Why I Carry

Concealed versus open carry, No. 4, 19 November, 2000

by Paul Hager © 2000

IC Title 35, Article 47, Chapter 2. Regulation of Handguns

Article I, Section 32, Indiana Constitution

If one examines the Indiana Code (see above link), it will be observed that there is no distinction between open and concealed carry. Although the modern view (which has received some scientific validation) is that carrying concealed is objectively better for society as a whole than carrying openly, there has been a long tradition, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, that carrying one's handgun openly was desirable.

The first practical concealable handgun was probably developed -- as so many things were -- by the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci. Vernard Foley of Purdue University has extensively researched Leonardo, and presents convincing evidence that Leonardo and an assistant developed the wheellock firing mechanism in the mid-1490's. The wheellock mechanism functioned somewhat like the wheel on a cigarette lighter. A wound spring provided tension that, when released by a trigger, would cause the wheel to turn while dropping a flint-tipped hammer on it. This, in turn, generated sparks that ignited the black powder and fired the gun. Once the gun was loaded and the wheellock mechanism wound up, the gun was ready to fire. At that time of the wheellock's development, the only practical alternative was a matchlock, which required a continuously burning wick to ignite the powder charge. It's easy to see that trying to carry a matchlock gun concealed would either extinguish the wick or set the person's clothes on fire -- neither eventuality being ideal from a self-defense standpoint. However, the wheellock had no such impediment.

It is worth noting that the popular notion in the 16th century was that anyone who didn't carry his weapon(s) openly, for all to see, was dishonorable and probably a criminal. Accordingly, there were attempts to outlaw the wheellock, which were largely ineffective. Later technological innovations produced cheaper, simpler guns that were as easily concealable as the wheellock. Cheaper guns meant that more people could own them, which of course attracted the interest of the upper classes concerned about maintaining the social order. One alternative to banning a concealable gun outright, of course, is to ban carrying the gun in a concealed manner. This sort of prohibition did take place at various times and in various places in the ensuing centuries.

In the early United States, judging by the laws of the day, there didn't appear to be a uniform view concerning concealed carry, though open carry was always acceptable. Prior to the Civil War, some states drew no distinction between open and concealed carry. Others placed restrictions on concealed carry on the grounds that concealed weapons were favored by criminals and only open carry was permissible. Tennessee, for example required that if a gun were to be carried it must be carried openly, and further required that the weapon have a military function. Georgia had a similar law which was reviewed by that state's Supreme Court (Nunn v. State, 1846). The court concluded that restrictions on concealed carry were permissible, but restrictions on open carry were not.

Things pretty much remained that way until after the Civil War. At that point, erstwhile Confederate state governments passed laws that attempted to keep freed slaves in a state of vassalage. This included concerted efforts to disarm freed slaves. As a result of these and other abuses, the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, giving the federal government the power to protect constitutional rights. Federal attempts to protect civil rights ultimately collapsed after a key Supreme Court case in 1873 eviscerated section 1 of the amendment. When Reconstruction ended as part of the compromise that elected Rutherford B. Hayes over popular vote winner Samuel Tilden, the Southern states were quick to re-institute laws that discriminated against blacks.

Open carrying of expensive, military-style handguns was protected. These types of guns, which were favored by whites, were typically too expensive for blacks to own. Coupled with making concealed carry illegal, it had the direct effect of disarming blacks, or at least making it difficult for the average black to defend himself in most situations. These laws persisted and found their way into the Northern states where they were applied against both blacks and immigrants. Eventually, even though such laws had never been intended to be applied to whites, restrictions started to become more general. (In fact, the opinion in a 1941 Florida state Supreme Court case used exactly that language: "...the Act was passed for the purpose of disarming the negro laborers and to thereby reduce the number of unlawful homicides...and to give the white citizens in sparsely settled areas a better feeling of security. The statute was never intended to be applied to the white population [emphasis mine]...and there has never been, within my knowledge, any effort to enforce the provisions of the statute as to white people, because it has been generally conceded to be in contravention of the Constitution and non-enforceable if contested.")

