Neither Johnson nor I consented to allowing soldiers to live in our homes. Little used today, this Third Amendment right was included specifically in response to the British colonial government's imposition of troops on civilian populations, which were at times punished for disloyalty by being forced to house and feed imperial soldiers.


I was exercising one right Johnson wasn't, one provided for in the Second Amendment. I had secured a weapon — it was actually a pellet gun powered by compressed air, but it was a replica of a Walther P99 semi-automatic handgun and definitely looked real, to co-workers as well as people I encountered.

With the help of a very friendly firearms salesman named John, I went through almost the entire process of purchasing a handgun, including completing a very thorough (and very sternly worded) electronic questionnaire about my identity, any history of commitment to a mental institution, and several aspects of criminal history. (I wondered whether alarm bells would start ringing if I answered "Yes" to the question "Are you a fugitive from justice?" but didn't indulge my curiosity that far.) Also required to buy a firearm is a call to the FBI, which conducts an "instant" background check (it can take several minutes, and if they encounter an anomaly, they can delay answering for a while). If things check out, you get to go to the cash register and complete the purchase. (I skipped that part, and went to the checkout with the pellet gun instead.) I bought a holster, too — to carry a firearm openly in public, it must be secured in a holster that is plainly visible.

The right to bear arms is one of the most politicized rights, and one of the most vaguely worded: "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Until 2008, whether this specifically gave individuals the right to bear arms — or whether it simply allowed states to maintain militias — had never been ruled upon by the Supreme Court. In a case about a Washington DC handgun ban, though, the court ruled that it is an individual right that cannot be outlawed completely. Nevertheless, there are plenty of limits on their ownership, including minimum ages (18 for rifles and shotguns, 21 for handguns), government-issued photo ID, background checks (to prevent felons, people with domestic-violence convictions, and people who have been committed to mental institutions from buying guns), and strict regulations about when, where, and how a firearm can be carried. Concealed weapons may not be carried without a government-issued permit, and even weapons carried openly must be secured in a holster except in the case of urgent life threats.

In part because of the exceptional nature of firearms — they can indeed be used to kill humans, in addition to hunting and sport shooting — an unwritten code of manners has emerged in society. Jeff Weinstein, president of the Maine Gun Owners Association, told me he rarely cares to carry a gun openly, because he views it as an unnecessary act of aggression. Just as we don't exercise free speech by walking around insulting everyone we meet, or spewing profanities just because we can, in some circles — including public spaces in New England — Weinstein urges people to use what might be called good Second Amendment manners. Wearing a gun openly is legal and Constitutionally protected, but still shifts the power dynamic around interpersonal interactions. Sure enough, some people abruptly changed their path through Monument Square to avoid walking near me; others walked by as usual, but kept a weather eye on my hip.

Also because of their unique power-shifting nature, law enforcement are more attuned to the presence of guns than, say, posters or protest signs. We have written about Portland police stopping people legally carrying firearms in public (see sidebar, and "Open-Carry Activist Takes to the Streets," by Deirdre Fulton, June 22). I had no such problems, though several police officers saw my weapon.

One conducted a traffic stop in the middle of Monument Square, questioning the driver of a commercial truck that was parked just feet from me. While he pulled his patrol car up a very short distance away from me, on the side I was wearing the holster, and walked past me twice, the first officer I was certain saw it didn't bat an eye, and didn't approach me. A bicycle cop rode through the square, passing directly behind me and to the side. Several officers drove past in cars at various times when I was near the Congress Street edge of the square. One officer — perhaps summoned by a call from a concerned citizen — walked through the square, up to the monument, and looked around as if searching for something. When he spotted me a few feet away, he turned and walked past me, clearly eyeballing the gun. But even so, he didn't approach me to ask for any identification or information about the weapon.

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