Oklahoma law enforcement agencies, careful not to complain about new relaxed gun standards that go into effect this week, are nevertheless bracing for the unknown.
Beginning Thursday, gun owners with a permit will be able to carry their handguns openly in public for the first time since 1971. Police said they expect the public may have unprecedented daily contact with guns, from city sidewalks and parks to supermarkets and restaurants.
There will be an adjustment period for police and the public, said Maj. Bill Weaver, director of training for the Oklahoma City Police Department. But ultimately, he said, the long history of good behavior by the state's permitted gun carriers likely will continue under the new law.
“I think it will depend somewhat on how many people decide to carry their firearms openly and then also on what the public's reaction to this new law will be,” Weaver said. “Our primary focus is to make sure both the police officers and the dispatch personnel are aware of the changes in the law.”
Weaver led a massive retraining project this month for the department's 1,000-plus officers. In two-hour blocks, officers and dispatch training personnel were taught in a classroom setting the intricacies of the new law and what to expect when handguns in public become the norm.
The question is: How many permitted carriers will choose to do so openly? More than 141,000 Oklahomans currently possess a concealed-carry permit, according to statistics from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the agency charged with certifying training requirements and conducting background checks on applicants.
“But we speculate that there will be a very, very small percentage that do this,” said Capt. Tom Easley, spokesman for the Norman Police Department.
“Think about it logically: As a person like myself, who's carried a gun the last 28-plus years, if you're carrying that gun out in the open, technically you're at a little disadvantage because everybody knows who you are. It's different if you're carrying the gun concealed; you have a distinct advantage because people don't know you have a gun.”
The Norman department will host a forum at city council chambers Monday for officers and the public to try and help people get acquainted to changes under the new law.
According to the amendment, as signed by Gov. Mary Fallin in May, all people with a permit can carry a gun openly where they chose.
There are exceptions, however. Guns will still be barred from government buildings, schools, professional sporting events, bars and saloons, among other places.
Handguns must be size .45-caliber or smaller; guns must be less than 16 inches in length; and the weapon must be secured in a belt or shoulder holster, according to the law.
Businesses and property owners may continue to decide for themselves whether to prohibit handguns.
Easley said he is concerned police dispatchers will be inundated, at least initially, by “man-with-a-gun” calls from the public. The aim of Monday's forum is to also inform business owners of their rights under the new law, he said.
“If the gun is holstered and they're not threatening anyone, then of course we have a different situation than we have with an armed robbery, and hopefully the dispatcher can ascertain that right out front,” Easley said. “For business owners, if you don't want them there with a gun, then you tell them to leave, and then if they don't, they're trespassing, and you call the police.”
Expect some tests
Some aspects of law remain to be tested, Weaver said.
A former assistant district attorney in Oklahoma County, he carries with him a thick accordion file of transcripts of the law and related research paperwork. He's met with attorneys and gun-rights advocates and talked to police officers in other states where open-carry laws are in practice.
The law changes are complicated, Weaver said. For instance, the law allows police officers to inquire about, and check, a gun carrier's permit, but not to detain the person without probable cause that a crime has been committed. State law also pre-empts local law, so in many cases a city officer who makes contact with a person carrying outside the boundaries of the law will be able to confiscate and report the violation to the district attorney, but not to arrest or issue a citation.
“We have a few issues we'd like to take back to the Legislature and clarify, and they mainly have to do with things that affect enforcement and just understanding of what the law is, but that's common with any new legislation,” Weaver said.
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I've lived in an open-carry state and I've seen this firsthand — most criminals don't factor in a citizen with a handgun, and when they see that handgun it very frequently makes them change their plans.”