Seeing a pistol on a hip or a rifle slung over a shoulder isn’t that big of a deal for residents of this lakefront town of 1,500.
But during summer — when tourists crowd the T-shirt shops, bars and restaurants lining the strip of the “Gateway to the Lake of the Ozarks” — locals are outnumbered. Tourists from all over the country descend on this town from places where seeing a gun isn’t a regular occurrence.
The result is Lake Ozark police fielding complaints from nervous visitors.
Guns may be a way of life here, but in a town where tourism is the major industry, money talks. The town’s aldermen voted earlier this month to ban the open carry of firearms, even by those with a concealed carry permit.
“We have been working hard to establish ourselves as a family-friendly environment,” said Dave Vandee, Lake Ozark’s city administrator. “This is a tourist destination, and we want everybody to feel safe here.”
The vote did far more than simply ban open carry. It also put the town squarely in the middle of a national debate on gun rights in general, and open carry in particular.
“This is way more than just a Lake Ozark issue,” said Betsey Browning, a member of the Lake Ozark Board of Aldermen who voted against the ban. “I’ve gotten calls from reporters in Chicago to Oklahoma to Miami. There’s been so much attention to this, and rightfully so.”
For advocates of open carry, the practice is not only a way to exercise what they see as a right guaranteed by the Second Amendment, it’s also a way of creating a new dynamic where the public views openly armed individuals with a shrug rather than with alarm.
“Just because a tourist is scared of a gun doesn’t mean we should go around messing with the Second Amendment,” Browning said. “I’m just disgusted by this.”
Gun control advocates scoff at the idea that the public should grow comfortable with the open display of guns.
“Missouri is not a war zone,” said Rebecca Morgan of the Missouri chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “Lake Ozark realized that people who bring their families there didn’t want to be around people openly carrying guns. And they reacted to that reality.”
Lake Ozark’s ordinance is less than a month old, but it may soon become moot.
A bill passed by Missouri lawmakers on the General Assembly’s final day would void any local ordinance that prohibits openly carrying a firearm by anyone with a valid concealed carry permit. It currently awaits action by Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, who has not signaled whether he intends to sign or veto it.
Forty-four states permit open carry — 14 with a permit and 30 in which no permit is required. This year, Kansas lawmakers passed a law stripping local governments of the ability to prohibit open carry.
Open carry is legal is Missouri, but cities and local governments have the right under current state statues to limit it.
Several communities have banned it, while others have mandated that open carry is allowed only for those with a concealed carry permit, said Kevin Jamison, a Gladstone attorney and president of the Western Missouri Shooters Alliance.
That has created a patchwork of laws that can lead to confusion, Jamison said.
For instance, Kansas City has no ban on open carry, he said, but North Kansas City does.
The legislation pending before Nixon would permit open carry for those with a concealed carry permit. It would void any local ordinance that prohibits openly carrying a firearm.
“Why are we prohibiting law-abiding citizens from carrying weapons?” said Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican who sponsored the state legislation. “The Constitution gives citizens the right to bear arms. A local municipality shouldn’t be able to restrict your right to openly carry.”
For Pam Reis, the issue seems silly.
Reis and her husband founded Pistols Plus nearly 20 years ago in Osage Beach, just outside the city limits of Lake Ozark. Their 15,000-square-foot gun shop is the largest in the area.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to open carry in the first place,” Reis said. “The only reason to openly carry is that you’re too lazy to get a concealed carry permit or you want to look like a big shot.”
Some people, Jamison said, see open carry as a way to express their gun rights as well as a way to get people used to seeing guns in public. His organization has stayed away from that strategy, concerned that it could alienate people.
“A number of people have an unnatural fear of weapons,” he said. “This is something gun owners have to understand, and it’s not in our best interest to alarm people. All it takes is one person who wants to feel intimidated to call the police and say something imaginative and the message you’re trying to get across is ruined.”
Jim Harrison, a clerk at Pistols Plus, agrees with Jamison.
“If you scare people, you’re just providing ammo to opponents of gun rights,” Harrison said.
Open carry activists garnered widespread attention this year after a group in Texas posted several videos online of members carrying rifles into restaurants to test the response of management. The National Rifle Association initially panned the actions as “downright scary,” although the group almost immediately distanced itself from its own criticism.
Browning sees her town’s law as an infringement on the right to bear arms and unnecessary. People have openly carried firearms down the strip, she said, but it’s not widespread.
“People aren’t walking down the road with an AK-47,” Browning said. “I’ve lived here my whole life, I’ve owned a business on the strip and I’ve never seen it.”
If businesses are concerned that people with firearms will scare off customers, it is within the rights of those businesses to post a sign prohibiting guns in their store, Browning said.
“We don’t need a law,” she said.
Several business owners along the Bagnell Dam Boulevard strip said they support the ban. But none wanted to express that support openly. Even the town aldermen who voted in support of the ban declined to comment.
That’s not too surprising, said Vandee, the city administrator.
“These are people just trying to run a business,” he said. “They don’t want to upset anyone.”