Rich Burgess was drinking coffee and working on his laptop at the Old Saybrook Starbucks when several cops approached him about the gun he was carrying. Burgess always carries a gun in a holster on his right hip and two ammo clips on his left.
The officers took Burgess outside and questioned him. Burgess audio recorded the interaction and posted it to OpenCarry.com, a national gun activist website devoted to allowing gun owners to “open carry,” or display their guns rather than hide them under their clothing. (Laws on open carry vary from state to state.)
The police threatened to charge Burgess with breach of peace even though he had his pistol permit on him.
The Starbucks incident happened just a few weeks ago. But over the summer, Burgess was arrested for carrying his gun in a hip holster at a Wallingford bowling alley. Several customers told the bowling alley owner the visible gun was making them uncomfortable. According to an affidavit filed with the police, the owner asked Burgess to put his gun away. Burgess said no, but offered to leave. Burgess showed the owner his permit and a pamphlet on state gun laws.
Then the owner called the police.
Burgess was arrested and charged with breach of peace and disorderly conduct. The charges have since been dropped and he’s considering suing the town.
Back in Old Saybrook, Burgess tried to educate the officers: “I wanna let you know, though, what you were saying before is wrong. This isn’t a concealed-carry state,” Burgess said, handing a pamphlet on state gun laws to the officers.
After checking with headquarters, the cops let Burgess go, but not before trying to understand his motivation.
“I can’t imagine any reason why I would not conceal,” one cop said. “What’s your logic for not concealing?”
“I don’t have to have a reason,” responds Burgess. “I’m honest and open about everything, and I think we need to make sure everybody knows about state laws.”
That’s the crux of a growing movement in Connecticut. Gun activists say they want the state to follow the laws and some have filed lawsuits to make their point
They’ve been emboldened and motivated by two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions — Heller v. Washington D.C. and McDonald v. Chicago , which challenged bans on handguns in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, respectively. Heller said Washington, D.C., couldn’t ban handguns. McDonald said Chicago’s ban on handguns was illegal and clarified that the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) is an individual right. But the decision also said some regulation of that right is constitutionally permissible. McDonald left several issues — like what can be regulated and how much — open to debate.
“Since then, litigation has been booming, because all the laws are up for grabs,” says Torrington-based attorney Rachel Baird, who’s filed several gun-related lawsuits in Connecticut in the past few years. Baird has become the go-to gal for gun lawsuits in Connecticut.
Several of her lawsuits take aim at clarifying the state’s open carry law and the way the state issues pistol permits. There were more than 16,000 pistol permits granted in Connecticut in 2009, and 1,000 permits revoked for bad behavior. So far in 2010, there have been roughly 1,500 permits granted each month.
“I look at it as a purely legal issue,” she says. “This is what the law says, so this is what should happen. I am not in it to make a point or to change things or anything like that. I’m in it to make what happens consistent with the laws on the books.”
At least a few people around the state have been stopped by police or arrested for openly carrying their guns, including James Goldberg, who was arrested at a Chili’s restaurant in Glastonbury in 2007. Goldberg’s gun was covered by his camouflaged shirt, but cops and witnesses saw its outline. The charges against him were dropped and he’s since filed a lawsuit against the town.
When Goldberg and Burgess were wrongly arrested, the first person they called for help was Ed Peruta.
Ed Peruta is the state’s most visible gun activist.
Peruta runs ctgunrights.com, a website full of court documents from the latest state battles over gun rights. He videotapes all the state Board of Firearm Permit and Examiners meetings and he gets phone calls and e-mails from strangers who feel they’ve been wronged in the pistol permitting process or for openly carrying their guns.
Peruta owns three guns. When he carries one, it’s most often his Colt .45 Commander. But Peruta rarely carries it on him, because the gun is so heavy it pulls his pants down. He’s considering a shoulder holster.