Do gun-toters pose a danger when they carry their weapons in public, even if they're unloaded?
Some California lawmakers think they do and want to rein in a growing trend among Second Amendment advocates who grab their handgun when they reach for the car keys and head to the supermarket.
"What I'm concerned about is people who have no training can carry a gun for no other purpose than to make a public statement," said the bill's author Democratic Assemblywoman Lori Saldana of San Diego.
Starbucks caused a nationwide stir recently when it allowed so-called open-carry advocates to bring their weapons into its coffee houses in the states that allow it. But several retailers have banned weapons in their stores, including Peet's Coffee & Tea and California Pizza Kitchen.
If signed into law, California would be the fourth state to ban people from wearing guns openly, according to the Legal Community Against Violence, a public interest law center based in San Francisco.
Florida, Illinois, Texas and the District of Columbia have a similar open-carry ban.
California and 34 other states allow people to carry a gun without a license. However, only California, North Dakota and Utah require that the weapon be unloaded.
Gun owners in the 12 other states must have a license or permit to carry a handgun, said Benjamin Van Houten, an attorney at the law center. Residents of Alaska and Vermont can carry a loaded gun without a license, while Arizona residents will be allowed to do so as early as this summer under a bill signed last week.
In California, only gun owners with a concealed-weapons permit can carry a loaded weapon, which would not change under the Saldana bill.
Emeryville Police Chief Ken James, a member of the California Police Chiefs Association, said open-carry laws have been on the books since the late 1960s, but gun advocates have only recently begun to demonstrate their right to carry a gun.
"Officers are taught from Day 1 in the academy that guns are a threat," said James, whose association is sponsoring the bill. "This open carry places officers in a position between a rock and a hard spot."
The policy also costs taxpayers and diverts law enforcement from investigating crimes whenever police officers are called to respond to a report of someone wearing a gun, Saldana said. Gun owners say unloaded guns pose no threat to the public.
"If you can't carry loaded, then it's really just a waste of time to ban it because you're asking law-abiding people to disarm themselves from an object that does no harm to anyone because it's unloaded," said Rachel Parsons, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association. "In a time when there's limited taxpayer funds, passing these additional laws that mean absolutely nothing is a waste of taxpayer dollars."
Under current California law, gun owners are allowed to carry ammunition as long as it's not in the weapon. Saldana and other critics say that proximity adds to the public-safety threat.
During a recent news conference, Saldana played a video that showed a person can load a gun in seconds.
Previous attempts to prohibit open-carry of guns have stalled in the Assembly. The chamber's Public Safety Committee is scheduled to hear the Saldana bill Tuesday.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, the committee's chairman, supports the ban.
"Whether a gun is loaded or not, it's still an act of intimidation and bullying," Ammiano said.
Saldana said she hopes Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will sign her bill because he has been responsive to law enforcement concerns in the past. Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Rachel Arrezola said the governor has not taken a position.
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