Open-Carry Experiment Shows Cops Don't Know Their Own Gun Laws
By Jon Campisi Add Comment|Comments: 97 |Posted May. 17, 2011
It was late last week when gun-rights activist Mark Fiorino joined PW for a stroll around downtown Philly. The Montgomery County man, who was featured on the cover of yesterday’s Daily News for his stance on carrying pistols openly, walks down 15th Street toward Sansom, attracting nary a look.
Eventually, one man offers a double-take. The head turn probably has something to do with the fact that Fiorino’s belt contains an openly holstered firearm alongside his cell phone and keys. After all, Fiorino’s story hadn’t yet appeared in the Daily News, so his face wasn’t yet recognizeable.
Surprisingly, that one brief stare was about the only bit of reaction Fiorino received on that particular day, a few days before the Daily News story broke. But minimal public feedback is often the norm. People typically go about their business unaware that someone like Fiorino has a gun strapped to his hip—even when it’s in full view. “For the most part, it’s either a look or a dismissal or nobody notices,” says Fiorino. And unbeknownst to many Pennsylvanians, “open carry,” or the act of carrying one’s firearm unconcealed by clothing, is actually quite legal. Even in Philadelphia, legal gun owners who have a license can wear their holstered handguns in plain sight. In the rest of the state, open carry requires no license. Still, despite the law being quite clear on the issue, open-carry advocates like Fiorino sometimes find themselves in the crosshairs of an ignorant public.
But what happens when the ignorance comes from the very people who are paid to uphold the law? For open carriers like Fiorino, it’s a problem that can have dire consequences.
Like the time he found himself with a gun pointed at his head. Back in February, when he was visiting his native Northeast Philadelphia, his gun attracted the attention of a passing city cop. After a 40-minute ordeal in which Fiorino was ordered to the ground and detained, the cops eventually cleared him for release, but not before they got in a few choice words. But it wasn’t the profanity used by the responding officers—audio from Fiorino’s recorder was posted to Youtube—that totally offended Fiorino. Rather, it was the lack of police knowledge regarding the open-carry law. “I obviously did a ton of research beforehand,” says Fiorino. Police, he says, ought to do the same.
Not that Fiorino totally faults cops for having a heightened sense of awareness. But he does take issue with the fact that officers aren’t being trained to respect law-abiding citizens. “In my experience, in the city, it’s always been negative,” Fiorino says of his interaction with Philly cops, many of whom appear unaware of the legality of open carry. “There’s always a lot of attention with the police because they know you’re armed and they automatically perceive you as a threat,” he says.
One city cop, who requested anonymity, said that he was unaware carrying a firearm openly within the city limits was legal. “To see somebody carrying a gun in full view, it’s kind of, I would say, scary in a big city,” the officer says. But as Fiorino sat on a bench at Dilworth Plaza talking about his cause, very few eyes glanced his way. Passers-by didn’t even seem to notice him—even though his gun was out in the open on his left hip. “Nobody’s screaming or running around,” Fiorino says.
Still, the officer maintains that the sight of a gun on someone without a badge could cause a problem. “When people see you doing that, people assume you’re a police officer,” the cop says, adding that even off-duty, most city cops carry concealed. “I think all guns should be concealed.”
Fiorino says open carry is meant to raise awareness, to let people know that they still have rights. And in Philadelphia, they are, thanks to people like Fiorino.
“Technically, the answer is yes,” says Lt. Fran Healy, a special adviser to Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey. “You can carry openly within Philadelphia as long as you have a license.” Healy, who is also an attorney, doesn’t dispute the claim that city cops are often ignorant on the open-carry law, which has been on the books since 1995. He says it’s just never been a problem, that citizens were simply never observed carrying openly in the city. He adds that incidents such as Fiorino’s have prompted the PPD to better train its officers. The training has come in various forms, Healy says, including educating beat officers during roll call and conducting “teletype training,” which is when a sergeant receives a message from the commissioner that is passed down to his or her subordinates. “When they [officers on the street] know the law, that helps them respond better,” he says. “These [citizens] are decent people. They’re not criminals.”
But Healy certainly understands why the sight of someone openly carrying a firearm might put off some cops. “The bottom line is this: If I stop you and your behavior and conduct is such that I feel at risk … I personally may have my gun out,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I’m pointing it at your head. I don’t know who or what you are yet.”
