An incident in Broken Arrow a week ago raised fresh questions about how witnesses and law enforcement should respond when people walk around in public armed with assault-style rifles.
A man in a tactical vest with a semi-automatic rifle and holstered pistol prompted Broken Arrow Justice Center employees to lock their doors June 13, according to a news release.
AT&T store employees who then saw the man proceeded to “run out the back of the store,” and multiple 911 calls came from the parking lot of a Target store that he was walking toward, Broken Arrow police said.
Due to Oklahoma’s constitutional carry laws, police determined that at each location the man “was not breaking the law” with the rifle and vest.
But “quite honestly, nobody needs to be walking down the street with a rifle,” Rogers County Sheriff Scott Walton said in an interview about dealing with such situations. “But I don’t make the laws; we just try to live by them and do a very difficult job in a world that’s got those people in it.”
Sometimes there isn’t much police can do when a person is armed with a semi-automatic rifle in public.
Passed by the state Legislature in early 2019, constitutional carry gives Oklahomans the right to carry firearms without a permit or training.
In the case of the man in Broken Arrow, police said that for three reasons — he didn’t have the firearms with him when he tried to enter the Justice Center; the AT&T store did not have a “no firearms allowed” sign posted; and he did not actually try to enter the Target — no laws were broken with regard to his carrying the semi-automatic rifle. He was arrested, however, after he was found to have a recently-issued unrelated warrant and to be in possession of an over .45-caliber firearm and brass knuckles, both of which are illegal in Oklahoma.
“Here, we got a guy walking around with a gun that he could hurt a lot of people with, but he’s not breaking the law,” Walton said.
That makes his deputies’ jobs “a lot harder” for several reasons — the first and most obvious being safety.
One wrong move during a confrontation or encounter and the situation could take a turn for the worse.
“If I spook the right person, they might send me to meet Jesus,” Walton said. “Here’s a guy with a rifle that can take me and a lot of other people out, but he’s not doing anything. Now I got to make a decision. That decision is a lot tougher now.”
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said at a Tuesday night forum on active shooters that there is also the concern of people who purposely try to instigate issues with officers to start a Second Amendment fight.
Speaking generally on the open carry topic since his office likely will be asked to consider charges in the Broken Arrow case, Kunzweiler said some people “want to push the envelope and draw a response.”
“They want law enforcement to make an arrest on a legal possession so that they can institute some type of lawsuit for some kind of false arrest,” Kunzweiler said.
He also said that comes with a heavy amount of decision-making and examination from law enforcement to determine whether anything illegal is actually happening.
Tulsa Police Capt. Mike Eckert, at the same active-shooter forum on Tuesday, said that since it is such a tough determination for even officers to decide whether a crime is being committed, the best thing the public can do is to call 911.
“If somebody is causing you concern or putting you in fear for some reason, that’s what 911 is designed for,” Eckert said.
“With Oklahoma being an open-carry state, it’s not against the law to carry a firearm, but it is against the law to commit a crime with a firearm. Sometimes that can be very muddy waters to deal with or work your way through.”
A Broken Arrow Police Department spokesman agreed that calling 911 is best, but he added that educating oneself on state laws could help.
“Our advice is to always call law enforcement if you see something you believe is suspicious,” Ethan Hutchins said. “However, it’s also important to know the laws of this state regarding open carry. (Doing so) might equip yourself with the knowledge before placing that call to police.”
Walton, though, said it isn’t easy for even law enforcement officers to be fully educated on ever-changing laws.
“It’s harder today for a police officer to know the law than it ever has been,” he said, citing the nuances of the Broken Arrow incident and arrest. “I don’t expect everyone to become educated on the fine line of the law. If you’re waiting too long to make that decision (to call 911), that in itself is life-threatening.”
The best thing to do under current Oklahoma law is to call the police to make the determination, he said.
“I think of: What would I want my daughters-in-law to do if they had my grandkids and saw someone like that?” Walton said. “My answer would be: Call the police. 911. Let us go to work.”
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While Oklahoma’s “constitutional carry” law means it’s not illegal to carry an assault-style rifle, such as this AR-15 with a loaded magazine, police say that “if somebody is causing you concern or putting you in fear for some reason, that’s what 911 is designed for.”