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.
Oklahoma City attorney Doug Friesen, who has made several presentations on the new law to Oklahoma police departments and businesses, said he thinks the adjustment period will be quick. In the meantime, he said open carriers might expect police to be a bit more strict in enforcing laws.
Police officers who are suspicious of a gun carrier's intent might not be able to detain him and run a warrant check just for carrying a gun. But if that carrier steps outside the boundaries of the rules even slightly, they may be subjected to more intensive questioning.
“I think there will be some enforcing of some laws that haven't been enforced in the past,” Friesen said. “For instance, you can get pulled over for jaywalking, spitting on the sidewalk. They're righteous stops, but they're really just protectoral stops, and I think you're going to see a lot of that if you choose to carry openly.”
Friesen said police and opponents of relaxed public handgun standards expressed similar concerns in 1995, when the concealed-carry law was first passed in Oklahoma. Those worries didn't pan out, he said.
“The only thing we saw in the statistics across the board was that violent crime dropped because everybody knows criminals are basically just scared bullies and they don't want to get hurt,” he said.
Carriers are ready
Bryan Hull, who sits on the board of directors for the Oklahoma Open Carry Association, said gun carriers are working to familiarize themselves with the law and will actively demonstrate that they can carry openly, safely and without incident. At the same time, they will expect police to respect their new rights.
“Our take on it is if they come up and check the permit, visually check it and hand it back, say, ‘Have a nice day,' then no detention took place. If they run the permit, dig deeper and start asking questions and stuff, then we're talking detention, and we have a problem,” Hull said.
Hull, who runs a tow truck operation in downtown Oklahoma City, said he is excited at the prospect of wearing his gun on his hip while responding to vehicles in need of a tow. He's been threatened before and had to pull his concealed weapon at least once; he hopes the sight of a gun will deter anyone from threatening him again.
“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,” he said.
Miles Hall, owner of H&H Shooting Sports Complex in Oklahoma City, the state's largest gun emporium, said most concealed-carry permit holders have said they do not intend to carry openly. Hall, the beneficiary of a spike in permit applicants this year, said people choose to arm themselves in public not to impose, but to protect themselves and their families.
“We've asked the question: ‘Would you carry open?' And an incredibly small number, less than a percent, say yes. Most say, ‘No, I'm going to keep concealed, because that's the advantage,'” Hall said. “The tactical advantage is to keep concealed. I do expect to see people open carry for the first time because they can, but then I expect it to fade away.”
That's an opinion shared by Courtney Wright, an Oklahoma City resident who works for the state.
Discussing open carry during a recent lunch break, Wright said she is already in the process of acquiring her concealed weapon permit.
“I don't feel a need to display it; I personally don't want somebody else to know I'm packing,” she said. “I want that surprise element, I guess, should I have to use it.”
Elana Rodriguez, another Oklahoma City resident taking her lunch break in Bricktown, said she thinks the new open-carry standard will make some people nervous.
But, Rodriguez said, it could also save a life.
“It makes it a lot easier for tensions to get heavy, but at the same point — just like what happened in Colorado with the movie theater — who knows, maybe if somebody had a gun on their hip it could discourage people,” she said.
Prepare to adjust
Easley said police and public understanding of the new law will go a long way toward ensuring the law works as enacted. Monday's forum, he said, will be a chance to make sure everyone is on the same page.
“It's a new law, and like most new laws, it's going to be an adjustment period for both citizens and for those in law enforcement,” he said. “It's not a big deal as long as they are within those areas that are allowed by law, and we can't allow ourselves as law enforcement to overreact. That's what we're telling our people: Don't overreact on these things. Ask for a permit, see the license, and if they're in a place they can carry, fine.”
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.”