Concealed Carry vs. Open Carry

Some gun owners have the option of carrying a firearm either concealed or openly in their state of residence. Open carry is not as common as concealed carry. Having openly carried a firearm for almost two decades as a police officer, I can testify that doing so creates different challenges than concealed carry. Both options have benefits and drawbacks.

Months ago I was grocery shopping in Wisconsin when I observed a man carrying a full-sized 1911 in an old, beat-up holster. He was holding a toddler and the gun was dangling away from his body at a 30-degree angle. Initially I thought that the man was an off duty-police officer, or that he was a citizen who simply forgot to pull his t-shirt over his sidearm. But as I studied his rig further, it was clear that the holster was not made for concealment.

I live in Illinois, close to the Wisconsin border, and I was unaware that Wisconsin had open carry. I honestly felt mixed emotions regarding what I was seeing. I was glad that he had the right to carry—openly or concealed—and that he was exercising that right. However, there were several things working against him. For example, should a deadly force situation arise in the store, he would have to consider how to handle the toddler he carried in his arms. If he encountered someone who wanted to grab his gun, I doubt his holster would’ve provided any retention. It also crossed my mind that the gun he chose to carry might be difficult to manipulate under stress (such as forgetting to take it off safe, or squeezing so hard his thumb would activate the safety). Each of these factors can quickly become big problems in a deadly force encounter.

Anticipation of problems is a skill that someone overtly carrying a firearm must develop. One of the first things I was taught at the police academy is that your attire, appearance, body language, as well as the condition of your equipment all telegraph a message about the type of skills you possess, and the kind of person you are. I found this to be very true while on the job. Criminals will study their targets and they will victimize those who appear weak or disadvantaged. Before choosing a method of carry, consider some criteria that might influence that decision.

1. Deterring Criminals

Deterring criminals is one of the biggest reasons people cite for carrying a firearm in the open. Although, to the best of my knowledge, there are no statistics to confirm or negate this opinion, I feel comfortable saying that my gun was never as much of a deterrent as I, or my fellow officers, had hoped. “He’s got my gun!” or “He’s grabbing my gun!” are phrases I have heard far too often in my life. The warning here is this: If you are carrying openly because you think that no one will mess with you, think again! And when you come across an undeterred, determined individual, be prepared for one tough fight. Those who carry concealed may avoid targeting more often than those carrying openly.

2. Reaction Will Never Beat Action

Even though some people believe that carrying a firearm in the open will be a deterrent, in those times when it isn’t, the odds of success are stacked against the intended target. This means that once someone sees that an individual is armed and chooses to target that person, the intended target will most likely not have a successful outcome because a bad guy’s action beats the target’s reaction. In a spontaneous attack, it is unlikely that the victim will be able to outdraw whatever violence is being directed at them. This is true for both open and concealed carriers.

3. Environmental Conditions

You should always take environmental conditions into account when carrying a firearm openly or concealed because of the impact those conditions have on the functioning of the firearm. This is one area that really because clear to me as an armorer at the police department. We had officers wading around in flash floods, and officers that were out in blizzard conditions. In the Midwest the conditions are ever-changing and they impact the function of a gun that is not well maintained. These conditions can impact performance and those who carry in the open must be aware that their firearms will need much more care.

There are some issues with those who carry their firearms concealed too. This is especially true for those who carry their firearm in a purse. Lipstick, pens, and other cylindrical objects can easily lodge in the barrel of a firearm. Those carrying concealed on their body must be aware of the effects lint and sweat can have on the firearm. These tend to be less detrimental than weather conditions, but still require regular inspections and maintenance.

  1. Police Stops The police can't control who calls them and for what, so being stopped by the police when carrying a firearm openly or concealed is always a possibility. The way you get treated can be pretty rough too.

A friend on the force once went through a fast-food drive-thru after work, with his duty gun inside his jacket. It became exposed when he reached for his wallet to pay. Later, as he pulled away, he saw one squad car get behind him, then another, then another. He began to wonder if someone was hiding in the bed of his pickup truck so he turned around while driving and tried to look. He found out later that his extra movement inside the truck made the officers even more uncomfortable…never a good thing! As he ate his McRib sandwich, he watched in the rearview mirror until the officers activated their red and blue lights. According to my friend, the police conducted a felony stop and he was ordered out at gunpoint. Then he was ordered to his knees, tackled and handcuffed.

He explained who he was, and the police explained why he was stopped. As a police officer, my friend could see everything he did wrong. It turned out that the clerk at the drive-thru called police upon seeing his gun, and had stalled him until they arrived. Every action the police officers took was prudent, legal, and completely in alignment with how police are supposed to interact with an armed subject.

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Always remember that if you live in a concealed carry state, you have to keep that firearm concealed. Anyone can call the police on someone with a firearm, and the police can legally detain you until they determine your carry status. That interaction will begin very guardedly and officers will only relax when they determine the threat level is low.

For my friend, the saddest part was that he was forced to drop his half-eaten sandwich (after all, the McRib is offered for a limited time only!).

5. Accessibility

Carrying a firearm in the open may have a slight advantage over concealed carry as far as accessibility. When a firearm is worn on the hip and outside of clothing it is less likely to get hung up on apparel. This doesn’t mean it will never happen. Those who carry concealed have to clear clothing in order to draw, and depending on where the firearm is concealed, there might be several obstacles. Nonetheless, this is a consideration for both modes of carry.

These are some of the most important considerations for carrying a firearm concealed or in the open. Regardless of which option you choose (assuming you live in a state where you have a choice), remember that even though there is great responsibility that comes with carrying any firearm, that responsibility is even greater for those who carry openly, because the choice is visible for everyone to see – law-abiding citizens and criminals alike.