MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Today, we want to spend some time talking about guns, which most people know have played a very big role in the life and development of this country, and still do. In a few minutes, we'll talk about an aspect of the civil rights movement that you might not have heard. Author Charles E. Cobb Jr. explains why he says guns made the civil rights movement possible. He has a new book about that. But first, we want to talk about a story that shows how much guns are a part of life and a part of our consciousness right now. Some gun rights advocates are getting national attention for what are known as open carry demonstrations. That's when groups of gun owners meet in a public space - sometimes at marches, or in stores, or restaurants - carrying weapons in full view. The National Rifle Association's lobbying arm originally called the movement counterproductive, weird, and, quote, "just not neighborly." The NRA has since backtracked on that comment. But some businesses are fighting back and resisting this push to allow people to bring their weapons into their establishments. And that caused writer Dahlia Lithwick to ask if this debate is having a broader influence over our bigger conversation about guns. She covers legal affairs for Slate, and she wrote about this recently. Welcome, Dahlia. Thanks so much for joining us.
DAHLIA LITHWICK: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: Also with us to talk about open carry protest in Texas is Wayne Slater. He is the senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News. Wayne, welcome back to you as well. Thanks for joining us once again.
WAYNE SLATER: Great to be with you.
MARTIN: So Dahlia, can you explain what open carry laws are - briefly if you would - because I know there are a number of them and talk about where they're in effect and what's that sparking.
LITHWICK: Well, it's really we've seen a lot of this is based in Texas. Open carry laws are essentially laws that say you can openly carry in Texas. We're talking about long guns, as long as, you know, you've met certain requirements. And what it's sparking is this notion of open carry demonstrations. So this stops just being a state statutory question, it starts to be a First Amendment issue, where folks in open carry states - they look. If we're allowed to carry our AR-47s in public spaces, we're going to make a First Amendment statement that, A - we're allowed to do this, and B - you should get used to it and not be afraid of it. And that's the part that, as you say, is sparking some controversy because a lot of folks who are subject to the so-called open carry demonstrations say wait, I am scared of this. I don't feel safe in this environment and so what you're really seeing is a conflict between the First Amendment, sort of demonstrative rights, of open carriers in states where it's legal in conflict with the feeling of public safety, particularly in this case, mothers of young children in a bunch of restaurant chains. And so this has turned into a big fight about whether you have the right to do it as opposed to whether it's smart to do it.
MARTIN: So when we talk a little bit more about that - does that track with you with what you are seeing in Texas? Like, why are people all of a sudden wanting to carry these? And it's not - we're not talking about, like, the kinds of - say a nine millimeter- like a handgun that people are used to seeing with people in law enforcement or security officers. We're talking specifically about long guns, Wayne?
SLATER: Yeah, we are. And I think Dahlia's got it exactly right. This collision of values, First Amendment versus sort of an attitude about the Second Amendment, and then also the collision of private property rights - that's another sacred right in a sort of conservative state like Texas. So on the one hand, if you have the right to carry around your rifle and you do - there's no specific law in Texas that says in an open space that you can't - then it's not only the question of is it smart. In other words, is it counterproductive to the larger goal of encouraging a broader attitude about gun rights. But is it also bad for business? And a number of business in Texas who are, I guarantee you, are headed by very strong conservative valued business folks, think in some cases this isn't smart to have some guy with an AK-47 in the baby food aisle of Target. That just isn't good for business.
MARTIN: How has that been playing out? Have businesses been specifically telling people they can't come in? I have to tell that, you know, that I was last in Texas for a book conference and I was wandering around before my session and noted that there were a number of bars that had signs very prominently saying, you know, no guns in this bar. And you can, sort of, certainly understand why people feel that perhaps, you know, alcohol and guns don't mix. So are they specifically barring people from bringing these guns in? Are they requesting? Are they suggesting? Are they reaching out to the people organizing these movements? What are they doing, Wayne, specifically?
SLATER: There are really two things. One is, with respect to bars, there is a specific provision in the State Concealed Weapon Handgun Law -the law that allows people to carry guns into all kinds of places, so along as they're concealed. They're not allowed in a few places, like schools and bars, places where you sell 50 percent or more of the take is alcohol. But this is really a larger question here, with respect to the long guns, or open carry - openly carrying a gun. And what's happening is in some of these places, where the law doesn't specifically say you can't do it, that businesses are asking them - places like Chipotle, places like Sonic drive-in, places like Target - where the owners of these businesses are, in effect, saying don't do it. And ironically...
MARTIN: How are they enforcing that, though? I mean, so what are they doing? Are they saying we would prefer that you not or are they saying you can't come in if you do? What are they saying?
