One of the things that I was most apprehensive about when I came to Mississippi was guns. Firearms. As a Canadian, the only guns I am familiar with (and I say familiar, not comfortable) are the ones that law enforcement have, and the hunting guns that my uncle keeps locked in his basement. I have personally never fired a gun. I had no idea what to expect, as I’ve been to the US many times, but never this far south, and never to an open carry state. I’m going to tell you some background information, some of the misconceptions that I had about guns and gun owners, and the reality of living in an open carry state.
The oft-discussed Second Amendment of the United States Constitution is the right to bear arms. Gun laws vary from state to state, and Mississippi is an open carry state. That means that pretty much anyone can buy a firearm and openly carry it with them. Applicants for a concealed or open carry permit must undergo a background check. It is especially important for concealed carriers to have proper documentation. As I understand it, the reasoning behind this is that if you were to come into contact with a police officer and you had a gun on your belt, they would be able to see that you had a gun right away, and that you weren't trying to hide it or get it past them. I suppose a concealed carry permit is a way of attempting to distinguish responsible gun owners from those who are hiding a gun for unsavoury purposes. Another interesting fact that I found out is that in Mississippi, your vehicle is considered an extension of your home, meaning that it is perfectly legal to carry a gun in your vehicle. A fellow university student described to me how he keeps a handgun in his vehicle, but is sure to keep both hands on the steering wheel if he gets pulled over. When the officer comes to his window, he immediately informs them that he has a gun, and of its location in the vehicle.
I asked around about how easy it would be to buy a gun. I have no intention of buying one, but I was curious. In line with laws surrounding alcohol, you have to be 21 years of age to legally purchase a gun and register it in your name. Guns are available for purchase at sporting good stores, similar to how they are in Alberta at Bass Pro. There is also a gun department at Walmart, which was a bit of a shock for me the first time I saw it, casually nestled in-between the DVDs and the pillows. I think the biggest difference in terms of availability is that as far as I know, as a regular citizen in Alberta, you can only really purchase a rifle for hunting, whereas here in Mississippi you can buy a handgun as well as shotguns from anywhere, including Walmart. To purchase a gun, all you have to do is show state issued ID such as a driver’s license. A background check is run against that identification. There are apparently certain guns such as an automatic rifle, or a sawed off shotgun that you can’t buy and take with you the same day. Those guns have a 24 hour or so waiting period, which I would assume is due to the increased amount of damage they could do in the wrong hands. There are also gun shows, where background checks have been known to be more lax, and transactions are often made in cash, and are therefore untraceable. As well, a private sale of a firearm does not require that the buyer provide a clean background check.
Coming to Mississippi, I had several misconceptions about guns.
Misconception: Open carry is going to be more scary and dangerous than concealed carry.
Reality: You have less to worry about with open carry than concealed carry. It seems counterintuitive. My friend Jonathan is 24 years old, studies law at Ole Miss, grew up in Alabama (Mississippi’s neighbour to the east), grew up around guns, and is a registered gun owner. He pointed out that if you see a person’s gun, they aren’t trying to hide anything. If a person is openly carrying a firearm, you can bet that they obtained it legally, took the proper steps to register it, and know how to use it safely. With concealed carry (the gun is in a purse, pocket, etc) comes a potential increase in the chance that someone is carrying an illegal firearm, may not know how to properly use it, or has something to hide (although this is certainly not always the case, and many concealed carry owners are very responsible). While I am certainly not going to feel comfortable walking into a Walmart and seeing a pistol on a fellow shopper’s hip in the deli section, after talking to Jonathan, I definitely feel better about seeing a gun.
Misconception: I will see guns everywhere.
Reality: I have seen two guns in the month that I have been in Oxford. One was a police officer’s, and the other was Jonathan’s that I asked to see (it was unloaded). I have seen zero guns in the deli section at Walmart.
Misconception: It is bad to raise children with a familiarity with guns.
Reality: A teaching colleague I spoke to said that he and his wife would likely introduce their son to guns around age 7 or 8. Many people will take their children out to go hunting and allow them to shoot guns. It’s something that I initially shied away from, but now I understand it. Guns are such a commonplace part of life here that parents would much rather their children understand gun safety and proper handling, and that they learn early to respect the danger that a gun can pose if improperly handled. We all teach kids not to talk to strangers and not to eat unwrapped Halloween candy…why wouldn’t we teach them how to be safe with something that they encounter on a daily basis?
To conclude, there is a lot of distorted information about guns and gun ownership. I thought I was walking into a version of the Wild West, but this has absolutely not been the case. I know that living in Canadian society where guns are not commonplace and widely socially accepted has influenced how I view gun ownership, and this has been a big learning curve for me. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to experience the reality of living in an open carry state, and to have been able to talk openly with gun owners that I like and respect about their experiences. I don’t think that I will ever own my own gun, but I am starting to understand the culture around guns that exists here.