How To Lose Friends

Perhaps this column will be an example of how to lose friends—but this is really important.  There are times that being right isn’t as important as being tactful.  Over the last few weeks, as I write this column, there have been at least two incidents where those showing up at political events to protest Obama’s health care reform program have been openly armed—one of them at an event in Phoenix where President Obama was speaking.1  People who have not had anything to say about guns suddenly are asking questions such as, “Do Guns At Political Events Disturb You?  Then Consider Skipping Arizona For Now.”2
Now, I am aware that the man carrying an AR-15 slung over his back in Phoenix didn’t fit the redneck stereotype that news accounts tried to portray—many of which implied that the armed protesters were upset about a black man was in the White House.  (The man with the AR-15 was about as black as his rifle.)3  And yes, in both these situations, in Phoenix, and in New Hampshire, open carry is not just completely legal—the courts of the respective states have recognized that open carry is protected by the right to keep and bear arms provisions of the respective state constitutions.

But I want you to think back to some television commercials run some years back that emphasized the importance of both defensive driving, and being a bit less aggressive in your driving style.  They emphasized that, “You may be clearly in the right in an accident you are involved in, dead right.”  This is one of those times.

Americans have become very squeamish about guns over the last several decades—and it isn’t just because the mass media have been propagandizing for gun control.  There are a lot of people who have been victims of violence, or who are next of kin of victims of violence.  In my experience, survivors of violent gun crimes respond in one of two ways: “Guns are evil.  They must be banned!” or “I will be armed next time, and that monster won’t survive.”  The reactions, in both cases, tend to be quite strong.

You and I can engage the first point of view with rational discussion of the failure of gun control laws to disarm the bad guys, and over time, we may be successful in persuading such a person that restrictive gun control doesn’t work.  But even if we win them over to our side, do not expect someone who has looked down the barrel of a gun wielded by a criminal to react dispassionately to seeing a gun over which he or she has no control in a public place.

The next of kin of victims of violent gun crimes seem to be far more likely to respond with the first reaction than with the second—and it is part of the reason that under the best of conditions, gun control groups seem to have so many grieving parents and siblings in them.  I’ve had my share of conversations with gun control advocates over the years, and I’ve listened to their stories.  Overwhelmingly, they didn’t just wake up one morning and decide that guns were bad.  There’s usually a tragedy that struck close to home.  You and I can look at their reaction and see that they came to the wrong conclusion—but you can understand that once someone has come to that wrong conclusion, seeing guns is going to provoke a strong and negative emotional response.

I have long felt that open carry, if you have some other choice, is a political mistake, and for this very reason.  There are lots of Americans who have discomfort or misgivings about gun ownership.  They may know that lots of Americans have concealed handgun permits, and that they are probably walking the streets with people that are armed.  But it isn’t obvious; the gun isn’t proclaiming its presence.  The visceral reaction that some Americans have to seeing people openly armed is not going to win you any friends—and may turn some people against gun ownership.

Let me draw an analogy that a lot of you may find unpleasant.  About 3% of Americans are homosexuals.  I don’t approve of homosexuality, for a variety of reasons.   I know that a pretty sizeable fraction of Americans share my views on this.  We know what homosexuals are doing behind closed doors, and we generally accept that, however much we disapprove of that conduct, it isn’t the government’s job to tell consenting adults what they can do in private.  Most homosexuals in America appear to know this; like you and I, they are more interested in living their lives than they are in making political points.

A small number of homosexual activists make rather a point of going the opposite direction.  They hold “kiss-ins,” with very public displays of affection, intended to desensitize straight America.  I used to be pretty open-minded about homosexuality, but living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and seeing video of the San Francisco gay pride parades, so shocked and disgusted me that I am now pretty strongly disapproving.  (And my guess is that many of you who are as open-minded as I was, would probably change your opinion, if you saw those videos.)