The other factor contributing to cops’ confusion is that according to state law, a license is needed to carry openly in the city, but it’s not required in the rest of the commonwealth. Because of that, officers don’t technically have cause to detain an open carrier without reasonable articulable suspicion of a crime having been committed. But in Philly, because a license is needed, law enforcement officers contend they have authority to stop people to make sure they’re legit. Gun-rights activists take issue with this, saying probable cause is still required for a police stop. They liken it to driving: Officers aren’t legally allowed to stop everyone who is driving a car to ensure they’re licensed, unless a violation has been committed.
Healy, however, says it comes down to an “officer safety” issue, meaning if an open carrier is spotted, there might be brief police interaction. “I think the officers are well justified in Philadelphia … to do an investigation,” he says. “We just want to confirm that you’re lawful, and we’ll let you go on your way.”
Add to all that the convoluted wording of the state law, which essentially makes open carry de-facto legal: “No person shall carry a firearm, rifle or shotgun at any time upon the public streets or upon any public property in a city of the first class unless:(1) such person is licensed to carry a firearm; or (2) such person is exempt from licensing under section 6106 of this title (relating to firearms not to be carried without a license). The second bullet point generally refers to law enforcement and others for whom their job requires the carrying of a gun. Because the law doesn’t explicitly say open carry is legal, some question whether it really is. State law also doesn’t make a distinction between open versus concealed carry. “By not addressing it, the Legislature has left it open,” Healy says. “The statute is vague, which leaves a little bit of a problem.”
To gun-rights advocates, the law is quite clear. After all, if there isn’t a law against something, anything, it’s legal, right? Proponents of open carry were so adamant about getting their message out that they organized a rally in Center City last weekend. One of the activists was Derek Price, who on May 14 was strolling up the steps toward City Hall wearing black pants, a blue button-down shirt, a black vest and a gun on one hip. The Harleysville resident arrived for a gathering organized by members of the Pennsylvania Firearm Owners Association. “Open carry, concealed carry, it’s totally up to the individual,” said Price, 38, who has been open carrying since getting his license in 2007.
Price, like the others attending the rally, aim to make open carry more visible. One woman came up to Price, asking him to point her in the direction of the Ritz Carlton. “Perception is everything,” Price said.
As more protesters arrived, it seemed as though the rally had the makings for some interesting feedback. Again, nothing. Here they were, a group of about 25 or so gun-toting average Joe’s, walking through the outdoor plaza at City Hall, and nobody seemed to notice. “We’ve been standing here, what, 20 minutes?” Price asked. “Nobody’s complained.”
Finally, Healy arrived with officers from the department’s Civil Affairs Unit, the armband-clad cops who monitor protests and labor disputes, and off the group went. During the next four hours, the gun-wearers and a handful of cops, all in plainclothes, strolled downtown Philadelphia. There were stops outside police headquarters and the District Attorney’s Office. Since federal law was recently changed to allow for firearms in gun-friendly states to be brought into national parks, the group figured it would stop by and take a photo near the Liberty Bell, too. “Exercising our Second Amendment where the Second Amendment was signed,” one member could be heard calling out.
Over the next four hours, the group walked, held signs and handed out pamphlets to members of the public. A few people cast stares. Some asked questions. None seemed worried or concerned in the least. That’s the way it should be, the open carriers contend. Even Healy seemed pleased with the results of the peaceful protest. “These interactions can be positive,” he said at the rally. “I’m looking at this as more of an educational thing on both sides.”
Ted Noga, the Pennsylvania Firearm Owners Association member who organized the rally, was also pleased that everything went off without a hitch that rainy Saturday. “I’m quite impressed with the response by the police department,” he said.
Lt. Lisa King, head of the department’s Gun Permits Unit, said her division is now working to amend language on a supplemental sheet accompanying the firearms license application that says a licensee must conceal. The wording on is old, she concedes. King, who attended the rally, says didn’t even know the practice was legal before it was brought to her attention.
“It’s definitely going to do something,” says Josh Dillon, a Philly gun owner who typically carries concealed. Dillon, who carried openly on this day, says the whole aim of the event was to create awareness. Still, since he doesn’t want to be harassed, he keeps it concealed. But that’s not to say he opposes open carry. People can choose for themselves, he says.
As for Fiorino, he’s just glad the encounter in Northeast Philly sparked some awareness. “I think that if people like myself don’t get out there and do it, that often misinformation and ignorance continues to spread,” he says.