Open Carry: US Gun Laws Loosen Up

The first gun ever “fired” at a US movie audience was in 1903, in a 10-minute silent film called The Great Train Robbery. In the film’s final shot, a robber points his revolver directly at the audience and fires twice. Many audience members shrieked or jumped for cover.

It was a watershed moment in US history: perhaps the first well-documented instance of widespread fear of just the sight of a gun. In the 19th century, people had openly carried guns in holsters, free to be seen. In fact, the nation’s first gun law—passed in Kentucky, on February 3, 1813—prohibited concealing a gun on one’s person.

The 20th century would be different, if the popular reaction to The Great Train Robbery is any indication. Public distaste for the sight of handguns was growing—they would gradually be relegated, and legislated, into concealment.

But now the idea of openly carried guns is regaining popularity.

It is an issue that has grown along with handgun ownership. 1 in 8.33 adults owns a handgun and a long gun, and another 1 in 20 owns just a handgun. Concealed handgun laws vary by state, but are generally getting more permissive. Thirty-four states allow it. (Only Illinois, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia ban private citizens carrying guns.)

Recently passed laws have opened up the field quite a bit. After a 17-year ban was lately lifted, Virginians can again buy more than one handgun a month. Amendments to federal bills have freed up the possibility of carrying in national parks (state law permitting), and on Amtrak trains. And in Vermont and Alaska, anyone can carry a handgun virtually anywhere, no permit required—and similar laws are going up for ratification in Wyoming and Arizona.

Other states, too, allow packing heat with no permit, but their laws are more baroque. Virginians, for instance, can carry without a permit if they are

  • Police officers
  • Business owners, in their place of business
  • Gun collectors or members of target shooting clubs (only in transit; gun must be wrapped)
  • Hunters
  • Attorneys and assistant attorneys
  • On-duty mail carriers
  • The harbormaster of the city of Hopewell

As to with a permit: Virginia also recently legalized concealed carrying in bars and clubs. (This is not yet legal in many other locales, as NFL star Plaxico Burress can attest.) Not that you couldn’t carry a gun into an alcohol-serving establishment in the Commonwealth before. You just had to carry it openly. That was (and still is) legal, provided the bar does not post a NO CARRY sign, and—more importantly—the handgun is carried unconcealed, in a holster or your hand.

Similar laws—or rather, lack of specification—make California an open carry state, but some establishments there are barring customers from coming in armed (it’s the same legal principle that allows businesses to bar the shirtless or shoeless). Peet’s Coffee & Tea and California Pizza Kitchen have banned guns on their premises, and the Brady Campaign is petitioning Starbucks to follow suit. Currently, Starbucks allows you to openly carry your gun while ordering your espresso shot.

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