It’s a beautiful day in Pacific Beach as Nate approaches the bronze pelican statue on the boardwalk. He’s slight and blond, spectacled and clad in jeans and an army-green T-shirt. He squints. The sun’s so bright overhead that he is prompted to spray a fine mist of sunblock over his fair skin to stave off a burn.
I’ve never met Nate before, but I know it’s him (a) because I’ve seen his picture and (b) due to the handgun that sits on a holster against his hip. I’m about to get up from where I’m sitting and introduce myself when someone else beats me to the punch. A scraggly-looking beachgoer, a man of indeterminable age because he is so weather-beaten, approaches.
“What’s that for, bro?” he asks, pointing in the direction of Nate’s gun, a Taurus Tracker .44 Magnum revolver.
Before Nate can answer, the man continues.
“There are surfers at the beach looking to party, and you show up with that? That’s not right. Love life! Be mellow!”
This is when I walk up and introduce myself. The beachgoer looks at me for a moment with wild blue eyes, then looks back at Nate, as Nate is beginning to explain what he will have to reiterate time and time again to concerned and/or interested parties: he is open carrying.
The term “open carrying” refers to one who is in possession of a holstered, unloaded firearm on his or her person, displayed in plain view. Nate begins to explain the legalities of this to the beachgoer when Sean approaches, video camera in tow. In shades, a green shirt with double-breast pockets, green cargo pants, and a Sig Sauer P229 holstered on his hip, Sean looks not unlike a police officer.
The beachgoer does a double take.
“Another one!” he exclaims, as Sean greets us warmly.
The beachgoer, incredulous, excuses himself — with one final stare — to go “get baked.”
Soon we are joined by a third open carrier, Sam, who is Nate’s older brother. He’s a tall fellow in jeans and a T-shirt, and his gun, a Glock 17C 9mm semiautomatic pistol, sits squarely in a black holster, handle well visible against the blue of his shirt.
And now it’s my turn.
As the others deal with the beachgoer, who has returned, Nate and I take off to his car, where he removes from the depths of his trunk a silver handgun with a wooden handle. This is a Ruger Single Six .22 revolver, he tells me, as he slides it into the borrowed holster I have fixed to my belt. The gun is surprisingly heavy, nestled just below my waistline.
Back at the boardwalk, it seems that Sam and Sean are getting nowhere with the beachgoer, so we prepare to head out.
First, I am given instructions on what to do if approached by the police. I brace myself as Nate explains.
“What’s going to happen is, they’re going to want to do a 12031(e) unloaded check,” he begins. “They’ll say they want to check your weapon. You say, ‘Are you requesting or demanding?’ If they say, ‘Demanding,’ you say, ‘I don’t consent to any warrantless searches. But I’m not going to resist.’ And then you stick your hands out, they check your weapon, and it’s done.”
Sounds easy enough, I figure. I’ve got my tape recorder ready, as open carriers are urged, via websites like OpenCarry.org, to keep recording devices on them while carrying to capture any interactions with police (and civilians) they might have in case their rights are infringed upon.
“You don’t have to answer any other questions. You don’t have to give them your ID,” Sam instructs. “It’s technically an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. The Fourth Amendment says you have protection against unreasonable search and seizure. If there’s a woman pushing a baby stroller down the boardwalk, that does not give the police the right to check if the kid is kidnapped. So if you’re in full compliance with the law, minding your own business, they technically don’t have the right to stop you to check if your weapon is unloaded or loaded.”
Open carrying, Nate explains, is legal in San Diego and the rest of California.
“[The law says] you can’t carry a loaded gun in an incorporated area,” he says. “This is an incorporated area.”
“Because San Diego is a corporation,” Sam chimes in.
“So then, [the law] says, ‘Firearms carried openly in belt holsters are not concealed within the meaning of this section,’ ” Nate continues, referencing California Penal Code Section 12025(f), which outlines the illegality of concealed carrying and what is and is not considered a concealed firearm.
“So there you have that,” Nate continues. “And then case law says that ammo next to the gun is not considered loaded. So, basically, you start out with a great idea and it gets detracted down to what we have now.”
The nuances of gun laws in California, I find, are difficult. For example, concealed carrying is not legal in San Diego (and all of California) without a permit — that much is abundantly clear — and neither is carrying a loaded gun. Having ammunition situated next to a firearm, however, does not amount to “loaded,” meaning that Nate, Sean, and Sam can carry full magazines on their belts.
The legalities involving open carry are dizzying, the restrictions numerous. One cannot open carry 1000 feet from a school, for instance, or in the “sterile area” of an airport or in a post office or a national park (though it is legal in a national forest).
And then there’s the somewhat sticky issue of the Second Amendment.
“Instead of [the Bill of Rights] being automatic, they did amendment-by-amendment incorporation,” Sam explains. “So now practically all the amendments have been incorporated against the states except the Third, because nobody’s tried to quarter soldiers in [anyone’s] house, and the Second, because it hasn’t happened yet.” By “incorporated against the states,” Sam means that the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled that the amendment applies to the states.