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In most of America, it’s impossible to tell a deadly sniper from a peaceful protester carrying a gun

Six states prohibit open carry of long guns.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

At least five policemen died on the evening of July 7 in Dallas, Texas, after 11 were shot by several snipers during a Black Lives Matter protest against the recent police killing of black citizens in Louisiana and Minnesota.

The police are currently holding several people in custody, but a man who was initially deemed a suspect, identified later as Mark Hughes, has been released. Dallas police had circulated a picture of Hughes at the rally, identifying him as a “person of interest,” and carrying what looks like an automatic rifle. He looks serene, as do the protesters walking by him.

After turning himself in to the Dallas Police, and giving his gun to an officer, he was released. He was exercising his “second amendment right to bear arms,” his brother, an organizer of the protest, told local news,  but he ended up “plastered over the national media as a suspect.”

It is yet unclear what exactly led the police to consider Hughes a suspect, or tweet out his photo. He was innocently marching with protesters as shots were fired, other protestors said.

So how is it possible that a man was carrying a long gun at peaceful rally, to protest the shooting of other citizens? Well, this is America. And that was part of the reason for the protest—both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the black men killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota, appeared to have been peacefully carrying guns, and were shot.

In Texas, as in most of America, the open carry of firearms is legal. Texas is actually one of only six states—California, Florida, Illinois, New York, South Carolina and Texas—that restricts the open carry of handguns, although it allows for them to be carried in a shoulder or belt holster.

Laws in Texas are, however, are less restrictive for “long guns,” defined as guns that are fired from the shoulder like rifles and shotguns—they can be openly carried in the state. In fact, only six US states and the District of Columbia prohibit the open carry of long guns.

Six states have some restrictions on open carry of long guns, like requiring the gun to be unloaded, or not carried openly in certain cities.

The widespread open carry of firearms in America, whether they are long guns or not, interferes with police work, and makes it hard to tell whether someone carrying a gun is about to use it to kill someone or is just exercising their rights. As Areva Martin, commented live on CNN about the Dallas events, “we’re telling people see something, say something…but what do we do in an open carry state?”

Unfortunately, even when people report “suspect” firearm possession in states that allow open carry, they are not taken seriously. This happened on Halloween 2015 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a state that allows open carry of all guns: a woman called the police to report that her 33-year-old neighbor, Noah Harpham, was walking down the street armed with a rifle.

The police dismissed the episode as “non emergent”—because displaying a gun is perfectly legal in the state. Minutes later Harpham shot three people dead.

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