On Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk is a bid to bar Californians from openly carrying firearms, legislation that could open a new front in the state’s decades-old gun control debate.
The measure, aimed at an increasingly popular tactic used by 2nd Amendment activists, would make California the first state since 1987 to outlaw the controversial practice of publicly displaying a weapon.
The governor — a gun owner — has not taken an official position on the bill, passed by the Legislature last week. He has argued both sides of gun control issues in the past.
Existing law allows the open carrying of unloaded firearms. The measure before Brown would thwart activists who stage “open carry” demonstrations and want, ultimately, the right to legally display loaded guns. Such aficionados drew national attention last year when they walked into Starbucks outlets in the Bay Area and elsewhere, pistols holstered on their hips.
Participants in the open-carry movement, contending it is a way to show that normal people pack heat, take advantage of most states’ relative silence about the practice. Only seven states, including Illinois and Texas, prohibit the open toting of guns, and most of their laws were adopted in the 1980s or decades earlier, according to the Legal Community Against Violence and other groups involved in the debate.
Gun control advocates hope that California will now pave the way for the rest of the country to outlaw the practice.
“Openly carrying a gun with [an ammunition] magazine in your back pocket into Starbucks and other establishments creates a culture of fear and intimidation,” said Brian Malte, director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “It is irresponsible and dangerous.”
“People in other states look to see what California does,” he said. If Brown signs the bill, “other states will follow suit.”
Open-carry proponents say that the practice is harmless and that California lawmakers are pursuing an agenda to disarm the public.
“There is no reason to do this other than a general dislike of gun rights,” said John Pierce, a spokesman for OpenCarry.org, an online clearinghouse for the movement.
He said no crimes have been committed in the name of open-carry advocacy in recent years as the movement has gained national attention. And he noted that activists have enshrined the right to openly carry firearms in Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming.
If California prohibits the practice, he said, it will be going against the grain. “The national trend is exactly the opposite direction.”
The Legislature’s proposal, by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), would make public display of a firearm punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, with some exceptions — for uniformed police officers, for example, and military personnel in parades. It would not alter citizens’ right to obtain permits from local police agencies to carry concealed weapons.
Portantino said open-carry supporters don’t realize how they complicate matters for police, who can have a hard time distinguishing between armed criminals and armed activists.
“Open carry puts law enforcement and families at risk on Main Street, California,” the lawmaker said. “It wastes law enforcement time and attention dealing with unnecessary 911 calls about gun-toting men and women in coffee shops, restaurants and malls.”
His measure was endorsed by Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, the California Police Chiefs Assn. and Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck.
“We need to limit the number of guns in public, not increase them by wearing them on our hips,” Beck said. “This is not Dodge City…. We are a modern civilized community, and we should work on peaceful solutions to end criminal behavior.”
This summer, former LAPD officer and county fire captain Gene McCarthy walked into Tony’s Italian Deli in El Segundo with dozens of other open-carry advocates, wearing a holstered 9mm Glock and a magazine of ammunition. He said no patrons seemed disturbed by the display of firepower.
McCarthy contended that California will be safer if upstanding citizens can continue to display their guns, because criminals will be less likely to act if their potential victim is armed.
“I personally saw the grief and misery caused by violence,” he said in a recent interview. “We have to protect ourselves and our families.”
Brown has until early October to act on the bill, and his past comments and actions on the issue of guns have sent a mixed message. In April, he told a gathering of police officers that it is natural for people to have guns in their homes, and said he owned three firearms.
During a 1992 presidential debate, he argued for a moratorium on gun sales. In 2009, then-Atty. Gen. Brown filed a brief favoring the National Rifle Assn.'s attempt to overturn a gun ban in Chicago. “California citizens could be deprived of the constitutional right to possess handguns in their homes,” he wrote.
Last year, when Brown was California’s attorney general, his office filed a brief to uphold the Riverside County conviction of a man for breaking the law by carrying a loaded, concealed weapon in a vehicle, despite the man’s argument that the law infringed on his constitutional right to bear arms.
Asked last year about a bill similar to Portantino’s, Brown told the Contra Costa Times, a Bay Area newspaper, “I want to know how many abuses there have been” that justify the bill. He added, “I always look with some skepticism on changing the way things have been done.”
Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor who has written about the history of gun control in California, said there is an ironic parallel between the open-carry zeitgeist and the event that led to the state’s first modern gun control laws.
In 1967, armed members of the Black Panthers marched through the state Capitol to protest police attempts to disarm them. A provoked Legislature responded by passing what was then one of the most sweeping gun control measures in the country, banning the carrying of a loaded gun in public.