Walsh: Why are some people so gun-crazy?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

My 20-month-old nephew loves Elmo and Dora. He also has started making explosion and gunfire noises.

I get the inevitability of little boys' fascination for guns.

What I can't figure out are the men and sometimes women who don't grow out of the gun-crazy stage of childhood, who need to have a handgun on their hips at all times, who need their neighbors to notice.

Ten of them stormed the West Valley City Council meeting last week to back up Travis Deveraux, a 36-year-old credit card company worker who was detained by police last December while exercising with his Smith & Wesson.

"I don't blame them for being a little bit extra careful," Deveraux said. "But there's a line they crossed between being a little bit careful and a little bit too careful."

I thought there was no such thing as "too careful" - especially with a gun. But the OpenCarry crowd's literal interpretation of the "right to bear arms" and self-appointment as our "well-regulated militia" undercuts careful law enforcement, membership in a civil society and even reason.

It's in the Constitution, their thinking goes. They are "peaceably going about their business while armed," standing on the watchtower, the last line of defense against government tyranny and crazed criminals. We should thank them.

I understand the thrill of firing a Glock (I've done it), the euphoria of hitting the center of a target (and that too), generations of family deer-hunting weekends and the legitimate self-preservation instincts of Utah's elected concealed weapon carriers.

But the OpenCarry movement is a mystery to me. What kind of psychology - overcompensation, paranoia, antisocial personality - is behind that thinking?

Steven Gunn, an attorney and board member of the Gun Violence Prevention Center of Utah, believes it's pure ego.

"We have inconsiderate boors walking around on the street carrying firearms openly," says Gunn. "I don't think they are truly afraid for their safety. Most of them are trying to make a statement about the 2nd Amendment."

Anthropologist Charles Springwood says open carriers are trying to "naturalize the presence of guns, which means that guns become ordinary, omnipresent, and expected. Over time, the gun becomes a symbol of ordinary personhood."

OpenCarry.org, run by two Virginia gun lovers, claims 4,000 members nationwide. According to the Legal Community Against Violence in San Francisco, just seven states prohibit packing in public and eight restrict carrying handguns openly without a permit.

Utah's OpenCarry activists put on a show for the Los Angeles Times a few weeks ago, trying to appear warm and fuzzy, shopping at Costco, just like you and me - but with their handguns flapping in the breeze. They meet once a month at restaurants like Denny's and Sweet Tomatoes to socialize.

"We don't want to show up and say, 'Hey, we're here, we're armed, get used to it'," Kevin Jensen told the Times reporter.

But that's just what the showdown in West Valley City was about. The cowed mayor and city council members referred the case to the officers' professional standards review board.

Police are struggling to strike a balance between gun owners' rights and those of the rest of us.

"There has to be some common sense on their part too; they have to take into consideration the concern that they cause other citizens," says Layton Police Chief Terry Keefe. "I do not walk around when I'm off-duty with a weapon displayed."

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank would rather gun owners get concealed weapon permits than carry openly.

"In light of Trolley Square, mall shootings, school shootings, anyone walking around with a gun potentially creates a lot of phone calls for us," Burbank says. "How do you expect an officer to deal with that - other than to point a gun at them and go through the process [of elimination]? There's no other way to make that determination safely without putting officers at risk."

Utah lawmakers set up this stalemate when they wrote the state's anything goes concealed weapon law. They deliberately left open a loophole for those who carry their guns out in the open. Under Utah law, open carriers must be 18 years-old and keep their bullets out of the chamber. That's it. No training, no background check required.

"Second Amendment questions aside," says Springwood, a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, "the real debate seems to me a cultural and social one: Do we want a society in which it is an unconscious emblem of everyday life that folks move about with 'portable killing machines' strapped to their bodies?"

Legislators already have made that decision for us; we're living in the modern heart of the wild, wild West.

walsh@sltrib.com