Open carry in an urban setting, when you have some realistic alternative available (such as concealed carry), is rather like a homosexual “kiss-in.”  The supporters are convinced that doing so makes Americans more tolerant and open-minded to the subject.  I’m convinced that for every person who gets used to it, there are two who are repelled.  In July of 2008, one of the open carry advocacy groups held an open carry event at the Zoo here in Boise, carrying loaded and holstered firearms.  This is about as gun friendly a city as probably exists in the U.S.—and the reaction to it was about the same as if a bunch of same-sex couples had started passionately kissing and necking in front of the monkey cage.  It wasn’t illegal—but it sure took people that didn’t think about the issue much, and made them unhappy.

Carrying a holstered handgun in Phoenix is apparently pretty common.  It isn’t the norm, but it isn’t particularly shocking.  Carrying an AR-15 slung over your back in Phoenix, however, I’m guessing is pretty unusual.  Carrying one outside an event where President Obama is speaking?  This is equivalent to some of the really disgusting stuff that you see in gay pride parades.  

It is shocking and disturbing not because President Obama is black, but because there is a long history of assassination attempts on the President, starting with the January 30, 1835 attempt on Andrew Jackson’s life,4 on former President Teddy Roosevelt,5 on President Truman, President Nixon,6 President Reagan, and former President George H.W. Bush.7  All of the successful assassinations—such as the deaths of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy—were carried out with guns.

There are places where open carry is perfectly sensible.  No one is terribly shocked to see Americans armed while hunting, while target shooting, or in rural areas, in many states.  I can remember a time when I would hike in the forests or the deserts of California with a Colt Government Model in a hip holster.

There are circumstances where concealed carry is not legal, but open carry is allowed.  In some states, people started to carry openly as a way to remind the legislature that it needed to pass a concealed carry permit law.  In a few cases, I know of people who were over 18, but under 21, and thus ineligible for a concealed carry permit.  Yet they had reason to be concerned with their safety, and chose to carry openly, because they had no legal alternative.  I’m not talking about those situations when I criticize open carry—I’m talking about the situations where open carry is considered disturbing, you have the option of having your gun concealed, and you choose to carry openly.

If we reach the point where we need to be armed to engage in the terrifying scenario that the Second Amendment was written to make possible—the overthrow of a tyrannical government—then I expect everyone who loves his country to be armed and ready.  But as a form of political statement, in cities, and especially in proximity to the President—this is just dumb.  It makes gun owners look crazy, and drives some people who are indifferent into opposition to gun ownership.  Don’t be stupid.


Clayton E. Cramer lives in Horseshoe Bend, Idaho.  His most recent book, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie was published by Nelson Current in 2006.


Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian.  His sixth book, Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie (Nelson Current, 2006), is available in bookstores.  His web site is


1 Editorial, “Packing Iron Before the Cameras,” New York Times, August 20, 2009,, last accessed August 21, 2009; Jonathan Mann, “Obama At Risk from Gun-Toting Protesters?” CNN, August 21, 2009,, last accessed August 21, 2009.

2 Arthur Frommer, “Do Guns At Political Events Disturb You?  Then Consider Skipping Arizona For Now,” Frommer’s, August 19, 2009,, last accessed August 21, 2009.

3 Greg Gutfeld, “MSNBC Edits Story To Fit Agenda,” Fox News, August 21, 2009,,2933,541349,00.html, last accessed August 21, 2009.

4 Cyrus Townsend Brady, The True Andrew Jackson (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1906), 248.

5 Oliver E. Remey, Henry Frederick Cochems, and Wheeler P. Bloodgood, The Attempted Assassination Of Ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, 2nd ed. (Milwaukee, Wisc.: The Progressive Publishing Co., 1912), 16-19.

6 U.S. Institute of Medicine, Research and Training for the Secret Service: Behavioral Science and Mental Health Perspectives (Washington: National Academy Press, 1984), 8.

7 U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Inspector General, The FBI Laboratory: An Investigation into Laboratory Practices and Alleged Misconduct in Explosives-Related and Other Cases (Washington: 1997), 147.