Earlier this month, in the parking lot of the Shop Rite supermarket in West Haven, Conn., a young man pulled a semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle out of his Toyota SUV. Shoppers watched from a cautious distance as he placed the loaded rifle on the floor behind the driver’s seat and then walked away, carrying his laptop case and two handguns. A witness described the armed man to 9-1-1 operators — he was Asian, wearing dark sunglasses and heading toward the University of New Haven campus. UNH students were ordered to shelter in place as police searched for the suspect. Officers spotted William Dong when he emerged from biology class in Kaplan Hall, still carrying the two Glock pistols. A subsequent search of Dong’s padlocked bedroom (in his parents' home) turned up 2,700 rounds of ammunition, as well as newspaper clippings about the Aurora theater massacre.
Tuesday, defense attorney Frederick Paoletti said Dong will plead not guilty to weapons charges. Though the Bushmaster is on a list of guns that are restricted under a new state law, Dong might have purchased his rifle before the ban went into effect. And the pistols? He had a permit for them, and Connecticut law makes no distinction between “concealed carry” (wearing a gun under your clothing) and “open carry” (walking around with a gun that everybody can see).
The debate over open carry is the new front line in the battle over gun rights and public safety in American culture. In Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, gun rights activists have been staging protests, demanding broader liberty to display their guns in public rather than keep them concealed under clothing. Major candidates in statewide elections have voiced support for open carry, asserting that the conspicuous display of firepower will deter crime. For decades, though, social scientists have studied the way people behave around guns, and they’ve found that all of us — not just criminals — will be affected by seeing guns in our everyday environment.
CJ Grisham, president of Open Carry Texas, says there’s no reason to fear civilians with guns. “This idea that gun owners are angry and just looking for an opportunity to shoot somebody is absolutely false,” he explains. “Although if I’m threatened by somebody, I’m not going to hesitate — if somebody points a gun at me I’m gonna get there first.”
Indeed, there have been many incidents of armed civilians using their guns for legitimate self-defense. But civilian gun owners reacting to imaginary dangers have also killed unarmed people. A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that when people are holding a gun, they’re less capable of evaluating a threat than they would be if they didn’t have a weapon in their own hands. Jessica Witt, a psychologist at Colorado State University, asked volunteers to hold either a plastic gun or a neutral object (such as a ball) as they reacted to pictures flashed on a screen. The photos depicted people holding various objects — sometimes a gun, sometimes a shoe, a soda can or a cellphone. While holding a gun, volunteers were more likely to misidentify the object in the photo as a gun. (Likewise, if you’re holding a shoe, you’re more likely to think the guy in the photo is holding a shoe — but that mistake isn’t likely to end in tragedy.)
“You can imagine the kind of actions people are going to take if they misperceive an object as being a gun,” Witt says. “That’s going to be a terrible consequence — obviously for the victims of those actions, but also terrible for the people who make the mistakes. We think we can trust our eyes, that our eyes tell us the truth. But if your eyes lie to you and then you make a regrettable action based on that, that’s a terrible thing to happen.”
Even when you’re not holding a gun, you can be psychologically affected by seeing one. Since 1967, researchers have been observing the “weapons effect,” a phenomenon in which the mere presence of a weapon can stimulate aggressive behavior. Of course, a person doesn’t respond to a gun the way a cartoon bull reacts to the matador’s cape; we aren’t spontaneously enraged every time we notice a firearm. But empirical research has repeatedly shown that when people are already aggravated, seeing a gun will motivate them to behave more aggressively.
Imagine you’ve volunteered to participate in a study on a college campus. You arrive to find the lab somewhat cluttered: There’s a badminton racquet and some shuttlecocks on a table. The researchers tell you to ignore that stuff — it’s for a different study. They hook you up to a machine that administers electric shocks, and hand the controls to another participant like yourself. He zaps you. Repeatedly. (He’s secretly part of the research team, following specific instructions — but as far as you know he’s just being a jerk.) Now it’s your turn to zap him. How many shocks will you administer?
Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage repeated this experiment with 100 male students at the University of Wisconsin, sometimes replacing the badminton equipment with a revolver and shotgun (or no stimulus at all). They found that participants administered more electric shocks when in the presence of guns. According to Berkowitz and LePage, the weapons were “aggressive cues.”
A later study at the University of Utah refined our understanding of the weapons effect. Psychologists watched the behavior of drivers stuck at an intersection behind a truck that wouldn’t budge when the light turned green. Sometimes there was a gun displayed in the truck’s rear window and sometimes there wasn’t. The researchers observed that people honked more often when they saw the gun.
Recent experiments have shown that even when nobody has been tormenting you with electric shocks or inciting your road rage, you’ll react to a gun differently than you’d react to other objects in your environment. You’ll automatically see the gun as a threat, without even realizing it.
“The ‘threat superiority effect’ is the tendency for people to be able to pick out very quickly in their environment things that might pose a threat to their security — anything that might be dangerous,” explains Isabelle Blanchette, a professor of psychology at the University of Quebec. “People have a tendency to be able to see these things before they see other things.”
Psychologists have theorized that the threat superiority effect is a product of evolution — we have adapted the ability to immediately identify threats like snakes and spiders so we can avoid them. Blanchette’s research shows that people have a similarly quick reaction to seeing a weapon: We’ll immediately spot a gun among several other distracting objects.
