On Aug. 3, a 21-year-old Texas man shot 46 people in an El Paso Walmart with a semi-automatic rifle, killing 22 of them. On Aug. 8, a 20-year-old man wearing body armor and carrying a semi-automatic rifle entered a Walmart in Springfield, Missouri, in what police say he intended as a “social experiment” to see if the store would honor the state’s open carry law in the wake of the El Paso killings.
The experiment got results. After shoppers panicked and a store employee pulled a fire alarm to trigger an evacuation, the man—his name is Dmitriy Andreychenko—was arrested and charged with making a terrorist threat; prosecutors argue that he recklessly disregarded the possibility that his actions would cause dangerous chaos. If you’ve been following the rise of politically motivated “tactical” open carry culture in the past six or so years, what happened next was surprising: Walmart and a number of its competitors, like Kroger, Wegmans, CVS, and Walgreens, have announced that they are “requesting” or “asking” customers not to display firearms in their stores even in states where the practice is legal.
As private entities, the stores have the right to set rules for their property. Walmart says it will take a “a very non-confrontational approach” to enforcing its request, but gun proliferation is a cultural issue as well as a legal one, which is why certain gun enthusiasts have been so eager to make a public show of openly carrying—and why the company’s move, however nonconfrontational, carries weight. Gun activists’ goal has been to make ordinary citizens accept the presence of people who could kill at any moment—to deliver the message that visibly armed citizens ought to be part of everyday life, to express the power of the gun rights movement, and to convey the idea that arming oneself, rather than collectively disarming society, is the proper response to feeling unsafe.
Open carry has been hard to stop at the legal level in states where Republicans control legislatures, which, of late, is most of them. The Supreme Court has not recognized a constitutional right to carry guns in public—yet—but it hasn’t struck down any open carry laws either. Advocates of gun control (or gun safety, if you prefer) have been attempting for years to do an end run by persuading chain stores and restaurants—which can be more responsive to national, general-public opinion than legislators in gerrymandered states—to ban open carry, with some success.
None of their efforts, though, has been as instantly effective as Andreychenko’s stunt in making the point that wearing military protective gear and carrying a semi-automatic weapon should perhaps not be considered an acceptable way to behave, during peacetime, around people who are shopping for paper towels. Inadvertently, the Missouri man—who, according to his wife, kept his assault weapon* and tactical vest in his car at all times—became a physical reductio ad absurdum of the idea that constantly being in the presence of loaded, 3-foot-long weapons should make the average person feel more safe than they otherwise would. Walmart’s CEO even referenced Andreychenko indirectly in his statement announcing the policy. (Andreychenko, for his part, recently said in an interview with local station KY3 that the “timing” of his Walmart experiment was “off.” Well, that depends on your perspective, my man.)
In an era of mass shootings, not knowing whether the armed individual next to you is a “law-abiding citizen” or an internet-addled murderer is its own kind of trauma. (And indeed, as the Trace has noted, at least two public shootings in open carry states have been committed by individuals who’d been brought to the attention of police before they started firing but hadn’t been arrested because, until they started shooting, they hadn’t been doing anything illegal.) The Resurgent, a conservative site that revolves around the work of gun-happy right-wing pundit Erick Erickson, wrote this week that “if the pro-gun community doesn’t take some action to rein in people like Dmitriy Andreychenko, the right to carry a gun could be easily lost.”
True. If the proprietors of such canonically red-state institutions as Walmart can conclude that their customers prefer not to encounter assault weapons, what’s to stop red-state politicians from also realizing that “public safety” can outweigh “self-protection” in other contexts as well—like when it comes to letting convicted stalkers and domestic abusers and mentally unstable white-pride extremists have access to weapons and ammunition?* Nothing (except the powerful weapons-manufacturer lobby and years of indoctrination in the floridly paranoid logic of the American right wing), that’s what!
Correction, Sept. 9, 2019: This post originally misidentified Andreychenko’s weapon as an “assault rifle,” which implied that it was fully automatic rather than semi-automatic. The post also suggested incorrectly that domestic abusers have “unrestricted” access to guns; existing laws do prohibit some (but not all) individuals who have perpetrated such abuse from owning firearms.
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