EUGENE, Ore. - A growing movement that has inspired some gun owners in other states to start openly wearing their sidearms in public doesn't appear to have gained much steam in Oregon or Lane County, but some people may be surprised to learn that Oregon and local laws don't prohibit it.
Known as the "open carry" movement, the trend has popped up recently in other parts of the country, most notably in usually laid-back Seattle. There, the near-ubiquitous Starbucks chain has found itself in the crossfire between gun rights and gun control advocates because it chooses not to ask gun-carrying customers to disarm before stopping in for a cappuccino, which open-carry advocates have made a point of doing.
Gun rights supporters in Oregon say they've heard of a few cases where people have been spotted sporting holstered weapons in public. But they say it hasn't evolved into a full-fledged movement here the way it has in Washington, Michigan, Wisconsin and some other states.
"From the standpoint of what our priorities are, I'm supportive of people who want to carry openly as long as they recognize the liabilities, but it's not No. 1 on my list," said Kevin Starrett, director of the Oregon Firearms Federation. "That's not very much on my screen."
Tim Pitzer, president of the Oregon State Shooting Association, said he hasn't heard of any open-carry organizing in Oregon and said his group isn't promoting it. The OSSA is the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association.
"It's not an issue; we don't want to make it an issue," Pitzer said. "Oregonians seem to be pretty responsible firearms owners."
Open carry hasn't popped up on the radar of Oregon's gun control advocates either. But some are concerned about the movement. State Sen. Ginny Burdick, a Portland Democrat who has pushed gun control measures in the past, said she hopes it never catches on here.
"It's just ridiculous for these extremists to be pushing this," she said. "Most gun owners are not like this."
While Oregon's firearms laws can be somewhat arcane and difficult to follow, the state is considered a "traditional open-carry state," according to the Web site opencarry.org, which is a clearinghouse for the movement. That means the state doesn't flatly prohibit people from carrying guns openly, although it does impose some limits and allows cities and counties some latitude to pass their own ordinances restricting the practice.
For example, state law prohibits carrying a loaded or unloaded firearm in a public building unless a person has a concealed handgun permit. And even with such a permit, weapons are not allowed in state courthouses or any federal building.
Also, state statutes do allow cities and counties to impose ordinances that prohibit or restrict the possession of loaded firearms in public places. About a half-dozen cities have done that, including Portland, Beaverton, Tigard, Oregon City, Salem and Independence, according to opencarry.org.
But those laws cannot bar people from carrying unloaded firearms in public. Nor do they apply to people who hold a concealed handgun permit. In fact, Starrett said, people with a permit to carry a concealed handgun also can carry a loaded one openly in cities that prohibit open carrying by those without a permit.
That's because state law exempts people with such permits from any restrictions imposed by local governments. Starrett said that's a nuance that isn't well understood, even by police officers, who at times have incorrectly ordered gun owners to unload or put away their handguns.
But most communities in Oregon have no local laws that restrict or prohibit openly carrying a handgun in public places, beyond the rules set by the state. Eugene and Lane County are among those with no local restrictions.
Private property owners including retailers such as Starbucks are free to set their own restrictions on the display of weaponry on their premises, just as they can require customers or visitors to wear a shirt or shoes or behave in a civilized manner.
Eugene Police Department spokeswoman Melinda Kletzok said although it's unusual, police do get occasional reports of someone carrying a gun in public or questions from people who want to know if it's legal.
About all police can do, she said, is caution people that they may cause undue alarm if they elect to pack a handgun openly.
"That's their right to do so if they choose; there's no city law prohibiting it," Kletzok said. "But at the same time, we ask people to recognize that at a certain time or place that may make some people nervous."
For some in the open-carry movement, that's the point. Supporters believe carrying guns openly might upset some people at first, but ultimately it will reduce anxiety about guns by showing that gun owners are responsible, normal citizens.
"There are a group of people who believe strongly that open carry is a positive movement on a number of levels," Starrett said. "Primarily, it's just getting people accustomed to the idea that a civilian with a firearm isn't necessarily dangerous or crazy or something like that."
Open-carry advocate Gray Peterson sees that as one of the principles of the movement. Peterson, who does research for opencarry.org, is a former Oregon resident who now lives in Washington but still has a concealed handgun permit in Oregon.
Peterson said carrying a gun openly "shows us as not these dangerous people that the Brady campaign and their allies and what some parts of the movie industry portray gun owners to be," he said in an e-mail that referred to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control advocacy group.
He also said a gun on the hip can help break down stereotypes about gun owners. Peterson said he is a gay man and a political progressive, and that by being an open-carry supporter he can start people thinking about civil liberties beyond the Second Amendment.
But gun control advocates see it differently. Burdick said the people carrying guns in public are part of a small group of troublemakers who don't reflect views of mainstream gun owners.
"Most gun owners understand that there is a time and place to have their gun with them, and it's not walking down the street or getting on a bus or walking into a Starbucks," she said. "It's just a few who are trying to stir up I don't know what they're trying to stir up, but it's really idiotic."
"Most gun owners understand that there is a time and place to have their gun with them."