Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A protester legally carrying a long gun was mistaken for a shooter in the Dallas police ambush. His story illustrates one of the biggest drawbacks to the policy.
Just before midnight Thursday night, as the crisis in Dallas was still unfolding, the Dallas Police Department posted a photo of an alleged suspect. The man pictured was black, stocky in build, wearing a camouflage-print t-shirt and, crucially, carrying a rifle slung over his shoulder.
The man’s name is Mark Hughes, and he had nothing to do with the shootings. As Lauren McGaughy reports in The Dallas Morning News, Hughes had joined the Dallas protest over the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to exercise his Second Amendment rights. Texas is an open-carry state, so he was breaking no law. Still, after Dallas police released his photo, Hughes turned himself in.
Sixteen hours later, Hughes still appeared on the Twitter page run by the Dallas Police Department, under the blaring caption, “Please help us find him!” Hundreds of angry Dallas residents tweeted at the department to ask the police to take down the photo. Even Michael D. Brown, former under-secretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, felt compelled to weigh in: “Stop besmirching him.” UPDATE: As of 5:45 p.m. Friday, it looks like the Dallas police decided to listen: the post no longer appears on Twitter.
“I’m not satisfied with an apology,” Hughes told the local CBS affiliate in Dallas. Reasonably so, given that the Dallas Police Department is still pointing negative attention toward Hughes—at a time when all eyes are on Dallas. Yet Hughes acknowledges in that same interview that he could have been shot, given the tense nature of the situation and the chaos on the scene (not to mention the fact that police were looking for him). There’s subtext to his statement: Open carry is a problem for police during a crisis.
While Hughes was released without incident, Americans of color have suffered many fatal encounters with law enforcement while exercising their Second Amendment rights. Both Sterling and Castile were allegedly shot and killed by police officers because the officers suspected they were drawing firearms. Castile allegedly announced his licensed weapon to the officer.
While African American men may draw danger to themselves by exercising their rights to legally carry a firearm, open carry represents a potential threat for police officers, especially during a crisis. While Hughes had no way of knowing that a shooter would target police officers during a peaceful protest, once the shooting started, any person with a rifle slung over his shoulder was bound to be considered a person of interest.
“One of the reasons I’m not a fan of open carry is, having been an officer myself in a former life, I can imagine being in the midst of something as tragic as what was going on last night and having to discern between who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy with a shoulder weapon,” says David Klinger, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “I can see the makings of a tragedy very quickly if a citizen gets in the midst of such a situation.”
Klinger says that concealed weapons are less of a problem: A handgun holstered on a person’s hip does not require police to make the same split-second judgment call. He cautions, too, that many states have had open-carry laws on the books for a long time without incident.
There is little consensus within law enforcement on either option: Higher-ups in law enforcement tend to not support even concealed weapons, Klinger says, while line officers don’t have a problem with them. He adds that he doesn’t know how line officers feel about open-carry weapons but that he suspects most top cops would oppose them.
During a shooting, police take action to identify the source of the threat, take cover for themselves, help civilians out of the shooting zone, and then take action to protect lives—whether that means taking on the shooter or administering first aid. Those are situations police are trained to face. “For well-trained police officers, panic doesn’t set in,” Klinger says.
But shootings don’t often play out the way that the tragedy unfolded in Dallas. There isn’t a police training program for a crisis like this one. The closest thing that comes to mind, he says, may be the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin, in which Charles Whitman climbed the university’s famed tower and opened fire on students and residents. Even in that situation, the shooter did not deliberately target law enforcement. “Trying to discern what goes on when you have someone who is aggressively seeking to murder police officers in open space—this is to my knowledge unprecedented,” Klinger says.
The major risk of open carry during a crisis is that a police officer might mistake a person carrying a weapon with a suspected shooter. But an even more likely risk is that a person carrying a weapon could distract an officer, taking their attention away from where it needs to be: finding the shooter, helping victims, protecting the public.
These are reasons why one favorite idea among conservatives for combating gun violence—arming teachers, doctors, professors, and other “good guys” with guns—falls short. “Open carry in a situation like that can put police officers in a pickle,” Klinger says.
Correction: This post originally misspelled Philando Castile’s last name. It has been corrected.