SLATER: What's happened, basically, here so far is these open carry advocates, generally speaking young men - look like they're, I don't know, characters from the movie, "Knocked Up", or something - but these guys, who very strongly support gun rights, say that they're letting the managers of these companies know before they show up. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. In a few cases - and I've seen some video. Dalia has written about this - where in Texas and a couple of places, the waiter or someone at a restaurant has come over to the folks who were sitting there and say, we're sorry we will not serve you, we are asking you not to stay here and have - while you're holding long guns and scaring the rest of our patrons.
MARTIN: You know to that end - and if you're just joining us we're talking about open carry protest or protest against open carry laws and people are trying to make a demonstration by specifically carrying long guns into establishments. And our guests are Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News and Slate legal affairs writer, Dahlia Lithwick. Dahlia, to that point, you wrote about the fact that in one restaurant the people working there thought they were being robbed and they weren't serving anybody because they ran and hid when they saw somebody, kind of, walking in with these guns, which sounds funny but you can imagine if you are on the receiving end of that you would not find it funny at all. But you are suggesting in your piece that businesses resisting this desire to accommodate this could be having an effect, where organized political activism around gun control is not. Could you talk a little bit more about your thoughts about that?
LITHWICK: That's exactly right, Michel. I mean, the point of the piece was, I think, you know, in the wake of the tragic shootings in California, you saw another rise and fall of an effort to, you know, maybe this time we can get meaningful gun reform enacted. And it never quite takes off. We learned that after Sandy Hook. You know, even when public opinion is at 80, 90 percent for certain initiatives, they cannot get passed legislatively. And the courts, I think, have done a lot to push the idea that Second Amendment rights are personal and that people do have the right to carry guns after D.C. versus Heller was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. So the point of my piece was, if this can't get fixed legislatively or judiciously, maybe it's just going to get fixed by rational actors in the free market saying, that's fine, Chipotle, when the rubber hits the road we will not go to your store if you have an open carry policy. And as Wayne said, we've seen in Texas in a very few short weeks Chipotle, Starbucks, Chili's, Sonic have all issued statements that say you are not welcome to bring your long guns here. And I think that we may just see rational actors pressuring businesses. Right now, Target is being pressured very hard by the same group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense In America - very, very hard to make a similar statement about, you can open carry wherever you want, but not in the baby aisle at Target. So I think we may see some change happen just because the market responds to rational actors in ways that government doesn't.
MARTIN: Wayne, what about that? I still need to press on this question that is, as I understand it, that these business owners are not barring people with this, you know, who want to carry long guns in their stores. They are requesting that they not come in, which is interesting, I mean, when the rubber hits the road, at some point, if one wants to test the theory it has to be enforced. So how far are these businesses willing to go to say this is not - we are not accommodating this. I mean, I think some people are familiar with things like dress codes, right? For example, at certain establishments they'll say, well you know, you can't bring your saggy pants in here. Or you can't, you know, you have to wear shirt and shoes, you know, that sort of thing. And people are pretty accustomed to having that enforced. But I don't know that people have litigated on this question, specifically. So Wayne, how far - do you have any sense right now of how far business are willing to go to enforce this - what seems to be a request?
SLATER: I think there are a couple of things and one of them is in terms of the rational actor policy. That businesses, so many of these businesses, by encouraging that, really have the public on their side. Even in a gun-loving rights - gun rights loving state like Texas, where people again think that independent private property owners, the business, certainly has the right to do this. And even more rationally, normal Texans, even those who are very strongly supportive of Second Amendment rights, say this is kind of crazy and scary to have somebody there. So I think - I think businesses will push the matter. There is a slight - there is a provision in law, although it doesn't explicitly say you can't carry your long guns around most places - there is a provision law, which is being used right now and it has to do - not with, explicitly, the guns on private property or on - in businesses or in this case, the Texas Capitol. Right now, I can carry a gun into the Texas Capitol if I want to. I have a concealed weapon permit and I can go right in with my permit and carry a gun. Theoretically, I could carry a long gun into the Capitol but the DPS, the Department of Public Safety, folks have let me know, and others know, that if anyone tries to do that - and frankly, I don't know of anyone who has tried to do it - they will be stopped because you are creating a potential disturbance. And it's an odd way - it's almost like going after the Mafia with tax violations. But in effect, if you go to a place and you are creating disturbance, there is a legal provision - a legal right - that a business can, right now, call the police and on good legal grounds - sound legal grounds - say these folks shouldn't be here but one last thing and that's that politicians who need to, kind of thread the needle on this, many rational politicians in Texas are beginning to say we love gun rights but we sure don't think this is the right way to promote it.
MARTIN: That was Wayne Slater, senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News. He joined us from KUT in Austin. Dahlia Lithwick is legal affairs writer for Slate. She joined us from Charlottesville, Virginia. Her piece was titled, "Not In My Backyard: The courts and legislature won't solve our gun problem. Maybe the free market can". Thank you both so much for joining us.
LITHWICK: Thank you.
SLATER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.