the boundaries of what is acceptable when it comes to guns in public places.

David Goldman/AP
A TSA official checks passengers entering a security checkpoint at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2010.

Jim Cooley says he just wanted to make a point when he brought his AR-15 assault-style rifle out in public. He went bigger than most so-called open-carriers, though, bringing his mean-looking weapon to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airfield in the world, to drop off his daughter.

Mr. Cooley was confronted several times by law enforcement, even though the Georgia legislature last year made it legal to carry properly licensed weapons at airports in the state.

Cooley took affront to the attention, citing a common refrain among public-carry advocates: that he doesn’t need to account for other people’s feelings or fears when conducting lawful activity. He’s correct, and he was not arrested.

Yet for many travelers, some coming through on international flights, his act still felt threatening and, perhaps more important, given the lethal power at his disposal, irresponsible.

The incident has brought to light an emerging dynamic that could affect the evolution of open carry in the United States: the role of tact, etiquette, and ethics for those who carry personal arsenals.

Indeed, as Texas is set to become the largest state to allow open carry, the evolution of the practice encompasses not just gun rights, but shifting notions around self-defense and even growing insecurities for many blue-collar, white men in America, some of whom see gun carry as central to “duty, relevance, even dignity,” as Jennifer Carlson, a gun rights scholar, writes in the Los Angeles Times.

“Yes, gun owners can do this, and maybe it does some good by raising awareness that this is the law,” says Brian Anse Patrick, a University of Toledo communications professor and author of the upcoming book “PropaGUNda.” “But there’s still this funny area around etiquette and frightening people” that draws a line between “Second Amendment ambassadors and Second Amendment exhibitionists.”

Today, even as gun-free zones are shrinking, many gun owners maintain a strong sense that gains made on Second Amendment rights could be quickly lost. In that way, many open-carry advocates, especially, are attempting to make gun-carry policy politically palatable by changing what Americans think of as normal, à la gay marriage laws and legal marijuana.

“This is what lefties have done for decades, and it works,” writes University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds on his “Instapundit” blog.

In interviews, gun owners who draw attention to themselves with their weaponry often acknowledge they’re making both a personal and political statement. One motivation is protecting family and others in case of an attack. The other motivation is to provide “a little bit of a political push” to make people more comfortable around guns, says a Kalamazoo, Mich., man who last year brought a gun to a grade-school reading hour at a library.

Even inside the gun rights movement, the issue of open-carry decorum is looming larger, given high-profile incidents that paint at least some gun owners as unstable, paranoid, and just plain rude for introducing potential weapons of mass mayhem to Little League games and airport check-in counters.

Last year, the National Rifle Association apologized for an editorial the association published that called open-carry demonstrations “weird” and “scary." Such actions, the editorial noted, make those who aren’t reflexively opposed to guns “feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates.”

Such actions also “show a lack of consideration and manners,” it said.

However, an NRA spokesman said a few days later that it’s not NRA policy to criticize gun owners who legally carry their guns in public. Yet the complaint still reverberates for many gun owners, according to Second Amendment scholar Dave Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute in Denver.

“The people who open-carry and want it to be viewed as normal, which it obviously was for most of American history and is again, should do it by acting normal and not by being attention-[seekers],” Mr. Kopel says.

Though courts have extended the Second Amendment to cover the right to own weapons for personal self-defense, the amendment, in essence, is a check on tyranny.

“The idea that we must be more ‘polite,’ lest we frighten [the 46 percent of Americans who are seen as persuadable on gun rights,] ignores the nature of the right we are fighting for,” writes Kurt Hofmann on the website Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. “We must be ‘frightening,’ because the people who would trample our rights will only lose interest in doing so if they perceive a very personal risk to themselves in continuing on that course.”

Still, it’s clear that gun owners ignoring the discomfort of others has become an issue, especially for police, who are fielding calls around the country about armed men and women in public areas. Some of those, including the police shooting of an airsoft gun-toting 12-year-old named Tamir Rice in Cleveland last year, have ended in tragedy.

Writing about an incident last year in Forsyth County, Ga., where a man shut down a Little League game after telling everyone, “Look, I got a gun and there’s nothing you can do about it,” gun rights advocate Nicki Kenyon called for gun owners to remember their manners.

Instead of generating a constructive discussion, the man “offered our opponents the opportunity to paint us as childish and uncouth,” Ms. Kenyon wrote. “Instead of helping give confidence to those around him that a responsible, judicious person was among them ... he made them nervous and uncomfortable.”

She adds: “Simple decorum and maturity could have transformed his assertion of his rights into an opportunity to foster productive dialogue and maybe even changed some hearts and minds. But instead, while we may have won on the legal front, we lost the public relations battle.”

The phenomenon also underscores another, more complicated issue – that of primarily older white and male gun owners dealing with seismic demographic and economic upheaval.

“Firearms have a larger purpose in our postindustrial society,” writes Ms. Carlson, author of "Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline." “In Michigan and other places hit hard by the economic downturn, men's guns can address social insecurities far beyond crime. The gun rights platform is [in part] ... about a crisis of confidence in the American dream.”

The issue of increased open carry, critics say, comes down to the extent to which Americans are willing to trust armed strangers, given the overpowering speed and lethality of firearms.

“You have quite a few people afraid because calls are coming in left and right," an Atlanta police officer told Cooley, the airport open-carry activist, in one of the YouTube videos he posted.

"People think that if you're simply carrying your firearm, regardless of how you're carrying it, you're a bad person," Cooley later told the New York Daily News. "But if you're not carrying it in a menacing or threatening manner, it should be no cause for concern for anybody."

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