DETROIT — The Glock 9 mm holstered on Sharonda Hawkins’ hip is there for the Detroit mother’s personal protection.
On occasion — while shopping or pumping gas — when her blouse or shirt rides up a bit, sight of the pistol also serves as a warning to anyone thinking of making Hawkins a crime victim.
“I’ve had situations where young men — and it was probably in their minds to rob me — when they see that I have a gun they move on,” said Hawkins, 47. “I think my gun is a deterrent. It may have saved me more times than I realize.”
Hawkins said violent crime in the city prompted her to get a concealed weapons permit a few years ago. She didn’t know that Michigan law allows legally licensed gun owners to openly carry their weapons under certain circumstances.
“A large percentage of people don’t even know it’s legal,” said 44-year-old open carry advocate and firearms instructor Rick Ector.
Last year, Ector held a dinner for open carry supporters at a city restaurant and a picnic at Detroit’s Belle Isle park. About 100 people — packing pistols — showed up for each event.
“We are not saying you have to open carry. We just want to educate you that it’s an option,” said Ector, of Detroit.
He said the U.S. Constitution and Michigan laws allow people who own guns legally to bear them openly and points to crime in Detroit as why they should.
There were 344 homicides in Detroit last year, compared with 308 in 2010.
Murder, rape, assault, robbery and other violent crime decreased by 7,300. But with a population of just over 700,000, Detroit has one of the highest violent crime rates per 100,000 residents in the nation.
Ector typically is armed with a 9 mm Smith & Wesson when he travels across the city.
“As long as I have it clearly unobstructed, I can get to it fast enough,” he said. “When I go to gas stations, I make sure it’s out there, open and displayed. It’s a visual deterrent ... that I am armed and capable of defending myself.”
“When police see my gun, they’ll come up to you sometimes and they’ll talk to you about it,” Ector added. “I take it that it’s more or less to size you up, to see if you are thorough in your understanding of the law. Law enforcement has no desire to educate people about their rights when it comes to firearms.”
Twenty-eight states allow the open carrying of firearms without any government permission, according to John Pierce, founder and spokesman of OpenCarry.org.
Michigan and four other states allow open carry as long as the weapons are registered. A carry permit is required in 14 states that allow open carry, and California allows it but the gun has to be unloaded.
Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Illinois, Florida, South Carolina and New York prohibit open carrying of weapons.
In Michigan, gun owners can open carry if they are 18 years old, the handgun is registered to whoever is carrying it and that person is on foot and not in a designated pistol-free zone, Ector said.
But police are not ready to see more — legal or illegal — on Detroit streets.
Through Dec. 11, 3,997 guns were seized by Detroit police. More than 4,200 were taken off the streets over the same period in 2010.
“I don’t quarrel with anyone who wants to exercise their Constitutional right to legally own a gun,” Police Chief Ralph Godbee said. “Nor do I have any quarrel with anybody that exercises their Constitutional right to carry a gun. But is this the best mix? Is legality really the question we need to raise right now? From a practical standpoint, are there too many guns in the city of Detroit? My answer is ‘yes.’”
Over a 24-hour span beginning Aug. 12, seven people were shot to death and nine others wounded. That prompted Mayor Dave Bing to issue a “call to action” to city residents to take a stand against crime. Godbee is moving officers from desk duty and other non-patrol jobs back out onto the streets. And the local U.S. attorney’s office has promised to step up federal prosecution of gun crimes.
“I think Detroit already is a wild, wild west,” said Hawkins, whose husband was among the city’s 2011 murder victims. Brandon Johnson was shot to death in August while sitting in a car outside the couple’s near east side home.
“You can best believe the criminals are carrying,” Hawkins said. “That’s the reason I carry, so that if you were thinking about coming at me you rethink that thought.”
Criminals like to avoid someone ready to fight back, said OpenCarry.org’s Pierce.
“When they see citizens who are capable and willing to defend themselves, they move on to other people who will not put up a fight and where they think they have a smaller chance of being injured.”