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ASHBURN, Va. – A hundred and fifty years ago, few people would have raised an eyebrow about someone with a gun on his or her hip walking into a public building.
But now in an era with gun accidents, injuries and deaths in the tens of thousands and mass shootings grabbing headlines, such a sight is often jarring for Americans going about their business.
However, a small but vocal segment of the powerful gun-rights movement that engages in what they call “open carry” – visibly toting a gun in a holster at restaurants, farmer’s markets, Starbucks, Walmarts and and other public places – is trying to make American society more accepting of visible and concealed firearms.
"I would say [I'm] pretty much armed 24/7," explained Ed Levine. "Because right now as I sit in this home, someone could kick in the door. I'd have probably five seconds of warning from my alarm system going off. You never know when that's going to happen. So you always kind of have to be at the ready."
Levine is one of the most outspoken proponents of Virginia's 'open carry" movement. A small sliver of the commonwealth’s more than 280,000 concealed carry permit holders act, in effect, as the citizen advocacy arm of the gun-rights movement.
Open-carry proponents try to change public attitudes by openly carrying loaded guns every day. The movement first attracted broad attention in the summer of 2009, when gun owners carried weapons openly outside President Barack Obama’s health care town-hall meetings across the country. And since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the movement has generated more attention, and both gun rights and gun control advocates say it's becoming more popular.
Many proponents of open carry want the United States to allow what is called constitutional carry – the right to bring a loaded gun of any type, anywhere, concealed or openly without a permit or training at the age of 16.
Considered by some to be the most liberal state on social issues, Vermont has maintained constitutional carry since its inception while the nation enacted more restrictive laws in the 20th century. But among gun advocates’ legislative victories across the country in recent decades are Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona and Wyoming, while Oklahoma recognizes constitutional carriers from other states.
Very cognizant of the law, many open carriers wear portable digital audio recorders to document their daily activities. If nothing happens they delete the recordings. Should they have any interaction with law enforcement or a confrontation because of their visible guns, they have a recording of a traffic stop like this one by Levine (edited for length):
“If things go sideways or I have any confrontation, the recorder's memory will be more accurate than my own,” open-carry advocate Judy Rudek told America Tonight.
Rudek is an National Rifle Association-certified firearms instructor. She primarily teaches handgun safety.
The types of class she teaches are required in order to carry a concealed weapon in Virginia, but they aren't required in order to openly carry a gun in the state.
"I absolutely feel that there is a level of training that's required to responsibility own a firearm. I don't feel is I don't feel the government has to set that level," Levine explained. "I think that’s just one of those personal things you have to do for yourself."
Members of the gun rights movement may feel gun owners can regulate themselves, but the statistics on accidental death and injuries alone are startling: each year, about 600 people are killed and more than 17,000 are injured in gun accidents.
Even some guns rights enthusiasts worry about what what effect carrying can have on an individual's mindset.
"I was a law enforcement officer, so I had to carry, explained Adam Wingo, a former law enforcement officer who wants the option to legally carry a concealed weapon again. "But I found that I would tend to be more bold, emboldened because I had a weapon or a firearm to defend myself. … Now that I’m walking around unarmed, even though I’m vulnerable. I feel a little better. And I’ve become very good at running away since I’m not armed."
America Tonight met up with a group of open carry proponents during a meeting at a strip mall restaurant in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., that included a raffle for an AR-10.
For them, open carry is more than a movement. It's also a lifestyle.
Most open and concealed carriers we spoke with had at least one loaded handgun on them, and some had two. Some had knives to protect their firearms, but few carried any non-lethal options such as pepper spray, a stun gun or non-lethal ammunition like rubber bullets that are widely used by law enforcement.
None of the Virginians that we profiled would drink alcohol while wearing the firearm and many in the movement are teetotalers. They often gather often in restaurants that serve alcohol to discuss political strategy, fellowship with other gun owners and to make a point in public.
In other parts of the country, some have charged that the movement amounts to gun bullying, but open-carry advocates deny their intent is to intimidate.
"I hear all the time in the news media that we're right wing nut cases, all these slanderous words, and I'm like, 'That's not me,'' Sean Kennedy, one of the Virginia open-carry advocates told us. "As far as open carry is concerned, it shows gun owners to be responsible people. We're very normal."