When you see the threat, your body will respond before you even think about it. “The most instantaneous thing that happens is that your pupils will dilate,” Blanchette says. “You can have other physiological reactions that are associated with fear. There are changes in your body, such as in your heart rate and respiration rate.”
Last month, “Liz” (a pseudonym) experienced some of those reactions when she noticed a group of men with guns gathering just outside Blue Mesa Grill in Arlington, Texas. Liz had organized a lunch meeting for fellow members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and open carry activists decided to protest outside the restaurant with AK-47 and AR-15 rifles. “The only reaction I had was ‘I’m not going out there at all,’” Liz says. “They were all carrying rifles. There was a lot of firepower, and a lot of potential for carnage out in that parking lot. Absolutely I was scared.”
That sort of fear is what open carry activists say they want to eliminate over time. In an online list of goals, the open carry activists at Come and Take It America say they want “to condition Americans to feel safe around those of us that carry [guns].” The same goal is listed on the Open Carry Texas website. Open carry activists are aware that their marches scare people; they’re used to encounters with police who are responding to 9-1-1 calls. But Grisham says his group tries to maintain good relationships with local authorities, “in case they do get phone calls from concerned citizens, they can explain that, ‘no, these guys are just exercising their rights.’” He believes people will overcome their fears once they grow accustomed to seeing guns in public. “Our philosophy at Open Carry Texas is, if we can get people used to seeing AK-47s and AR-15s and deer rifles and shotguns and .22s and things of that nature, when we finally get open carry of pistols passed it won’t be such a big deal.”
Habituating people to guns so that they no longer perceive any threat, however, might not be prudent. After all, fear can be a useful survival instinct. “I don’t know to what extent it is beneficial or even possible to reduce fears that are actually very adaptive or normal or useful fears,” Blanchette says. Without a fear of snakes, for example, we might behave more carelessly around them — and get bitten.
Was it reasonable and appropriate for New Haven residents to feel alarmed at the sight of William Dong carrying two Glocks as he walked to class? Should 9-1-1 dispatchers have informed those callers that the man with the guns was probably just exercising his rights?
In states where open carry is legal, police must walk a careful line, obliged to respond to reports of armed men on city streets, but sometimes lacking the authority to do much when they arrive on scene. Rich Buress, president of Connecticut Carry, told the New Haven Register that Dong’s arrest might have been improper. “He didn’t do anything,” Burgess said.
In Texas, open carry advocates routinely document their interactions with police. “We put those videos up because we want the community to see that there’s a police officer approaching a guy with a gun, and he’s not arresting him, so he must be doing something that’s legal,” Grisham says. “And also we want other police officers to look at these positive videos and go ‘oh, so that’s how I have to approach these guys so I don’t have to be worried about being embarrassed on YouTube.’ But then there’s the guys who aren’t so respectful of our rights. Those are the guys who try to impose their authority on us. They try to tell us we can’t do things we can legally do. So we expose those guys as well.” Grisham says the Open Carry Texas YouTube channel is also instructional for members. “It tells our people this is how you should deal with a police officer that approaches you. Be respectful until you’re disrespected.”
Open carry activists throughout the country have posted similar videos online. Perhaps the most haunting and bizarre is a jittery clip posted last year by Robert Pratt of Michigan. In the video, Pratt carries a shotgun while walking his dogs through suburban Plainwell. Two police cruisers intercept him at the curb, and four officers surround him for a long, tense conversation. One of the cops is James Pell, whom Pratt greets by name — Cassandra Pell, the officer’s daughter, was Pratt’s girlfriend. The officers try to reason with Pratt, asking him to go home and put his gun away, because it’s unnecessarily frightening his neighbors. Pratt says he is “just exercising rights as a U.S. citizen” and that he would continue to openly carry his gun in the neighborhood because “people need to be aware of laws.” He cites the specific state laws and city ordinances that allow him to carry his shotgun.
This June, Pratt used that same weapon to shoot and kill Cassandra Pell, and then to commit suicide.
Grisham is quick to point out that most gun owners are not murderers. “99.83% never commit a crime,” he says. (That number can’t be substantiated, since there is no complete record of which Americans, or how many, own guns.) “If people are afraid of guns, just come up and talk to us, just approach us.”
But the Plainwell shooting, and other violent crimes committed by people who were legally carrying their weapons, confirm the worst fears of some opponents of open carry. “Their perception of what they’re doing is so different than the majority of people watching them,” says Liz. “They think they’re just showing up saying, ‘see, we’re a bunch of nice guys who just happen to be carrying around semiautomatic rifles.’ Whereas for people who are out and about in a suburban area, it’s terrifying — especially considering the climate.”
Regardless of these fears, and of the potential harms suggested by scientific research, the real-world effects of open carry might soon be tested in the largest lab yet — the state of Texas, where it’s not currently legal to openly carry modern pistols. Greg Abbott, the front-runner in the Texas gubernatorial race, praised the Texas Legislature this year for expanding gun rights, and for lowering the minimum training required for a concealed handgun license from 10 hours to just four. Asked in a recent interview whether he supported open carry, Abbot answered “yes.”