Indiana initially followed the pattern of regulating only concealed carry. The case McIntire v. State (1908) upheld an Indiana law that outlawed the carrying of any "dangerous or deadly weapon concealed." The principle behind this law -- that carrying openly was acceptable but that carrying concealed might be indicative of criminal intent -- was the justification for the later Indiana Firearms Act, which created the personal protection license to regulate carrying a pistol either concealed or openly. In Mathews v. State (1958), which addressed the Firearms Act, the court held:

"The Legislature has the power in the interest of public safety and welfare, to provide reasonable regulations for the use of firearms which may be readily concealed, such as pistols."

Matthews cited McIntire as precedent.

A confluence of political, social, and legal developments eventually led to a situation where carrying a gun for self-defense was either heavily regulated in most states or functionally prohibited. A few states, including Arizona and Missouri, only allowed open carry. Vermont had no restrictions of any kind on carry.

This began to change in the 1980s when a series of states were pressed to enact laws allowing citizens to again carry a gun for self-defense. Today 31 states allow citizens to carry, subject to varying degrees of regulation (Vermont still has no licensing requirement).

With so many citizens around the U.S. carrying a gun, the fact that almost none of them carry openly is important. Even in those states where there is no distinction made between concealed and open carry (such as Indiana), the preferred mode of carry is concealed.

One reason to carry concealed is that, except for police, it is rather unusual to see someone openly wearing a holster and a sidearm. Most people would prefer not to be hassled by their fellow citizens who are ignorant of the law. There is also a concern that open carry might present problems of weapon retention. This is certainly a problem for police, though it should be noted that police tend to have their guns taken away because they actively engage in activities that involve getting up close and personal with potential malefactors.

As previously stated, there is some evidence of a societal benefit from carrying concealed. That benefit is called the "halo effect" or, for the economically inclined, a positive externality of deterrence. This benefit accrues from the fact that some number of people will be carrying at any given moment but no one, included a would-be assailant, knows who is carrying and who is not. Criminals, though socially deviant, are not stupid and can be expected to come up with an assessment of their risk of encountering an armed citizen. The greater the perceived risk, the greater the inhibition to act and, therefore, the more the would-be criminal is deterred. This means that people who don't carry a gun or would never carry a gun, nonetheless are protected somewhat by the deterrent effect of those who do. If everyone who had a gun only carried openly and no one carried concealed, it would make those not carrying openly prime targets.

A halo effect associated with gun ownership has been demonstrated. This involves deterring criminal break-ins of occupied homes in the U.S. Research by sociologists David Wright and Peter Rossi into the behavior and attitudes of violent felons revealed that most felons were well-acquainted with the fact that close to half of American households have a gun. Accordingly, they have a strong aversion to breaking in to homes they know to be occupied. The reason most often given: "You'll get shot."

Building on this, sociologist Gary Kleck did a trans-national comparison of break-ins, keyed to the strictness of a nations "gun control" laws and the likelihood that a home would have a gun in it. Kleck found that the as laws are more strict and guns less likely, criminals become bolder and more likely to enter a home they know to be occupied. Breaking into an occupied home often leads to an assault. Today, this is a rare event in the U.S. -- it is very common in the U.K. Survey research indicates that criminals in the U.S. will go to great lengths to make certain that the home they enter is empty.

To date, the most extensive research into the effect of carrying a concealed handgun on violent crime is Crime, Deterrence, and Right-To-Carry Concealed Handguns by John R. Lott, Jr and David B. Mustard. For a number of reasons which I will not enumerate here, I have reservations about some of the conclusions reached by Lott and Mustard. However, I find the evidence that concealed carry reduces murder rates to be fairly convincing. Lott and Mustard also claim that confrontational crimes in general (assault, rape, robbery, etc.) are reduced but that reduction is associated with a rise in non-confrontational crimes (theft, burglary, etc.). If this result can be validated, it is in line with what Kleck observed about break-ins of occupied homes: criminals will alter their behavior in such as way as to reduce a perceived risk associated with confronting a victim who may be armed, in favor of engaging in nefarious activities that tend not to require contact with a victim.

