The Dangerous Theater of Open Carry

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The open carry of firearms is primarily performance. Whether the performer’s goal is to dramatize extreme gun rights, intimidate others, trigger the libs or cast oneself as the avenging hero in a miniseries of the mind, the practice is not just an assault on public safety. It’s a theater of the absurd.

There is no evidence that open carry makes any corner of society safer. There is, on the contrary, impressive evidence that carrying firearms increases aggression and gun violence. Open carry forces people in public thoroughfares to evaluate the mental state, physical demeanor and emotional intent of every armed person they see. How exactly does one differentiate open carry from homicidal carry?

When open-carry enthusiasts in Texas began organized public performances several years ago, they went to comic lengths to pretend that marching down the street with an AR-15 was perfectly normal behavior. “A rifle on our back is part of our everyday life, just like a cellphone is part of our everyday life,” one performer told the New York Times.

When other Texans declined to indulge the charade, fleeing instead, the group took extra precautions. They gave advance warning to patrons and employees at restaurants before entering. Because that’s what you do at restaurants when your behavior is totally normal and healthy and not-at-all alarming.

Like civilians, law-enforcement officers must become critics of the performance, deciphering whether the performer appears threatening only because of the presence of a lethal weapon or whether the performance includes additional signals of aggression. How much symbolic aggression makes the performance unlawful? When does a performance cross the line from inherently dangerous to functionally dangerous?

Two episodes in Missouri in recent weeks reveal that the open-carry regime has no answers to such questions.

In Kansas City this month, two armed men at a Walmart caused a panic. According to an eyewitness, shoppers fled the store after seeing the men walking with pistols in their waists. Police arrived. An officer jumped out of his car with a shotgun at the ready.

The police questioned the men. Since walking around with guns is legal in Missouri, as in the vast majority of states, they were released.

Just a few days earlier, in a different part of the state, another man induced terror among Walmart shoppers. Yet the results, based entirely on the staging and reviews of his performance, were very different.

Dmitriy Andreychenko, 20, was armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol when he entered a Walmart in Springfield, Missouri. Andreychenko wore tactical gear and recorded himself on a cellphone as he walked the aisles. A store employee pulled an alarm, and shoppers fled.

Unlike the two men in Kansas City, Andreychenko was arrested and held on terrorism-related charges. “Missouri protects the right of people to open carry a firearm, but that does not allow an individual to act in a reckless and criminal manner endangering other citizens,” a local prosecutor said in announcing the criminal charge. 

Why did Andreychenko, who subsequently said he had been testing his Second Amendment rights, end up charged with a felony while the Kansas City pair walked free? What made Andreychenko’s performance illegal?

Guns can be openly paraded in Missouri “unless the firearm is intentionally displayed in an angry or threatening manner, not in necessary self-defense.” Yet in a video taken of Andreychenko’s arrest, the suspect appears preternaturally calm, without a trace of anger.

It seems Andreychenko crossed a psychic border from good-guy-with-a-gun to bad-guy-facing-a-felony-charge when he donned militaristic gear and used a cellphone to record his performance. Cellphones are not lethal. “Tactical” vests – army-colored with lots of pockets -- are not capable of violence. Yet these are the elements that apparently tipped Andreychenko’s performance over an undefined, and undefinable, line. 

Patrons of the Springfield Walmart were not sent fleeing for their lives at the sight of a tan vest with abundant pockets. They ran for the same reason shoppers fled the Walmart in Kansas City: They saw a man with a gun, which every American recognizes is the overture to a shooting. Rather than wait to hear the bullets belt out their opening number – Andreychenko’s rifle is capable of murdering dozens in less than a minute – they ran. 

Flight from men carrying guns is eminently sensible. On the other hand, requiring citizens and law-enforcement officers, to guess correctly whether the men are staging a gun-culture rite or mass homicide is nothing short of deranged. In the theater world, bad reviews can kill a show. In open-carry drama, performers are empowered to murder anyone in the theater. Periodically, they do

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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