David LaTour rolled out of bed on a recent Saturday morning and prepared for a leisurely lunch: Wallet, check. Car keys, check. Springfield XD 9 mm pistol and ammunition, check.

Springfield XD 9 mm pistol and ammunition?

The Hayward resident is a member of an organization slowly gaining membership in the Bay Area. Open Carry aims to make it possible for Americans in every state to legally carry loaded guns in public. The loosely organized Bay Area chapter is igniting powerful feelings among law enforcement agencies, gun control advocates and ordinary residents.

"I do it to defend myself and my rights. Carrying guns can prevent burglaries and assaults," LaTour said.

The San Jose State engineering student meets in public places with fellow members of the group, who all display holstered unloaded pistols.

Open Carry advocates rely on a section in the California Penal Code that prohibits concealed weapons. It states that "guns carried openly in belt holsters are not concealed." It is legal to do so as long as the group or individual is 1,000 feet away from a K-12 school.

"I have a right to bear arms under the Constitution," LaTour said as he settled into a chair at Peet's Coffee & Tea near Whole Foods in San Ramon with his unloaded Springfield in a holster on one hip and ammo on the other. Five other armed Bay Area Open Carry members and other unarmed friends joined him.

'Makes me nervous'

Many Peet's patrons clearly were disturbed when the Open Carry group walked in.

"I'm scared. I'm getting out of here," said Steve Atkinson, a Pleasanton resident who was joined by his wife, Petra, as he sipped a cappuccino. "They say they want to make a statement. What's wrong with a T-shirt?" he asked.

"It makes me nervous big time," added San Ramon resident Azadeh Shenas. "What if there's a car crash, people are arguing and one shoots the other?"

Not everyone was upset. Ten-year-old Lottie Goddard walked up to the group with the encouragement of her father, Andy, and mother, Sammy.

"My Uncle Ray is going to teach me to shoot a gun for my 11th birthday," she declared.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives citizens the right to bear arms. However, California's constitution does not, and the state has some of the tightest gun restrictions in the country. It is against the law to openly carry a loaded gun in public, and it is difficult to get a permit to carry a concealed firearm in many counties.

"Often, the police don't realize it's our legal right to openly carry an unloaded gun in California," said Open Carry member Jon Schwartz, of Livermore, at the recent coffee klatch.

Dangers described

While law enforcement agencies recognize that right, they still caution against the dangers of its practice, San Mateo County Sheriff's Lt. Ray Lunny said.

"Open carry advocates create a potentially very dangerous situation," he said. "When police are called to a 'man with a gun' call, they typically are responding to a situation about which they have few details other than that one or more people are present at a location and are armed. Officers have no idea that these people may simply be 'exercising their rights.'

"Should the gun-carrying person "... move in a way that could be construed as threatening, the police are forced to respond in kind for their own protection. It's well and good in hindsight to say the gun carrier was simply 'exercising their rights,' but the result could be deadly," Lunny said.

"I think that's a little bit over the top," said Walter Stanley, an Open Carry member from Livermore who carries a Springfield XD.

Law enforcement officials should have policies on "man with a gun" calls as to whether it is a dangerous situation such as a man brandishing a gun in an argument or a man who is simply carrying a gun, he said.

A San Mateo County prosecutor said he was assigned to handle the open carry issue when the gatherings began popping up in the Bay Area after a spurt of popularity in Southern California.

"It certainly seems that interest in this kind of thing is higher in the last year or two," San Mateo County assistant district attorney Morley Pitt said.

The gatherings have not resulted in any criminal charges in San Mateo or Alameda counties.

However, residents were concerned enough to call the police when Stanley wore an unloaded gun to a Livermore interview with the media earlier this month. Four Livermore police officers responded, one with rifle drawn, and two officers ordered Stanley up against a wall with his hands over his head. After checking his weapon and finding it unloaded, the officers left.

In Santa Clara County, 74-year-old Sherman "Tony" Fontano was charged with a misdemeanor for carrying an unloaded gun within 1,000 feet of a school in December, according to Nick Muyo of the District Attorney's Office.

The San Jose resident told Bay Area News Group that he did so after hearing about the Open Carry movement and getting assurance from police that he could legally carry an unloaded gun. Fontano, who is scheduled to be arraigned today, said police did not warn him about the school restriction.

