Children, do not try this at home.
Back when Republicans in the Legislature were repeatedly trying to pass concealed-carry laws to flood the streets of our cities with even more guns, I regularly wrote columns ridiculing the gun lobby's absurd notion that more guns equal more public safety, when the exact opposite is true.
Here's a quote from my column back in 2003: "If guns are supposed to deter crime, concealing them really doesn't make any sense. We should all go back to wearing them on our hips. With everybody packing heat, only the fastest gun in Milwaukee would ever dare commit a crime."
Little did I realize young J.B. Van Hollen could read that and not be intelligent enough to realize it was a joke. Van Hollen, who grew up to become the state's Republican attorney general, took the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the deadly shootings at Columbine High School to declare my sarcastic proposal to be the law of Wisconsin.
The logic, if you can call it that, of Van Hollen's legal opinion is that since concealing weapons is against the law in Wisconsin, carrying them openly in public must be fine and dandy.
Van Hollen advised prosecutors throughout the state to not issue charges of disorderly conduct against citizens openly carrying deadly weapons in public. Why should citizens carrying assault weapons into Summerfest be subjected to disorderly conduct charges when they haven't even massacred any people yet?
To the press, Van Hollen even suggested that police might be going a bit far just by questioning someone openly carrying a deadly weapon, but ultimately concluded it would be all right for police to question someone really nicely.
"Whereas I don't expect police would ask somebody additional questions just because they are openly carrying a firearm, they shouldn't be immune from questions either," Van Hollen said. "It tends to lead to more inquisitiveness by law enforcement."
More inquisitiveness by law enforcement! You think?
Police Chief Responds
Anyone concerned about public safety will feel much more comfortable with Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn's reaction to Van Hollen's reckless legal opinion.
"My message to my troops is if you see anybody carrying a gun on the streets of Milwaukee, we'll put them on the ground, take the gun away and then decide whether you have a right to carry it," Flynn said.
Flynn called it irresponsible to send a message to potentially dangerous offenders that law enforcement couldn't bother them if they simply carried their weapons openly.
It's true that the charge of disorderly conduct has sometimes been misused by law enforcement as a vague catchall to cover any behavior or any particular citizens police don't like. But if there is any conduct that qualifies as creating disorder in public, it's certainly brandishing a deadly weapon. The surest way to panic any crowd is to shout: "He's got a gun!"
Feel free to speculate on what prompted Van Hollen to issue his ridiculous opinion. It's not as if we have experienced a popular groundswell among responsible gun owners lobbying to be allowed to openly carry their guns in public.
Gun owners do not often ask me for advice, but if they did, I would strongly advise them not to start openly carrying their guns in public just because the attorney general says it's OK with him. The practice could be downright hazardous to the health of gun owners.
We often read about law enforcement mistaking wallets, cell phones and various other common objects for deadly weapons and opening fire on unarmed citizens. One item police are extremely likely to perceive as a deadly weapon is a deadly weapon.
The danger could just as easily come from fellow citizens, also armed to the teeth. One characteristic of many people who feel an urge to carry guns in public is fear of crime. Imagine two jumpy people with handguns, already afraid of their own shadows, meeting on a dark street at night. When each sees the other is armed, it can only end tragically.
Right-wing extremist Web sites recently began championing open carry as the next logical step since the National Rifle Association succeeded in getting most states, with the fortunate exception of Wisconsin, to pass concealed-carry laws.
Van Hollen, the state's highest-ranking Republican with an election coming up next year, apparently thinks it's a good time to lob some raw meat to the right wing. Until now, right-wing radio has been as unimpressed with the attorney general as the rest of the state.
But the pool of bozos who want to wear their guns in public isn't nearly large enough to decide an election.
What's your take?