BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (Battle Creek Enquirer) - Wearing a tan shirt, jeans, cowboy boots and a 9mm handgun, Steve Koch walked into a Battle Creek restaurant Monday afternoon.
"I openly carry a gun because I can and because I should," Koch, 47, of Battle Creek said. "Why should everyone have insurance on their house or on their car. Just in case."
Koch is among a growing number of people in Michigan and across the country who openly carry guns without violating any law.
"As long as you are able and not a criminal, you should be allowed to open carry," he said. "And I am one who believes if we have a right and don't exercise them they will go away."
A long time gun owner, Koch, an equipment operator, said he and his wife, Melody, who both hold concealed weapons permits, learned about open carry three years ago and now are part of a movement to educate the public about the practice.
"We are trying to slowly desensitize the public, to take away the mystic and the falacies" he said. "A man with a gun does not mean a bad man, it just means a man with a gun."
Koch said he openly carries a handgun about four days a week and is one of maybe six Battle Creek residents who strap on a handgun when going out in public to protect themselves.
But as the practice grows, police in the greater Battle Creek area are trying to determine how to respond to people who openly carry handguns.
"This is not a change in the law, but a growing trend," said Battle Creek Police Department Commander James Saylor. "There have been some encounters."
Saylor said Koch who was wearing a handgun was questioned Sept. 7 when he joined a group in downtown's Friendship Park for the Tea Party Express. Police also questioned a man who entered an Emmett Township store with a handgun holstered on his hip and another man walking down a street in the Post Addition with a shotgun over his shoulder.
No one was charged because Michigan law does not prevent people over 18 who do not have a felony record from carrying a gun in the open -- as long as they don't try to enter certain gun-free locations like a church, day care center, bank or court, Saylor said.
Brian G. Jeffs, of Bath, president of Michigan Open Carry, a nonprofit organization formed in March 2009, said the number of people carrying weapons is growing.
Jeffs said the organization has 85 members and he estimates between 200 and 300 people regularly openly carry weapons in public and several hundred others do so occasionally.
"People are starting to realize it is legal," he said. "It brings gun ownership out of the closet. Criminals tend to conceal their weapons and good guys openly carry."
Jeffs, 52, a senior geologist for the state of Michigan, said his group provides information about the law and the practice on its Web site, www.michiganopencarry.org, or a national website, www.opencarry.org and also holds events to educate the public about open carry. He said that education includes police departments.
"We don't expect it to get popular, but we want people to know it's legal. Law enforcement doesn't like (open carry) because they are afraid it will scare people," Jeffs said. "But very rarely do people even notice or call the police."
Koch said he has openly carried his weapon all over the state and was only approached by a police officer at Friendship Park for the Tea Party Express and by business owners twice. In both cases he was not asked to leave the store.
Saylor said the city attorney has met with all his officers to discuss the law and the proper response to a call to 911 about an open carry.
He expects those 911 calls from residents who might notice someone with a gun.
"It's more threatening to them," Saylor said. "They don't know what is going to happen. Is it a hold-up or a shooting? It can give a heightened sense of paranoia when they see a firearm on someone's side."
Saylor said because open carry is rare, he expects officers will be dispatched to investigate when a resident calls.
"Sometimes people are carrying and don't understand the ramifications of what they are doing," he said. "They believe it is self protection, but they have to balance that with the community, which may not understand. There has to be a certain level of sensitivity. When most people see firearms, it doesn't conjure up positive thoughts. And they don't go unnoticed. We get calls."
Saylor and others in law enforcement said when police are called about open carry, officers likely will attempt to question them.
"We have not had any actual incidents in the county," said Capt. Matt Saxton of the Calhoun County Sheriff Department. "We have talked about it, but not had any formal training. But we likely will check them out because we don't know what their intent is, and we don't see open carry too often in Michigan."
"If we get a call, we would respond," said Rob Coles, Springfield's public safety director. "Police officers would be curious about what is going on, but we have to be careful that you don't violate anyone's rights. We can ask to talk to the guy, but we can't force them to stop."
Prosecutor Susan Mladenoff said the issue has been discussed in her office, "but it's not illegal to open carry. Nothing has crossed my desk. I have seen it in surrounding counties and I am not surprised to see it here."
Joel Fulton, owner of Southside Sportsman Club, a gun shop at 539 Capital Ave. S.W., has a motto: "An armed society is a polite society." He said while he supports the right to open carry, he, like Jeffs, encourages gun owners to obtain a concealed pistol license.
"Some people are trying to desensitize the public to not think it's a bad guy carrying a gun, but in Michigan open carry is not as socially acceptable," Fulton said. "I don't advocate for open carry and I don't have anything against the group, who are trying to make it more socially acceptable, but if you open carry, you have to be prepared to deal with the police when they arrive. They have to respond and you are going to be viewed with suspicion. You may have the right to do it, but it is not always the right thing to do."
Fulton, who sometimes open carries, said he usually carries his handgun concealed so that criminals do not target him and he can respond if a criminal uses a gun.
"Having it concealed gives me an element of surprise," Fulton said.
Jeffs, while encouraging people to apply for concealed weapons permit and to take firearms training, said openly carrying a gun can prevent an attack too.
He said he is not aware of any person wearing a gun who was targeted by a criminal or who had his or her weapon taken.
"When criminals target someone and see they have a gun, they turn around," Jeffs said. "If they are walking down the street and they see someone with a gun, they leave. It's like a 'beware of the dog' sign. They go on to the other guy."
Koch said his decision to open carry is about defending himself if necessary.
"When seconds matter, a police officer is just minutes away," he said.
Trace Christenson can be reached at 966-0685 or firstname.lastname@example.org.