Gun owners in California have been wearing their handguns in coffee shops and restaurants. The guns are unloaded and legal, but some citizens and police departments are wary.
San Francisco - Small groups of armed Californians have been turning up at cafes and coffee shops with handguns holstered to their belts to raise awareness about gun rights and what they call unfair limits on concealed weapon permits.
The loosely organized "Bay Area Open Carry Movement" will gather in the Presidio, a national park in San Francisco, on Saturday, just days after a new law took effect allowing weapons to be carried in national parks and wildlife refuges.
David LaTour, a student at San Jose State University, has been carrying his Springfield XD 9mm handgun on his hip for about a month now and plans on attending the event, in which gun rights advocates will be picking up trash in the park and, they hope, talking to anyone interested in state gun laws.
California allows its citizens to openly display and carry unloaded weapons without a permit, but many gun advocates complain that the state is too restrictive when it comes to issuing licenses to carry concealed weapons.
"I looked into concealed carry permits, but unless you're well-connected it's impossible to obtain," says Mr. LaTour. However, he says, "I personally prefer open carry because of the visual deterrent." (Monitor report: "Cities' gun restrictions begin to topple")
Carrying Unloaded Guns is Legal
Safety is the No. 1 reason that many open carry advocates give for displaying their weapons. While they can't legally carry loaded guns, they can have ammunition as long as it's not attached to their weapons.
"You can have a functioning loaded weapon in two seconds," says LaTour.
While the gun owner meet-ups around the Bay Area have been raising awareness about the state's gun laws, they have also been raising eyebrows. After the groups met at Peet's Coffee and Tea and the California Pizza Kitchen, both banned weapons from their premises.
Starbucks has also been a favorite spot for open carry groups, prompting the anti-gun violence group the Brady Campaign to launch a petition to convince the coffee chain to ban guns from its shops.
"There is a growing 'open carry' movement among gun activists, who seek to make a political statement by gathering in coffee shops, restaurants and other public locations with their guns openly on display," the Brady Campaign said in a statement. "Given the absence of meaningful regulation of open carry in the vast majority of states, more and more Americans will be faced with the intimidation and danger of confronting guns in public places."
So far Starbucks hasn't kicked out its gun-carrying customers, prompting praise from open carry advocates.
Police Departments Uneasy
Bay Area police department have also expressed concern about the growing open carry movement. (Monitor report: "Ft. Hood rampage raises questions about gun control")
In a September 2009 memo to his officers, Sunnyvale, Calif., Deputy Police Chief Mark Stivers wrote, "To be very frank, I do not like the fact people can carry an unloaded gun in a holster in plain view in public. However the law says they can and we uphold the law."
Nathan Wolanyk, an open carry advocate from San Diego, says the movement is as much about informing the public as it is about educating police departments who, he says, are often unaware of the unloaded open carry law.
Deputy Chief Stivers cautioned his officers, who are allowed to inspect unconcealed weapons to ensure they are unloaded, adhere to the law because open carry proponents "may want to provoke an incident" to bring a law suit against the city.
But Mr. Wolanyk and others say their movement is largely about changing perceptions about gun ownership.
"If all you see are guns in the media used in a violent manner, that's your perception of guns," he says. "When we're out in public with them, we're interacting with the public in a very nice manner. We're showing that these are tools that are used for self defense."