Dallas police believed for a few moments early Friday that they’d found a suspect involved in ambushing their officers and shooting five of them to death.
“This is one of our suspects. Please help us find him!” they wrote in a tweet, along with a photo of a man in a camouflage shirt with an assault-style rifle slung behind his back. Video quickly revealed that the man in the picture, later identified as Mark Hughes, was actually in the crowd when the first shots rang out. Police clarified a short time later that the man had turned himself in and was no longer a suspect.
It’s not entirely clear why law enforcement fingered Hughes in the first place ― or whether tweeting out his photo was wise ― but the mishap is a reminder that permissive gun laws can sow confusion in the fog of war.
Hughes was indeed armed with an AR-15, according to his brother. So perhaps it’s not surprising that police might jump to conclusions. But in Texas, as in most of the country, legal gun owners can openly carry a weapon of war, so long as they don’t do so in manner that is calculated to cause alarm.
Only six states ― California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey ― and the District of Columbia generally prohibit people from displaying long guns, like shotguns and rifles, in public.
Lawmakers in Texas also passed a controversial open carry law last year, making it the 45th state to allow the public display of handguns. As of January 1, concealed carry license holders can openly carry pistols in places where concealed carry is permitted, with exceptions. About 925,000 Texans, or 3 percent of the population, were estimated to have concealed handgun licenses at the beginning of the year. Open carry licenses are now also available for those over the age of 21.
“We live in a country where people solve problems with bullets instead of words, and we have to do better.”
Proponents of these measures claim open carry deters crime.
“An armed society is a polite society,” many argue, perhaps unknowingly reciting a quote from a 1942 a science-fiction book about a libertarian society of space men who are forced to carry guns.
But the utopian scenario in which everybody holds hands and sings kumbaya because of their guns begins to break down as soon as someone actually uses one of those weapons in public. How are police, or anyone else for that matter, supposed to determine who is shooting whom? How can they tell who is a suspect and who is simply exercising their rights? Luckily for Hughes, he was able to turn his weapon over to police before anybody mistook him for a threat.
Still, open carry laws are only a small part of the debate that is likely to unfold in the wake of the Dallas shooting. Gun control advocates in Texas have been pushing lawmakers to tighten the state’s laws over the past month, demanding a background checks provision for all would-be gun buyers. While federally licensed firearms dealers are required to conduct background checks in Texas, private sellers are not. This so-called gun show loophole exists in federal law, though Congress has made a series of failed attempts to close it, most recently in June.
Texas also has no waiting periods for gun purchases of any sort. This issue emerged in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre last month. Because Florida’s waiting period only applies to handguns, buyers can get assault-style rifles, like the one used in the Pulse nightclub shooting, in a matter of minutes. The same is true in Texas.
Details are still emerging about the suspect or suspects in Thursday’s massacre, as well as the guns that were used and how they were obtained. But after yet another tragic mass shooting, people ― including President Barack Obama ― are once again calling for action to address gun violence.
“We live in a country where people solve problems with bullets instead of words, and we have to do better,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Stop Gun Violence. “That means engaging in two important and related conversations – one about how we keep guns away from people with hate in their hearts and another about how gun violence and racism collide to disproportionally terrorize communities of color.”