Advocates for expanded gun rights in Oklahoma are claiming success in the 2012 legislative session after the passage of several pro-gun measures, including one that allows permit holders to openly carry firearms.
The open-carry bill, given final approval by the Legislature and awaiting the governor’s signature, has been a top priority for gun rights advocates in recent years.
Gov. Mary Fallin already has signed a bill allowing gun owners from other states to carry concealed weapons in Oklahoma, and another bill approved by the Legislature and sent to Fallin would prohibit the governor or any other state or local official from confiscating or banning firearms during a state of emergency.
“We’re very pleased with the participation and the advancement of gun rights this session,” said Don Spencer, deputy director of the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association, a pro-gun rights group. “We’ve brought them legislation to fix some of these problems and to forward the Second Amendment cause.”
The open-carry issue has proven a delicate topic for Republicans who control the Legislature. Democratic Gov. Brad Henry vetoed an open-carry bill two years ago amid opposition from law enforcement, but even after Fallin was elected a similar bill was derailed in a House committee last year after some Republicans expressed concern it could send a negative message to out-of-state businesses looking to locate here.
Even among those who support a citizen’s right to openly carry a firearm there was disagreement. The most ardent gun rights supporters, like Sen. Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma City, maintain the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that any law abiding adult should be able to carry their weapon publicly.
“I reject the notion that government grants the God-given right of self-defense,” Russell said last week during debate on the bill. “You cannot take away what God has granted.”
Spencer said so-called “constitutional carry,” which doesn’t require a license, is the group’s ultimate goal.
“That’s eventually where we want to take it, but we figured this was a good, safe, intermediate step to get there,” he said.
Lawmakers eventually reached a compromise that allows citizens who apply for and receive a concealed carry permit to also carry their guns openly.
“I don’t believe the people of Oklahoma are ready for constitutional carry,” said Rep. Steve Martin, R-Bartlesville, who co-authored the open carry bill. “They like the idea that people carrying a firearm have had some kind of training.”
Former law enforcement officers, like state Sen. Al McAffrey, have opposed the bill, arguing that police are trained to consider people who are armed a threat and that gun-toting citizens could cause confusion at the scene of a crime.
“If you go into an area where there’s been a shooting and people have guns … who’s the bad guy?” said McAffrey, a former Oklahoma City police officer. “If a person goes for their gun, they’re probably going to be shot.”
Other opponents, like state Sen. Jim Wilson, say allowing people to openly carry weapons gives people a false sense of security and sends a signal to the rest of the country that the state is backward.
“I think it makes us look silly as a state to have people running around carrying guns,” said Wilson, D-Tahlequah. “What people fantasize about is that they’re going to be a hero someplace and shoot dead a perpetrator. Of course, that’s not what’s going to happen. What’s probably going to happen is that they’re going to get they’re gun taken away and get shot with it.”
Gov. Fallin typically does not comment on legislation before she signs it but has indicated previously that she supports a “responsible” open-carry bill.
“She’s reviewing the bill with her staff to make sure it meets that threshold,” said Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz.
To obtain a concealed carry license in Oklahoma, an applicant must be at least 21, complete a firearms training course and pay a fee. They also must submit a photograph and fingerprints and pass a criminal background check.
A little more than 24,000 Oklahomans successfully applied for a concealed-carry permit in 2011. Nearly 1,000 applicants were denied, most of those for providing false or misleading information on their application, according to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.
Oklahoma is one of only six states that expressly prohibit the open carrying of firearms, said Brian Malte, a spokesman for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. In many states, the laws are vague or do not specifically address the issue, and Malte says he believes Oklahoma is making a mistake to allow people to openly carry guns.
“This is not the Wild West and open carry brings fear and intimidation into communities, into parks and into places where children and families gather,” Malte said. “This is part of the gun lobby’s dark, dangerous and paranoid vision of America where they think people need to be armed to the teeth everywhere they go.”