Though I am unaware of scientific research dealing with citizen carry elsewhere in the world, we can make some observations about how it appears to work in Israel. Israeli citizens are at least as heavily armed as Americans -- since many Israelis have Galil assault rifles or Uzi sub-machine guns, one could argue that, on a per capita basis, they have more firepower. At least 10% (probably more) of Israelis carry a gun (including the aforementioned Uzi), which means that a potential terrorist has at least a 1 in 10 chance of encountering someone who can shoot back. There have been a number of documented cases of terrorists opening fire in public places in an attempt to kill large numbers of Israeli citizens. The results of these attempts have generally gone very badly for the terrorists, with armed citizens returning fire and terminating both the attack and the terrorists. This probably accounts for the current tactic of suicide bombing -- it's very hard on the perpetrator but, unlike an attack with a gun, it is almost impossible to defend against and it does at least produce some collateral damage.

It's easy to see how a halo effect might occur where criminals (or terrorists) know that the law allows citizens to carry a gun for self-defense. However, experience is the best teacher, and it becomes a matter of probabilities as to how frequently a would-be mugger confronts someone who is armed. Research indicates that the overwhelming majority of the time, when a potential victim uses a gun defensively, the gun is not fired. Producing the gun is enough to end an attack. We don't know the extent to which a criminal is inhibited from future attacks after confronting an armed victim. We do know enough from other research that, given the way humans tend to assess risk, it is probably the case that a thwarted criminal will tend to overestimate the risk of encountering an armed victim in the future, which could produce an enhanced deterrent effect. It is also worth considering the possible deterrent effect of criminals relating the experience of an encounter with an armed victim to their friends and associates in the criminal fraternity. I hasten to add that the extent of possible deterrence is conjectural and has not been studied systematically as of this writing.

In the seven years I've carried, I've never had any sort of encounter with a criminal, but I know some people who have. In every case, merely drawing their gun was sufficient to send the assailant on his way. A volunteer on my 1998 Congressional campaign described thwarting mugging attempts at ATM's on two separate occasions. The most interesting -- or bizarre, take your pick -- story was told by an acquaintance with whom I took a defensive pistol course. Late one evening he got onto an elevator in a parking garage to go to his car. A man who had been waiting in the shadows quickly got on the elevator behind him. Just as soon as the doors closed, the man pulled a knife. Before the man had time to say anything, my acquaintance pulled his own pistol. There ensued the proverbial pregnant pause. The man then said, "Do you want to buy a knife?" A moment later, with nothing else being said, the doors opened and the man got off.

I offer these anecdotes because they are consistent with the most common pattern for an encounter between an armed victim and a criminal and because I know these individuals personally. And, as is also typical, neither of these people reported the incidents to the police at the time. Did their encounters contribute some decrement to the rate of crime in Indiana? Certainly they avoided becoming a victim statistic, and we have reason to assume that they may have helped their fellow Hoosiers

One concern I have about concealed versus open carry is a purely political and psychological one. Given all of the anti-gun propaganda, coupled with the fact that the average person is unaware of how many friends and neighbors carry a concealed handgun, the right to carry for self-defense becomes ripe for a "counter-reformation" to roll back the gains that have been made. It is easy to imagine that Josh Sugarman, the architect of the amazingly successful "assault weapon" propaganda war, is waiting with reptilian patience for some incident that can be used to further demonize gun owners and generate a hysteria against carry. It is certainly the next logical step for the anti-gun ideologues. Prejudice is based upon ignorance and fear, and stereotypes are impervious to everything except confrontation with reality. The challenge for those of us who cherish our rights is how to take all of the science and all of the constitutional analysis that support our position and bring it down to the level of day-to-day life on main street.

It is a challenge I will address in the next installment.