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Shotgun News, March 1, 2006, pp. 26-27.

Washington State's Open Carry Ban

Washington State has a non-discretionary concealed handgun license law--and it was the first state to do so, in 1961. It also has a law that, for practical purposes, bans open carry of handguns in cities. I say "for practical purposes" because even though it is not a direct ban, the language is sufficiently loose that if you were to walk down the streets of Seattle with a handgun in a hip holster, I suspect that you would be arrested under this statute, which makes it unlawful "for any person to carry, exhibit, display, or draw any firearm, dagger, sword, knife or other cutting or stabbing instrument, club, or any other weapon apparently capable of producing bodily harm, in a manner, under circumstances, and at a time and place that either manifests an intent to intimidate another or that warrants alarm for the safety of other persons."1

I don't have any need to carry a gun openly in Washington State, because I have a Washington State concealed handgun license. All else being equal, I think it is best to carry concealed, not openly. Most importantly, concealed carry benefits the whole society; a criminal has no idea if the pretty young lady walking down the street is an easy victim, or the last person that he will ever attack. Open carry protects only the person carrying the gun; concealed carry protects everyone.

Secondarily, open carry offends some people--especially people that don't like guns. You might not care if you are offending people that don't like guns--but those people vote. Do you really want to take a person who doesn't think about guns, and make them think negatively about gun owners? I don't.

There are some circumstances, however, where you may not have much choice about whether to carry concealed or not. For example, if you had to travel to Washington State on short notice, and you did not have a Washington concealed handgun license, or a license issued by one of the states whose permits Washington recognizes, you couldn't lawfully carry concealed--and at least the way that RCW § 9.41.270 is actually enforced by some police departments, you can't legally carry openly, either.

It turns out that this law, first passed in 1969, has an interesting history to it. Back in 1967, California's legislature debated a bill that would prohibit open carry of firearms. The reason for this was very simple: members of the Black Panthers, a radical political party of the time with a number of ex-cons in the leadership, were carrying guns in the streets of Oakland and a few other cities. They claimed that they needed these guns to protect themselves. The police claimed that the Black Panthers were ambushing them, and needed a law banning open carry in cities.

I really don't know who was telling the truth. The Black Panthers were a thuggish criminal organization, who murdered their own accountant, Betty Van Patter, when she discovered that they were embezzling money from one of the social welfare programs that they administered. Members of the Black Panthers shot and killed police officers, often with minimal consequences.2

I wish that I could say that there were no abuses by law enforcement going the other direction, but it isn't true. This was a frightening time in America, and the Black Panthers were a scary bunch--not just because they were black men with guns, but because many of them were common criminals--rapists, murderers, armed robbers--before they became Marxist revolutionaries. Some years ago, I watched a documentary in which a retired FBI agent explained that the Bureau had intentionally lied to Chicago Police Department about the level of resistance and firepower that the police should expect during a raid on Black Panther Party headquarters, in the hopes that Chicago PD would kill everyone inside.

The Black Panthers had a real talent for getting themselves publicity, and at times it seems that they operated on the long-held belief that, "It doesn't matter what you say about me, as long as you spell my name right." While the lower house of the California legislature was debating a bill banning open carry of firearms in cities, the Black Panthers decided to demonstrate in support of the right to keep and bear arms. Where they did it guaranteed passage of the bill.

"Two dozen armed Negroes entered the State Capitol at noon today and 10 made their way to the back of the Assembly Chamber before they were disarmed and marched away by the state police." Their weapons (including "pistols, rifles, at least one sawed-off shotgun") were returned to them, after they were escorted from the building. The bill, which became California Penal Code § 12031, almost certainly benefitted from the Panthers’ actions. Governor Ronald Reagan was on the steps of the statehouse at the time the Panthers’ were escorted from the building: "Reagan also said it was a ‘ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.’  He added he was against ‘even the implied threat weapons might be directed again fellow Americans.’"3

So what does all this have to do with Washington State's open carry ban? Two acquaintances of mine were digging through legislative history of Washington State's open carry ban--and discovered that Washington's legislature passed it in 1969 specifically in response to what happened with the Black Panthers. Early on, the proposed new law had two sections: one is the language of the current statute; the other made in unlawful to be armed "while on the premises of any public building or on any public property within five hundred feet of any public building."4

We don't have to wonder what motivated this bill. An October 2, 1968 letter from a legislative research analyst to the California State Library specifically referred to concerns that the Washington legislative buildings "might be 'invaded' by a group of armed persons" and observed that "California has had some experience in this area."5 Press releases from October 15 and 24, 1968 from the Judiciary Committee are very clear that the "purpose of this bill is to ensure that public officials will in the future be able to conduct public business and hold public meetings without being intimidated or threatened with violence by any group of armed persons."6 The bill continued to include both sections as it worked its way through the legislature.7

On the way to the governor's desk, however, the second section--the one that was aimed specifically at attempts to intimidate the legislature in the style of the Black Panthers invasion of the California legislative chambers--was dropped. In the State Senate, Senator Andersen tried to restore the second section--and several other senators explained that it was removed because gun clubs sometimes held meetings in public buildings, and hunters in many of Washington's smaller towns could not walk down the street without coming within 500 feet of a public building.8

Now, it seems quite clear that the legislative intent, from the very beginning, was not to prohibit open carry of firearms. There was a specific concern about intimidation by political radicals--and not in some distant future. Newspaper coverage indicates that the legislature was quite concerned that the Black Panthers were about to show up in Olympia, armed to the teeth. It appears, however, that this was a misunderstanding. A group of black political leaders was planning a visit to the capital, some of whom were members of the Black Panthers, but they were not armed.9

Yet the final statute put on the books ended up providing at least a pretext for police to disarm otherwise law-abiding and peaceful people openly carrying guns--while the section aimed very narrowly at the original problem the legislature was worried about, was dropped.

As I said at the beginning, Washington law is very gun owner friendly, and I'm not sure that it is worth a big legal fight to overturn this dangerous vague statute--but it does seem appropriate for the legislature to make an effort to more precisely define what forms of open carry demonstrate "an intent to intimidate another or that warrants alarm for the safety of other persons."10

Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His last book was Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Praeger Press, 1999). His web site is

1 Revised Codes of Washington, § 9.41.270,, last accessed January 22, 2006.
2 Sol Stern, "Ah, those Black Panthers! How Beautiful!" City Journal [Winter 2006] 16:1,, last accessed January 22, 2006.
3"Capitol Is Invaded", Sacramento Bee, May 2, 1967, A1, A10.
4 "AN ACT relating to firearms and other dangerous weapons....", October 28, 1968.
5 Tim Burke to California State Library, October 2, 1968.
6 News Release, State of Washington Legislative Council, October 15, 1968; News Release, State of Washington Legislative Council, October 24, 1968.
7 HB 123, January 17, 1969.
8Journal of the Senate, 132.
9 Shelby Scates, "Panther Visit: Capitol Comic Opera," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Feburary 28, 1969, 11.
10 Revised Codes of Washington, § 9.41.270,, last accessed January 22, 2006.