Open Carry vs Concealed Carry: A Conflicted Examination

Having grown up at a time—and place—when it was common to see long guns displayed in the back windows of pickup trucks, I have a lot of conflicting thoughts when it comes to concealed carry versus open carry. In the last three decades, there has been amazing progress toward the civilian right to carry a handgun. Thirty years ago, there was unrestricted carry (Constitutional carry) in only one state, and 14 states completely restricted the carrying of firearms by civilians. In 2022, twenty-five states are Constitutional carry states, and the remaining 25 states are shall-issue or may-issue states.

Open Carry collage
Though open carry is an option across half of the U.S., most people prefer to conceal carry. The tactical advantages are often discussed, but what about the longer-term societal impact?

Though still varying from state to state, and in some states very restrictive, the civilian right to carry a firearm has made amazing strides since I was younger. At the same time as the right to carry has greatly expanded, the overall political culture has become one of “out of sight, out of mind.” Gone are the days of a hunting rifle on display in the back of a high schooler’s truck (though most would agree an unseen weapon is also much less likely to be taken/stolen). But has the culture of concealing guns had an unwanted side effect of emboldening those that would fight to ban civilian use of these tools?

Right to Carry US maps from 1992 to 2022
The ability for civilians to carry firearms has increased greatly in the last 30 years. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

On the Individual Level: The Pros and Cons from a Tactical Perspective

I am fortunate enough to live in a state that allowed open carry with a permit, even before passing Constitutional Carry. I fully recognize that in some states there is only the concealment option. When allowed, there are pros and cons to concealed versus open carry. For the sake of argument, I will start with the advantages to open carry on an individual and tactical level. Though many people would likely focus on ease of accessibility and potentially larger framed guns that come with open carrying, my number one pro would be playing the odds.

Open Carry

Most estimates of civilian use of force put the percentage of times civilians avoid being victimized by criminals without needing to fire a gun at over 90%. This reflects the notion that most criminals are not wanting to attack a determined and armed target. Given that many incidents that do require the firing of the firearm only require one shot has suggested to me that a decent proportion of the cases requiring the gun to be discharged may well be caused by a criminal not believing the person is willing to use force until shot. These numbers may also explain why areas that move to more relaxed carry rules often do not see much change in crime numbers. Crimes are not necessarily being stopped, they are just being moved from a resistant/prepared person to a less resistant or unprepared victim. Based on these base rates, I can see an argument that an open-carried gun may well avoid the need to threaten use or expose a concealed weapon to dissuade a criminal from choosing the person carrying as a victim.

open carry pistol and rifle
There are pros and cons to any tactical decision including the method of carry. The goal is to decide what best fits your needs and is based on the best information you can obtain.

The cons start with the flip side of this equation. If a criminal truly hopes to do harm and is willing to engage a resistant target (based on estimates, this is less than 5% of violent crimes) then open carrying clearly identifies you as a priority target. Additionally, though the gun is easier to access for you, it is also easier for anyone else to access as well. This factor is a large part of my own decision to primarily conceal carry. I often ask people if they would walk through a mall with five $100 bills clipped to the outside of their belt. If the answer is no (so far it always is) then why have something most likely worth that much money or more clearly visible and available for an even halfway skilled thief?

I am less worried, based on crime numbers, of someone gaining access to an openly carried firearm and using it than I am about the increased chance of theft. Although these numbers are not broken down by type of theft, an estimated 380,000 guns are stolen each year with the largest numbers coming from home and vehicle break-ins. More guns are stolen in states with less restrictive gun laws (although gun ownership does not change much). It is unclear if gun grabs of those carrying openly are a part of this increase, but it is not a far stretch to think this is a part of these trends.

