REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: Open Air, Open Carry

By on July 26, 2017

Wyoming’s open carry laws create tension for citizens and police officers.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Recently a few friends and I threw a picnic together and attended Thin Air Shakespeare on the Center for the Arts lawn. The convivial community event is a highlight of the summer—the productions are excellent and the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming. This year’s production of The Tempest was indeed no exception. We laughed and sat captivated by the excellent costumes, staging and acting.

When the lawn is full of spectators, as it was the night I attended, each person’s blanket or camp chairs abut the other. Seated adjacent to us was a middle-aged man and woman on a blanket. The man was disinterested—as the play started, he took out his phone and started playing a card game. He was lying on his back, not even looking at the stage.

I’ll admit I was annoyed. He wasn’t bothering anyone, but why come to the play in the first place? Didn’t he understand how lucky we are to have such great local theater? Why not enjoy the community and the magical feeling of dusk falling while the age-old words of The Bard resounded?

Whatever. His loss, right? My attention turned to the play, where it was meant to be.

At some point later in the play, however, this man again became a focal point. My friend nudged me and said, “Did you see that guy’s gun?” Sure enough, a large black handgun was strapped to his belt, openly displayed for all to see. He continued to play on his phone while his gun stared me in the face.

This was the first time I’d been confronted with the reality of Wyoming’s open carry gun laws. The man was totally within his rights to carry and display his gun. It did not matter if people sitting near him felt uncomfortable or threatened. His right to carry outweighs my wish to not encounter firearms in crowded public venues.

But was this just a case of me being… feisty or naïve? I wanted to let him know that he had made me feel uncomfortable and had disrupted my enjoyment of the play. I couldn’t figure out why someone would wear a gun to Shakespeare in the first place, and why the person who clearly didn’t want to be there thought it was a good idea to bring his firearm along for his reluctant outing. So, after the play ended, I tapped him on the shoulder and asked (not in the friendliest tone): “Why did you wear your gun to our nice community event?”

To which he replied, “I’m a police officer. My gun goes where I go.” 

Some savvy readers may have anticipated this revelation. But I wasn’t expecting it at all. And it didn’t calm my frustration. For 45 minutes I’d been wondering if I needed to be afraid of this person, and the fact that he was a cop did not instantly quell the anxiety that had built up in me. I persisted (as feisty women do) and told him that I didn’t know that off-duty police officers carried weapons and that his weapon seemed menacing.

By now, his wife was looking at me like she was ready to tear my face off. He made a move to leave and told me, “Thanks for ruining my evening.”

“Thanks for ruining mine,” I called after him.

I stewed about this altercation all weekend. I decided I needed to talk with Todd Smith, Jackson’s chief of police, to get a broader perspective.

Smith explained Wyoming law changed about five years ago (around the time Thin Air Shakespeare began here) to allow citizens to carry firearms openly and concealed without a permit. He said that law enforcement was not initially a fan of open carry, as it made their job tenser. I asked him what the public should do when they see someone wearing or carrying a gun. His answer was instructive, and validated my rapid recognition that our state’s gun laws have changed the face of public spaces.

“If you would have asked me that question five years ago, I would have told you if you see a gun, be a good witness and give us a call so we can come check it out,” Smith said. “Today, I would tell you not to be alarmed and to notice the person’s behavior instead of their weapon,” he continued. “Guns used to startle us in law enforcement. Now we will assume you are a Wyoming resident.”

Smith was good-natured in response to my description of the incident. He said he understood my alarm. But he firmly advised me that I should expect to see people carrying guns openly in Wyoming. “A lot of people open carry in this state, almost to make a statement out of it,” he said.

Regarding off-duty cops carrying guns, Smith said the hope is that they will conceal their weapon so as not to alarm people around them. But he wants his off-duty officers to carry their guns.

“We encourage our people to carry,” Smith said. “Part of that is that we have a small police force here and few of them live in town. If they have their weapon, we can call on them in an emergency.”

I don’t doubt that what Smith told me is true, that an off-duty police officer is carrying his or her weapon as part of a sworn duty to protect. It’s also true that for some people, like me, guns make us nervous no matter who is carrying them. How do we coexist in this state and in this country where disagreement about gun laws continues at a fevered pitch?

While I may never agree with the proliferation of guns in the U.S.—and the ratcheting up of tensions between law enforcement and citizens because of those abundant guns—I can at least try to see things from the off-duty cop’s perspective. “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance,” Prospero, hero of The Tempest, said.

I hope the off-duty police officer will take that rarer action too and think about my perspective as well. PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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