Local views clash on carrying guns in public
The guns hooked on their hips are a symbol of freedom and constitutional rights for some. To others, they represent a conundrum cloaked in fear and the unknown.
Other law enforcement officials in San Bernardino County say they are unaware of their officers encountering open carriers, but some are passing out pamphlets and briefing the rank-and-file members on how to handle them.
State law allows adults who are not prohibited by law to visibly carry an unloaded gun in public places, excluding school zones, government buildings, state and national parks and secured areas like airports.
Police are permitted only to ensure the weapon is not loaded. They cannot run the gun's serial number, ask for the carrier's identification or detain them.
There are no statistics about how many citizens openly carry weapons, but their reasons range from self-defense to getting the public accustomed to seeing guns on people other than cops and criminals.
"It becomes a message, not of intimidation, but that we're here and we have rights," said Mike Stollenwerk, a gun rights activist and co-founder of Opencarry.org.
"People shouldn't treat people carrying guns openly any different than you would treat a person carrying their cell phone on a belt."
Law enforcement officials
"I think this is absolutely reprehensible behavior. Not only is it dangerous to carry a gun in this day and age, but that they would attempt to goad the officers into behavior that would then allow them to sue or put them in a position where someone could get hurt."
Yet, a 2006 FBI report finds that would-be cop killers "show signs of being armed that officers miss" and do not regularly use holsters, which is in direct contrast to the rules of open carry.
Gun rights activists and at least one constitutional law expert said it is usually better if citizens openly carry their guns, although it may initially disturb Californians.
"Seeing people with firearms has an effect of terrorizing the community in some way," said UCLA School of Law professor Adam Winkler. "I don't think it necessary should. There are plenty of people with guns that you can't see."
It's not just guns that open carriers have on hand.
They often keep a recorder and pamphlets explaining gun laws with them at all times, which is strongly encouraged by various open carry Web sites.
That was the case in the March 7 encounter in Redlands, which started when a passer-by called police to report seeing two men with guns in a Carl's Jr. parking lot.
An officer responded to the scene, where both men were hanging out at a fundraiser car wash for a local youth soccer team. Both men were in their mid-20s and had .40 caliber handguns slung on their hips in holsters, said city spokesman Carl Baker.
After the open carriers explained that they are carrying unloaded guns, they gave their names and birthdates to the officer.
Here's an excerpt from the exchange, which was recorded:
RPD: So what's uh, you guys trying to make a point or what are you doing?
Carrier 1: Just going about our lawful business, that's about it.
RPD: You guys part of a movement or something?
Carrier 2: We have a right to be armed and we're exercising that right. There are a lot of crazy people out there and we'd like to have some protection.
"Often we think about carrying firearms as a means of self defense but `open carry' in California is really more about political protest," said Winkler.
It's unclear whether the Redlands' officer was aware that he was being recorded during the exchange.
When the open carriers from the Redlands encounter ask how they did on the Californiaopencarry.org forum, some recommend filing a complaint because the officer allegedly detained them for 20 minutes while checking the serial numbers on the gun. They also suggested not sharing the recording with the Police Department.
No complaint had been filed by late Friday.
Stollenwerk said run-ins like that could possibly prompt lawsuits against police, who he said are only entitled to "say `Hey, I need to check your gun and make sure it's not loaded."'
He acknowledged that open carriers usually record encounters with law enforcement as a "precaution."
After hearing that Redlands police had come across open carriers, watch commanders in several cities patrolled by the Sheriff's Department said they would again brief deputies on open carry laws.
Fontana police officials said they haven't yet seen open carriers, but they hope that they don't because it could mean an increase in calls for service.
"If you start carrying a weapon around in the open, we're going to get called on it," said Fontana police Sgt. Jeff Decker. "And we don't have the option not to investigate."
Open carry is banned in six states: Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina and New York.
Eleven states allow `total carry,' which means residents can carry a loaded weapon in public.
But California's gun laws are still among the strictest, law experts say, and it's very difficult to get a concealed weapons permit.
Legislation passed on July 28, 1967 that Californians could not carry a loaded weapon in public, even openly. It was prompted after a group of Black Panthers led a protest march into the California Legislature fully armed in May 1967.
"I call it fraudulent `open carry' because you can carry your gun but it can't be loaded. The whole purpose of a gun is to fire a bullet," Winkler said.
Metro editor George Watson contributed to this report.
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