Concealed Carry

Building off the advantages and disadvantages of open carry, concealed carry is generally seen as the preferred method. In addition to the advantages of the weapon not
being an easy target for theft, there is the advantage of surprise if one truly needs to defend oneself. Although it is likely a little more difficult to access, many concealed carry options and positions allow quick access when needed. It is paramount to practice accessing the firearm. Although the firearm’s effectiveness as a deterrent may not be directly observable, with solid situational awareness the user can make a potential threat aware of the weapon easily.

iwb holster
For many Americans concealed carry is the only option due to restriction but it is also the most often supported and defended choice of the two options.

There is also the additional advantage of versatility. Approximately half of the U.S. states have restrictions on open carry in favor of concealed carry. Additionally, even in states with open carry, some situations may be better suited for concealed carry. Thus, if you are open carrying, you may not be able to do so in all situations and would be limited in many of the states. By comparison, if concealed carry is your choice, it will be appropriate in far more situations than open carry.

handgun and holster options
There are many options available for concealed carry from relatively quick access at the waistband to deeply concealed but slower access.

On the Societal Level: The Political Perspective

Most firearms instructors support concealed carry. Indeed, the program of instruction offered at Indy Arms Company (where I am the training director) offers this same advice. All our instructors provide the following laundry list of reasons to not open carry:

  1. It alarms and frightens some people.
  2. It announces you as a target for the bad guys.
  3. It removes the element of surprise in self-defense.
  4. An unseen gun cannot be targeted for a gun grab.

As already stated, I do not disagree with the above points (as I helped write them for our Basic Defensive Handgun class). I also primarily conceal carry. But every time I offer these reasons I do reflect and feel conflicted. Not on a tactical or individual level, but on a wider political level.

The specific reason for alarming and frightening some people is what causes the conflict. I can fully attest to this. I have open carried in some environments (usually due to doing training classes) such as in a suburb of Phoenix, AZ (an open carry state), and noticed no one showing any concern or interest. I have also occasionally open carried in Indianapolis (also an open carry state) on my way to do or deliver training and often get reactions from mild concern to outright fear.

This is wholly my own opinion, but I think the political impact of more states allowing civilian carry and more Americans carrying is being lost on the wider public as these trends are out of sight and out of mind. More Americans own firearms than ever before, but they aren’t seen. The question becomes: Does concealing civilian carry aid or harm the overall political acceptance of civilian self-defense—especially in those that do not carry?

Psychologically we tend to fear and reject the unknown. The average non-gun-owning voter is likely only ever exposed to firearms associated with criminal activity (gangs, muggings, etc.) or carried by police. With that perception, it becomes obvious that their concept of who owns guns mirrors these experiences. Guns are only used by criminals and the police. Thus, if a gun is seen (open carry) and the person is not a cop, what is the conclusion this person would make? This perception of only police and criminals having guns is often further reinforced in larger cities that may more strongly restrict civilian carry.

I do not have an easy solution, just the thought. As we gain a greater ability to civilian carry across the U.S., the tactical choices we are making to conceal are likely masking the true reality of gun ownership and use. Gone are the days when the possession of a firearm was more obvious, such as gun racks in the back of pickup trucks, though sometimes still seen in rural settings. Now, though more Americans are carrying, it is less obvious.

I do think we need to break the false perception that only police and criminals have guns, because those are the only examples that come clearly to mind for many Americans. I do open carry in some situations, due to these thoughts. I also try to be active in shooting sports, offering training, and community outreach such as non-shooting courses like the NRA’s Refuse to be a Victim and Eddie Eagle programs.

Though the tactical advantages of concealed carry are clear to most people, how to address the byproduct of this choice needs to be discussed as well.

Joel Nadler is the Training Director at Indy Arms Company in Indianapolis and co-owner of Tactical Training Associates.  He writes for several gun-focused publications and is an avid supporter of the right to self-sufficiency, including self-defense. Formerly a full professor, he has a Ph.D. in Psychology and now works as a senior consultant living on a horse ranch in rural Indiana.  Feel free to follow him on Instagram @TacticalPhD.

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