In the week following Fourth of July, America has been shaken by two killings of black men by law enforcement: Alton Sterling, who was shot while being pinned to the ground by two police officers in Baton Rouge on Tuesday, and Philando Castile, who was killed by an officer while he was reaching for his identification during a traffic stop in Minnesota on Wednesday.
Although, according to witnesses and video footage, neither of the men appeared to be threatening the police, they were shot after officers found them to have guns. The two situations were different. Sterling was already on the ground, restrained, when the policemen found a gun in his pocket. Castile informed the officer that he was armed, and had a license to carry a weapon, before he reached to retrieve his wallet. Ultimately it did not matter whether the men carried their guns legally or not—many argue that the decisive factor in their deaths was their race, and the police officers’ implicit bias against black men. Others point out the hypocrisy of American gun culture, where gun activists, including the National Rifle Association, fiercely defend a gun owner who is white, but when he is black, they keep mum.
Both killings occurred in “open carry” states where you are allowed to carry a gun that is visible to others in public: in a holster, strapped around your belt, your thigh, or on your shoulder, depending on the local regulations. In Louisiana, you don’t need a permit to open carry—although Sterling likely would have been banned from owning a weapon at all due to his criminal record. In Minnesota, you do need a permit, which Castile’s girlfriend says he had.
More than 30 US states allow open carry of a gun without a permit, only a handful of states prohibit it. Meanwhile “concealed carry,” where a gun is hidden from plain view, is in some form allowed in all 50 states. Proponents of open carry—a growing movement—say that it is a highly visible representation of their right to bear arms (which they like to demonstrate by carrying massive weapons), and an inextricable part of American culture.
Open carry laws put an additional strain on police departments, which have to respond to calls from citizens alarmed by the sight of a gun in public. What the laws also create is a situation ripe for discrimination, where police approach black men who open carry differently than gun owners who are white.
These confrontations between law enforcement black men who are carrying weapons—or are perceived to be carrying them—in places where open carry is fully permitted, can end up becoming deadly, as was the case with 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was playing with a toy gun and was shot by Cleveland police, or with John Crawford, who picked up an unwrapped BB-gun at an Ohio Walmart and was subsequently killed by law enforcement.