Chicken or guns: Who has the right to carry?

James McCommons

A couple of weeks ago, two men strolled through the outdoor farmers market in downtown Appleton, Wis. with AR-15 assault weapons slung across their backs, demonstrating their right to bear arms and openly carry guns in public spaces. Alarmed citizens up and down College Avenue called 911. The cops rushed to the scene, confronted and handcuffed the pair, but then let them go because Wisconsin has a “right to carry” law.

James McCommons
James McCommons

It was a provocative and an increasingly common display. In the past few months, people have entered Starbucks locations wearing holstered guns during events they euphemistically call “Starbucks Appreciation Day.”

The company issued a polite letter last week asking these folks to please leave their guns at home — it makes other customers nervous — but did not outright ban firearms from its premises, although Starbucks has every right to do so because its stores are private property.

In Appleton, opponents of the open carry law responded in a way that expressed the absurdity of the situation. The following week at the farmers market, a man showed up with a chicken named Winchester. He led the hen about on a leash. The cops told him to leave or be fined $263.50 because no chickens are allowed in downtown Appleton. The guys with the guns — who were back again — were allowed to stay.

When I first learned, a few years ago, that some legislators in Michigan advocated concealed carry of firearms on college campuses — enabling students or professors to bring guns into classrooms — I was certain it would never happen.

Now I’m not so sure.

This gun debate has simmered for decades. I’m old enough to remember when the federal government banned buying guns through the U.S. mail after Lee Oswald picked up his $21.50 rifle at the post office.  It took five more years and two more assassinations — Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. — before Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968.

The gun lobby was strong back then, too, and just as paranoid that any regulation — any restriction at all — was a first step to the government coming for their guns.

There were fights over Saturday night specials (cheap pistols), Teflon-coated — sometimes referred to as cop killer — bullets, polymer guns undetectable by airline screeners and then in the 1980s, the arrival of assault weapons on the streets.

I don’t get it. I don’t understand this right to bear arms without restrictions.

In my office, I keep paper clips and pencils in an old tool box my grandfather built from a wooden crate that once held dynamite he used to blow up rocks in the potato fields. I can still read the warning “Explosives Danger!” Back then, granddad could go down to the feed store and say, “Give me a 50-pound bag of chicken mash and that crate of dynamite, too.”

You can’t do that anymore. It’s illegal, and it’s a sensible regulation. For a little historical perspective, look up the 1927 school massacre in Bath, Mich. It’s one reason why we can’t buy dynamite down at the feed store. In my mind, an assault weapon armed with 100 round clips is analogous to dynamite.

I own guns and bought my first at “Davidson’s Guns and Groceries” where weapons were displayed in a meat case next to the pork chops (I’m not kidding).

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. The first day of deer season was a school holiday. I was raised by people who knew all about firearms. My father and uncles were hunters and in the 1940s went off to war, to places like Normandy and the Hurtgen Forest. My mother worked in a factory and made machine guns for Flying Fortresses. Her little brother died in a hunting accident when he was 13, shot by another boy — a terrible accident on the farm.

Raising their families in the 1950s and 1960s, my folks were never paranoid of the government taking away their guns nor did they feel any need to parade around with weapons. Anyone who carried a gun in public and was not in law enforcement was in their eyes either a criminal or a nut case.

All these years later, I mostly feel the same.

That’s why I donate money to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Mayors Against Illegal Guns. I support registration even for private sales, background checks, safe storage laws, a ban on assault weapons, and an end to this whole notion of open carry. Big companies like Starbucks ought to keep gun-toting people out of their stores. Cities, if they want, should be able to make their public spaces gun-free zones.

If we passed all these common sense laws and took these steps, the “rights” of Americans to buy hunting weapons or handguns to protect their homes would not be violated. And we’d still have millions and millions of guns — more than any other country — and, yes, we would still have gun violence, too. But I would feel a little safer or just saner to live in a country where provocateurs can’t parade around in a farmer’s market with loaded AR-15s—just because they can.

On the first day of classes this fall, I arrived on campus and saw students wearing T-shirts with the slogan “Suck My Glock.”

So these are good guys with guns? I was not feeling reassured.

I had planned to quit teaching or, perhaps, strap on my own handgun beneath my sports jacket if the right to carry weapons into classrooms ever came to NMU. But now I’ve got a third alternative. I’ll bring a chicken to class.

I actually own nine egg-laying hens — more chickens than guns.  These are backyard chickens in the city, all unregulated, and probably illegal, too.