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.
So if it’s such a hassle, why open carry?
As we walk, the trio explains.
For Sam, 39, who works from home studying “history and behavioral economics independently and try[ing] to figure out what’s going to happen next before everyone else,” it’s mostly about constitutional freedom, a cause he says he’s felt strongly about since childhood. He’s been open carrying for about seven months and heard about it through Nate and Calguns.net, a popular online meeting place for California gun owners and enthusiasts.
“I really believe, and I think that most thinking people believe, that we are slowly losing our freedoms in this country,” he says. “Everything’s become more and more restricted, and nobody seems to know what to do about it. If we would just get back to following the Constitution, America would again be the place it was intended to be, the place where everybody wanted to come. This whole open-carry movement, for me, is really about more than just guns; it’s about liberty and what it means to be a free man.”
Nate, a 22-year-old human biology student, voices another issue: the lack of CCW (concealed-carry weapon) permit issuance. A concealed-weapon license allows one to have a concealed weapon on his or her person. In California, Nate says, concealed-weapon licenses are most commonly issued to lawyers, jewelers, and traveling doctors.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get a CCW permit. I’m not important enough — I don’t make enough money, I don’t have a good enough ‘cause,’ according to California — so I said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll just start open carrying,’ ” he says. “Another reason I started doing it is that it’s a political statement. I’m not important enough for my right to self-defense, so what we do is we just take it out in the open. This is what we have to do.”
Nate has been open carrying for about a year and heard about it on Calguns.net.
“I just started doing it,” he says. “Read[ing] up, whatever I could do.”
Sean, a 32-year-old senior systems engineer, chimes in.
“I’ve always been somewhat of a gun-rights activist,” he says. “I’m really in it more for the activism more than anything else. I’ve noticed that a lot of the guys are younger, and the police seem to react differently to folks who are in their 30s than to folks that are in their 20s. So I feel it’s a good idea to keep the reactions moderated a little bit.”
Sean has been open carrying for about a year, he says, and is also an active member of Calguns.net.
Most of the response the trio has gotten while open carrying has been positive.
“On the 28th, I’d say about two-thirds of the contact we had was ‘Hey, that’s legal to do?’ ” Sean says, referencing an open-carry event held in San Diego in February. “Not accusatory or anti — either positive or just requesting information.”
“The people who were blue-collar guys or office workers or whatever, they’re more curious about stuff like this than people who are just out there on the beach all day because they don’t have an obligation to go be somewhere else. I think that’s probably the reason that there’s sort of a skew in the types of contact we’ve had today.”
As we walk and talk, a man in a red shirt passes us, his eyes obstructed by wraparound shades. He turns around to face us.
“You walking around with live ammo in those?” he asks, walking backward.
“Not with live ammo in them,” Sean replies amicably.
“Do you have a permit for that?” the man asks.
“You don’t need one,” says Sean.
“I’ll find out down here for you, ’kay?” the man asks, somewhat rhetorically, as he hightails it down the boardwalk.
“It’s not Mexico, guys, you can’t pull that shit off,” he shouts, over his shoulder.
“Do you really think that guy is going to go to the cops?” I ask, once I’m sure he’s out of earshot.
“Probably,” says Sam. “And the cops will say, ‘It’s legal. You don’t have to like it, but it’s legal.’ ”
Turning back, walking into the sun, we decide it’s time for food and continue — undisturbed — to Mission Boulevard, where there’s a small Mexican restaurant with outdoor seating.
San Diego open carriers, I discover, have had a few open-carry events here in town, coordinated mostly via sites such as Calguns.net, OpenCarry.org, and CaliforniaOpenCarry.org, where there are local forums in which members discuss issues of gun ownership, gun rights, gun laws, and more.
The last meet, at the time of this writing, was in February and took place on the very boardwalk Nate, Sean, Sam, and I just traversed. The police were well informed, and things went smoothly as an estimated 40 to 50 people, open carriers and supporters alike, congregated beachside.
At the Mexican restaurant, lunch proceeds normally, save for a few stares, until I notice a large white-and-black SUV pull up in front of us. “Uh-oh,” I think. “Here we go.”
A male cop emerges, a tall man with a salt-and-pepper crew cut. He smiles at us.
“Howdy, folks. How’re you all doing today?” he asks.
“Fine,” everybody responds.
“I’m going to have to do a 12031(e) inspection on you and get out of your hair,” the cop says.
“Are you requesting or demanding?” Nate asks.
“I’m sorry?” asks the cop.
“Are you requesting or demanding?” Nate repeats.
The cop looks at him.
“Well, I’ll start with a request, but then I’ll demand,” he replies.
“As long as you’re demanding,” says Nate.
