Understanding the 'Guy With the Gun'

As Starbucks gun controversy boils, open carry movement shoots into spotlight.

March 1, 2010, 4:39 PM

March 2, 2010— -- Ed Levine said he remembers when people at his favorite restaurants used to know him as "the guy with the gun."

It's a label that's faded, the Virginia man said, as more people like him have chosen to openly carry their handguns while running everyday errands. Levine said he carries his 45-caliber pistol nearly everywhere he goes, from his local Starbucks to his community pool, and he rarely draws attention.

"It's like putting on your socks -- you do it every day," he said. "Someone doesn't run up to you and say, 'Oh, you're wearing socks.'"

The practice of "open carry" at retail stores -- carrying a handgun in plain sight -- has come under fire from anti-gun activists in recent weeks after open carry proponents tested California's gun laws by bringing their guns with them to several Golden State stores, including Starbucks.

In response, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence called on the coffee giant to ban firearms at its stores. The group is concerned about accidental firings, untrained gun owners and the welfare of those "who want to enjoy their coffee without putting themselves at risk of gunshot," Brady spokesman Doug Pennington said.

The Brady petition demanding a Starbucks gun ban now bears 28,000 signatures, with some signers saying they'll choose other coffee retailers, including Peet's Coffee and Tea, which recently announced it would prohibit guns at its shops, the spokesman said.

A Starbucks spokesman declined a request for an interview about the open carry issue, instead providing a statement: "For Starbucks, the safety of our customers and partners is a paramount concern. We have existing security protocols in place to handle situations related to safety in our stores. We will continue to adhere closely to local, state and federal laws and the counsel of law enforcement regarding this issue."

Meanwhile, two chains in addition to Peet's, California Pizza Kitchen and California-based Buckhorn Grill, have said they're banning guns at their stores.

While the Starbucks controversy may soon force more businesses to confront their gun-carry policies -- retail analyst Lori Wachs says that, until now, most chains have opted to avoid the hot button issue -- it's also raising the profile of the open carry movement and groups like OpenCarry.org.

The online community claims at least 26,000 members. OpenCarry.org co-founder Mike Stollenwerk said he and fellow Virginian John Pierce started the Web site in 2004.

The year before, Stollenwerk and several friends caused alarm at a Reston, Va., restaurant when they showed up for dinner with their guns in their holsters. At the time, even police officers called to the restaurant were confused about the state's open carry law, Stollenwerk said.

Confronting 'Prejudice' Against Guns

Stollenwerk and Pierce said they founded the Web site to educate people, including law enforcement officials, about open carry rights across the states. Though many states require permits for the concealed carrying of firearms, most don't regulate open carry.

The group is also working to "normalize the open carry of firearms," Pierce said.

"By open carrying, we're forcing people to confront the object of their prejudice," he said. "It's just like when gay and lesbian couple express affection in public -- it forces people to realize their friends, their neighbors, their relatives, their loves ones are in fact people who might live differently than they do but they're no less good people and they're no less good citizens."

"We never knew what this was going to turn into," Stollenwerk said. "We were just two guys following Virginia law, open carrying, and the next thing we know it's a movement."

The movement includes Levine. Along with his holstered pistol, the 48-year-old carries a small card with him detailing information on Virginians' open carry rights. He'll gladly pass it to anyone who questions his open carry decision -- not that he has to.

Levine, who lives in Potomac Falls, Va., says people ask him about his gun about once a week, and the questions are almost never negative. Often, he says, they're just interested in firearms training -- though Levine works in telecommunications by day, he's also a firearms instructor certified by the National Rifle Association.

Levine's 12-year-old daughter Brooke has been trained to use her own gun, a .22LR Caliber pistol. When the pair are together and someone asks her father why he's packing, Levine says Brooke has a ready answer: In a takeoff of a Mastercard commercial, Brooke points to the gun and says "$1,000" and then points to herself and says "priceless" -- a suggestion that the pretty penny Levine had to spend to buy the gun was worth it to protect his invaluable daughter.

Protecting himself and his family is why he carries a gun, Levine said. He has a concealed handgun permit that would allow him to be more discrete with his gun if he wanted to, but Levine says he often prefers to open carry because it's more comfortable and he has easier access to his gun if he needs it.

He hasn't needed it yet, he added.

"I hope I never do," he said.