A panel discussion in San Francisco this evening about a state bill that would ban open carry of firearms in California focused on balancing safety and public order versus individual rights and the Constitution.
Much of the conversation – which featured a police chief, law professor and gun advocate – centered around interpretation of the Second Amendment and the practical implications of carrying unloaded weapons. The Commonwealth Club event was titled “Guns in Public: Exploring California’s Open Carry Policy.”
Assembly Bill 1934 would tighten California’s gun control laws, which currently allow registered gun owners to carry unloaded firearms on their hips.
Ammunition can be carried on a belt, and proponents of open carry have demonstrated that a handgun can be loaded and ready for use in 1.3 seconds.
The bill, which would outlaw open carry, has made it through two Assembly committees and will soon be heard on the Assembly floor.
Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, said he strongly opposes the law because he believes it interferes with the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
The amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Paredes said his organization believes society is safer when law-abiding citizens exercise that right, and he doesn’t believe there should be any limits on gun ownership.
“The right for self-defense is inherent in each of us,” he said. “You can’t sue government or law enforcement for not being able to protect you. The responsibility is yours.”
Emeryville Police Chief Kevin James, however, is an outspoken supporter of AB 1934 and has a different view of the Constitution.
“People have a Constitutional right to safety and to be safe in public,” he said.
James argued guns in public do not make anyone safer, which is demonstrated by the fact that states that regulate guns have significantly fewer shootings per capita.
He said he doesn’t carry a gun when he’s off duty because California experiences fewer than 500 violent crimes per 100,000 people.
“You have a 99.5 percent chance of never being a victim (of violent crime),” he said. “I don’t see a need (to carry a gun), and I don’t have paranoia about the threat out there.”
Franklin Zimring, a professor of law and criminal justice at the University of California at Berkeley, generally agreed with James but said AB 1934 really has nothing to do with public safety.
“You have a status conflict where both sides are saying, ‘I’m right,'” he said.
He said those who practice open carry tend to be white, older Californians who live in low-crime areas.
“You’re not wearing the gun because it’s going to save you,” he said. “It’s being worn as a badge to say, ‘We gun owners are right.'”
Similarly, he argued, the proponents of the bill are not introducing it because openly carrying has led to any violent incidents or crimes – it hasn’t. The bill’s sponsors also just want to show that they’re right on the issue of gun control.
Zimring said it was impossible to strictly interpret the Second Amendment; the words mean whatever the Supreme Court justices say they mean, he said.
The courts have not had much time to begin looking at the issue of balance in gun control laws because until 2008, the Second Amendment was interpreted as a societal right to bear arms rather than an individual right, he said.
Now the issues that must be addressed are what kind of weapons are allowed, what type of person can carry them, and how can they be used?
“How about atomic weapons?” he said. “Those are arms. Of course we didn’t have those then, but we didn’t have handguns when the Constitution was written either.”
Gun controls laws have historically prevented convicted felons from becoming registered gun owners, and issues such and where and in what manner a weapon can be carried must be addressed, Zimring said.
“It’s going to be a very interesting couple of decades,” he said, adding that interpretation of the law, “Will happen slowly, and one hopes it will be an open dialogue.”