Worried about crime

The group's tactics could lead to problems in a higher crime environment, said Mike Sobek, a police officer and secretary of the statewide Peace Officers Research Association of California.

"Tell (Open Carry members) to walk down International Boulevard and 72nd Avenue (in Oakland) and tell (people there) how normal it is to walk with a gun in open view. I don't think that would work. This is not 1892. It's not the wild, wild West any more," he said.

Sharing Sobek's concern was Contra Costa County prosecutor Bruce Flynn. "I don't have any objection to people owning guns. I'm just a little concerned about people open carrying them in public, just because these things can be misread so easily."

On the contrary, Stanley said. When everyone carries a gun, misreading situations is less likely, he thinks.

"We want not just police and criminals to be carrying guns, but law-abiding citizens as well. "... An armed society is a polite society," he said.

Should Open Carry succeed in its campaign to legalize publicly carrying loaded guns in California, the effect "is not likely to be either nirvana or the apocalypse," said Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor and author of books on constitutional law.

Concealed weapons laws vary widely across the country. In the 1980s, about nine states issued concealed weapons licenses to individuals who passed a test. That number has grown to about 40 states, but massive violence has not resulted, he said.

'Just aren't trained'

Griffin Dix, a gun safety advocate who is not opposed to gun ownership, questioned the wisdom of carrying weapons in public.

He has been an advocate for gun safety ever since 1994, when his 15-year-old son was killed by a friend who was playing with a gun — not knowing a bullet remained in the chamber.

The Kensington resident is president of the Alameda County chapter of the Brady Campaign, an organization fighting to reduce gun violence.

"The open carry people talk about their rights, and I don't want to take away their rights," Dix said. "But they just aren't trained to have a gun in public the way police are. Police get that training several times a year, and you still see tragic deaths happen because they're armed in public. I don't want to take anyone's guns away, but people should leave them at home."

Three local chapters of the Brady Campaign wrote to shop owners and several Bay Area mayors after a Livermore open carry event. They argued that shop owners have property rights and an obligation to protect the safety of their customers by prohibiting guns on their premises.

In early January, after an Open Carry event in Livermore, organizers announced another would be held Feb. 6 at the California Pizza Kitchen in Walnut Creek.

The company said the group was not welcome.

"California Pizza Kitchen does not allow guests other than uniformed officers to display firearms in our restaurants," a company representative told Bay Area News Group.

"We're sorry to hear that (California Pizza Kitchen) doesn't want us to show up with firearms, but at the same time we respect property rights," Stanley said. "We would not want to make them or their customers uncomfortable, so we will take our firearms and business elsewhere."

Reach Janis Mara at jmara@bayareanewsgroup.com. Reach Sean Maher at smaher@bayareanewsgroup.com



WHAT'S LEGAL IN CALIFORNIA

Most adults can openly carry an unloaded handgun legally in California, as proponents of the open carry movement argue.

The California Penal Code makes it a crime to carry a concealed weapon without a county-issued license, but it also says that firearms "carried openly in belt holsters are not concealed."

In most cases, though, it is a crime to carry a loaded gun in a public place. In addition, people who reasonably think there is an immediate, grave danger to themselves or others, and that carrying the weapon can avert harm, may be allowed to carry the gun from the time law enforcement officials are called until they arrive.

A person may have ammunition in a pocket away from the gun, and may even carry a speed loader, but carrying both ammunition and a gun is a crime if the two have direct contact.

Violent felons and most of those on parole or probation may not possess firearms in any circumstance.

Although a law enforcement officer who sees someone openly carrying a gun may stop that person to make sure the weapon is unloaded, the officer's rights to investigate further become problematic, San Mateo County assistant district attorney Morley Pitt said.

"If the gun's not loaded, you can't make the person carrying it show you any ID, so there's no way of knowing if this person might be on probation or parole, or if they have warrants out on them. You can't check the serial number of the gun, so you don't know if it's been stolen," he said.

It is illegal to possess guns of any sort within 1,000 feet of any public or private school from kindergarten through high school, under the Gun-Free School Zone Act of 1995. Unloaded firearms may not be carried at government meetings that are public.

A person may keep a gun locked in the trunk of a vehicle and can arm himself if he thinks he is in grave danger from a person against whom he has a restraining order.

Bay Area organization Open Carry aims to make it possible for Americans in every state to legally carry loaded guns in public.

  Live Chat at Noon: Should it be easier to carry a loaded gun in public?