Open carry and concealed carry are white privilege at protests and everywhere. I’m a Black, trained, licensed veteran afraid authorities will kill me.

I am an Army combat veteran and an NRA-certified pistol instructor. I own guns for hunting and personal protection. I have possessed concealed carry licenses in Virginia and North Carolina. I believe in the Second Amendment, but I won’t even consider carrying a firearm openly in public. I haven’t exercised my right to carry a concealed handgun in more than four years.

The reason: I am Black.

It has become clear to me that open carry and concealed carry are white privileges — permit or not. Despite having a license: I am afraid of being killed by police if I carry a gun in public.

I have good reason to be afraid. In 2016 in Minnesota, a Black school cafeteria worker named Philando Castile was killed during a routine traffic stop after merely mentioning the fact that he was legally in possession of a concealed firearm. Tamir Rice, a 12-year old Black boy in an open-carry state, was murdered by officers in just seconds for holding a toy gun. John Crawford III was murdered in a Walmart holding a BB gun that was for sale in the store.

There are too many more to mention.

White protesters intimidate with guns

On the other hand, just last month, when a 17-year old white male shot three people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, killing two, police wouldn’t even accept his surrender. Despite the fact that he was armed with an AR-15 and onlookers clearly identified him as the shooter, the police let him walk by. Before eventually being arrested, he crossed state lines and got to sleep in his own bed the night he killed two people and wounded another.

Compare that to the excessive force used by authorities in protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Peaceful protesters — many of whom were Black — were harassed, arrested, pepper sprayed, tear gassed and beaten. Meanwhile, white counter-protesters again showed up openly carrying guns to intimidate them, making clear they were ready to use deadly force while police looked on.

Increasingly, white protesters use open carry not just as an expression of privilege, but as a way to intimidate Black Americans. At a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, at protests against the removal of Confederate statues, and at racial justice counter-protests, guns have been used as an implicit symbol of white supremacy.

Protesters at an open carry protest on July 4, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia.

That was on clear display when a St. Louis couple threatened Black Lives Matter protesters with an AR-15 and a pistol, and despite being charged with felonies, they were featured speakers at the Republican National Convention.

Day after day, the country that was founded on the words “All men are created equal” demonstrates that white citizens may carry firearms in protest, while Black citizens have limited rights to protest at all.

But none of it surprises me. Black gun ownership has always been treated differently. An early post-bellum purpose of the newly formed Ku Klux Klan was toconfiscate guns from Blacks in the South — even if the guns had been obtained through service in the Union Army.

Lawmakers and law enforcement have long seen Black gun owners as a threat. In 1967, after a group of armed Black Panthers peacefully marched on the California state capitol in 1967, a state law banning open carry was enacted nearly immediately under Governor Ronald Reagan. But no such law was passed this year after armed protesters demanded the end of stay-at-home orders at the Michigan capitol.

During the 2015 Ferguson protests, a group of Black men were arrested on suspicion of firearm possession despite being completely unarmed, while a group of heavily-armed white militia men was allegedly granted permission by police to walk through the same city at the same time.

White privilege and threats of violence

In each case, what these men are demonstrating is their privilege as white people to open carry guns wherever they want and the ability to implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, threaten violence if they don’t get their way.

In obtaining my concealed carry license, I underwent training before being granted the privilege. It wasn’t nearly as comprehensive as my military weapons training, but it was something. Meanwhile, open carry is permitted by default as a result of the silence of the law in 41 states — which means that almost anyone who possesses an AR-15 or shotgun can legally carry in public, with no training requirement.

This country has a long road ahead in the fight for racial justice, but when it comes to open carry, we can take action sooner. States must prohibit firearms at demonstrations held on public property or at capitol buildings. If you want to protest, bring signs, not guns.

Weak open carry laws should never be used to enable armed intimidation or suppression of the constitutional right to assemble and peacefully protest. More states should follow the example of the handful that already regulate the open carry of firearms in public, by prohibiting it or requiring a license. And where we have these laws, they must be equally enforced.

I carried a firearm on behalf of this country in uniform. But I can’t feel safe carrying my own firearms here at home. Something must change.




Justin McFarlin is a service-disabled veteran of the war in Iraq, a former U.S. Army officer with over a decade of aerospace and defense experience, and a member of the Everytown for Gun Safety Veterans Advisory Council. Follow him on Twitter: @justinkmcfarlin