The cop starts with Sean.
He has him face the opposite direction and goes around behind him, removing Sean’s gun. He checks for ammunition and, finding none, places the gun back in its holster.
The cop makes his way around the table. Each of the trio stands and, when asked to be checked, pipes up with “Requesting or demanding?”
When the cop gets to me, I gulp, even though I know my line.
“You, ma’am, are carrying as well?” he asks.
I nod, then jump right in.
“Requesting or demanding?” I ask.
“Requesting and then I’ll be demanding,” comes the reply.
I stand, watching as he removes the gun from my hip. I can hear the revolver’s wheel turning as he checks the chamber for bullets. Then he hands it back to me — the first time I’ve handled a real handgun — and I slide it, if somewhat amateurishly, into the holster.
“Okay,” the cop says. “I appreciate your cooperation.”
Before he leaves, Sean asks if someone sent him over.
“Actually, we had a radio call. I guess you were out on the boardwalk,” the cop replies.
“I think I know the guy…” Sean says wryly.
“I talked to one person that had called. He said you were headed south,” the cop says. “So we were looking for you. We appreciate your cooperation. Have a good day.”
I glance around me and notice several cruisers are parked along the edge of the Mexican restaurant’s lot, plus the SUV.
Nate turns to me.
“You have just experienced the hassle of the open-carry movement,” he says.
“That guy was actually very good, very straightforward,” Sean comments, as the SUV and its entourage drive away. “He was not out to abuse rights, he was not out to try and make anything up. He was just doing his job.”
This makes one cop stop for Sean, two for Sam, and three for Nate.
And, of course, one for me.
“It’s all very complicated,” I tell them, speaking of the various gun laws, regulations, and restrictions, from state to federal, as we collect our trash from lunch.
“And if we just followed the Second Amendment the way it was written, none of this would be necessary,” he says.
Shortly after our encounter with the cops, we part ways, agreeing to meet up at a later time that night. Nate, Sean, and Sam are taking me to a local firing range, and come evening, I will have fired my first gun.
The range is located in a squat brown building with an American flag in the window and a big neon sign bearing the word “GUNS” in all capitals. Inside is a small series of booths separated by dividers. It’s busy, and people in groups wait their turns, snapping pictures, flashes going off in time to the sound of the guns. The ground is littered with glittering brass shell casings, and I can feel them through the soles of my shoes as I walk to my appointed booth.
Sean is my teacher for the evening, and he patiently goes over how to handle the first guns I will shoot, a .22-caliber CZ Kadet and his .40-caliber Sig Sauer P229. I try to remember, listening to his instructions over the loud pops and bangs from neighboring rangegoers. I take a deep breath. Eject the magazine. Click the slide back to make sure it’s not loaded. The CZ is heavy in my hands and heavier still as I slide a full magazine inside and give it a firm tap with my hand. I position my hands, making sure my grip is not too weak and my thumbs are not too low. My finger slides over the trigger, pulls back.
An explosion erupts, and the gun jerks back in my hands, shell ejecting onto the floor; it drops and I don’t see it. I’m transfixed. I try again, trying not to close my eyes. The smell of gunpowder tickles my nose.
I finish the clip, watching the holes that have appeared in the paper target I was aiming at. They’re nowhere near where they should be, but it’s not bad.
Sean reels the target in and points to a cluster of holes around the bottom of one of the bull’s-eyes. It’s a clover pattern, he says; it’s good.
“You should be proud of that,” he says, over the din. I smile.
At the end of the night, I have shot eight guns — three handguns, one carbine, and four rifles. The list is a litter of letters and numbers to me. There are the CZ Kadet, Sig Sauer, and CZ 97B for handguns. The carbine is an FN PS90. For rifles, I handle the Ruger Mini-14, the Kel-Tec SU-16CA .223, the not-so-fearsome AR-15 .223 — a gun that might be soon made illegal — that weighs so much I can barely hold it to my shoulder, and the Ruger 10/22, a lightweight rifle without much recoil (kickback) that turns out to be my favorite. (Though the range generally does not allow certain types of rifles to be used, for the purpose of this article, we were permitted to shoot the Kel-Tec SU-16CA and the AR-15.)
The evening after my shooting adventure, I’m due to meet another open carrier, Tom, at a coffee shop in Mission Valley.
Tom is a neatly bearded gentleman with wire-rimmed glasses. Fresh from work, it appears, he wears a dress shirt and black slacks along with his Springfield Armory 1911 .45 that is barely visible on his belt. His wife sits across from him, reading.
Tom smiles as he introduces himself, assures me that I’m not too terribly late, and offers me a coffee before we settle down to talk.
While not new to gun ownership — in fact, he’s an avid collector — Tom has only been open carrying for a few months. He is a member of several of the online forums previously mentioned, where he reads and responds to various topics and discussions.
Unlike Nate, Sam, and Sean, with whom he is acquainted, Tom has not been stopped by many people, curious or otherwise. He speculates that, because of his dress, most may take him for a plainclothes police officer.
“They must think you’ve got a badge somewhere,” I joke.
“Could be,” he agrees. “That’s the first thought. But people need to be aware that a citizen living in a free country is allowed to have liberty and to do these things. And most people assume it’s against the law.”
Tom began carrying mostly out of political reasons.
“I got alarmed at how radically guns and gun owners are being vilified across California and across the country,” he says. “The laws are being passed willy-nilly, some that don’t even make sense, and it’s time to start pushing back against unfair, unjust laws.”
He, like the others, agrees that the Second Amendment needs to apply to the states as well as at a federal level. He elaborates on a California case recently heard by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court that tackles this issue, Nordyke v. King, in which Alameda County attempted (and succeeded) in banning guns from its fairground in order to stop a gun show.
“They started a legal action against the city. Another lawyer picked [it] up and has been pursuing it for almost ten years on his own dime, [with] no financial support. And what we’re hoping it will do [is] incorporate the Second Amendment to California.”
Tom, 56, also open carries for other reasons than political activism, recognizing that it could be useful in an unsafe situation. “I look at it like we’ve never had a fire in our house, but we have two fire extinguishers,” he says, and cites something he read in the news as one example. In February of this year, in Los Angeles, he says, two men walked into a café and shot seven people, then walked out.
“Now, if they’d come up to that café and looked in the window and seen two or three guys with a gun on their hip, wouldn’t they have turned around and gone someplace else?” Tom wonders aloud. “Or would they have gone in anyway? The first responding officers heard the shots, but they weren’t able to get there in time to catch the guys. So the only one who’s in a position to do anything about it would be the people who are right there getting shot at. And I’d like to ask those people sitting in the café if they wished they’d had a gun when they saw those guys walk in the door.”
He makes the point that, in areas with stricter gun-control laws, crime is higher.
“[In] places where the laws allow the citizens to take their security into their own hands, violent crime goes down significantly,” he says. “Look at Chicago and Washington, D.C., where the citizens are essentially forbidden to own handguns, and the incidents of violent crimes are enormous.” (In June 2008, the Supreme Court struck down Washington D.C.’s ban on handguns.)
Later, he sends me a link to the FBI crime statistics from 2007 (the latest information available). They report some grim facts. In Vermont, which allows the concealed carrying of weapons without a permit, the violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants is 124.3, while in the District of Columbia, it’s 1413.3. Alaska, like Vermont, allows concealed carrying without a permit, and their number is 661.2. In California, it’s 522.6.
Though he knows the laws regarding guns aren’t always in the favor of gun owners, Tom speculates that they can only get so rigid.
“To completely eliminate all access to guns is going to be kind of tough because we live in a country where the founders have determined that it’s a good thing for the citizens to be armed,” he says. “And we agree.”
Tom doesn’t open carry everywhere. He can’t at work, where he is a technical writer, and doesn’t feel comfortable doing so at church.
“I consider it inappropriate to wear it exposed because it’s a big distraction,” he says. “And we’re there to worship, not there to be distracted by someone’s outlandish clothes or political activism.”
He will also take it off, if on private property, when asked, such as when he was stopped — and the only time he’s been approached negatively — in a supermarket.
“The whole point is to try and make people aware and comfortable that law-abiding citizens can carry guns without the world coming to an end,” he says simply, “without having to provoke a SWAT incident. We’re very meticulous in obeying the law. We’re very careful about what the law says, what we’re allowed to do [and] what we’re not allowed to do. And the police have endorsed that, verified that.”
Though Tom may be in a minority, there is a growing open-carry movement in San Diego. Tom estimates that there are between 75 and 100 active open carriers locally.
“We had between 75 and 100 people who said they were going to come [to the February 28 event],” he says. “So there are at least 75 to 100. There have been other meets where we’ve all gotten together for lunch down at El Indio, and there were 20 to 25 people at each one of those. And there’s some overlap, and some people came to the first and not the second, so I’d be surprised if there were less than 100 active people in the San Diego area.”
He attended the El Indio lunch and reports that everyone in the restaurant was respectful and supportive.
“A couple of girls came in and had lunch and asked about it,” he says. “They said, ‘Why are you guys all wearing guns?’ ”
He pauses, laughing at the story.
“And we explained the program to them, and they said, ‘You know, I bet this is the safest place in San Diego right now!’ ”
Listen to Rosa Jurjevics this story further on Reader Radio!