First, they were turned away from Fuddruckers, then Idaho Pizza Company, farther out. But here at Shari's, just west of the Idaho State Police building in Meridian, John Carter and Mike Ludlow are finally able to sit down to dinner, black Glocks still strapped to their hips.
The evening, up to this point, had certainly taken on a no-room-at-the-inn feel. Their objectives were simple: to sit down in a restaurant with their handguns clearly hanging in hip holsters, and to enjoy dinner with other like-minded and explicitly armed individuals.
Carter and Ludlow are two pro-Second Amendment, gun-carrying activists trying to establish a local gun-rights advocacy group. On this night, however, their interest goes beyond your everyday, "to keep and bear arms" right.
The firearms right that Carter and Ludlow are interested in advocating, exercising and promoting is called "open carry." They're not only advocating carrying a gun for the entire Glock-fearing or, as the case may be, Glock-loving world to see, they also have a strong interest in seeing you openly carrying a firearm, too.
"We want to use the presence of our openly carried firearms to start a dialogue on what is legal in Idaho," said Ludlow, his Model 31 .357SIG Glock holstered on his right hip.
Even though Ludlow has a permit to carry a concealed weapon, he prefers to carry his gun openly, which is legal in Idaho and does not require any special permit. For both him and Carter, open carrying is about personal safety and deterring crime.
According to opencarry.org, Idaho is one of 11 states—including Montana, Wyoming and Virginia—that allow citizens to openly carry firearms without a license. Only eight states don't allow any type of open carry.
The right to open carry in Idaho was established in 1902. And even though President Barack Obama's election last year sparked a flurry of concern among the pro-gun crowd, gun rights themselves show no sign of being rolled back by the federal government. In fact, with the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban and to hear a new challenge to Chicago's similar ban next year, gun rights seem to be expanding.
"What this really comes down to is [that] your safety is your primary concern, and the safety of your family," said Carter, who was carrying a Glock .45. "There's no one else who's going to take care of it. You're in charge of your safety."
And this is what caused the two men so much trouble, dinner-wise, on this night.
The original Open Carry Dinner, organized by Ludlow and Carter, was to be at the Meridian Fuddruckers, and press releases went out to this effect. This widespread announcement to the local media, from the hindsight that the corner booth at Shari's later provided, may not have been the best strategy.
Less than 24 hours after the press release, Idaho Statesman entertainment reporter Michael Deeds posted the info on his blog, complete with references to Gunsmoke, bullet-proof jackets, and (a bit inexplicably) nunchucks. The calls to Fuddruckers began. By Saturday afternoon, the calls expressing concern about such a dinner forced Ludlow to reschedule at Idaho Pizza Company in Meridian.
But after four Open Carriers showed up for pizza with guns on their belts, they were politely told by the manager to please disarm or leave.
"This is supposed to be a family atmosphere," said an IPC employee, who asked to remain anonymous. "We got no problem with them coming in. We just don't want them carrying guns. I mean, we don't live in the Wild West, man."
After huddling in the parking lot outside of IPC, Carter and Ludlow agreed to go to Shari's, where they'd never had a problem while open carrying. Two others decided to call it a night. At Shari's, they walked in, women and children in tow, and sat down.
Not one of the diners seemed to look twice at their weapons. Shari's, after all, is something of a cop hangout. Regulars are used to seeing troopers with their gun belts, state detectives in loose suits and holsters.
After three tries, the Open Carry Dinner was on. But the group's numbers, originally in the handful range, had dwindled. Only Ludlow and Carter were open carrying. If their goal is to re-normalize guns in America, the night's double rejection spoke to the size of the task.
"That irrational simple-mindedness is what hurts us the most," Carter said after sliding into the booth. "In his article, [Deeds] implied it was going to be the Wild, Wild West. And by implying that, you're implying shootouts on a Saturday night. So by his tone, he was implying we were going to go in and shoot up the place, which, as you can attest, we have not done."
It was true. Meals continued uninterrupted. Sodas arrived; tables were cleared. The waiter hardly seemed to notice the guns.
That's not always the case. Carter describes at least two times when he's been stopped by local police because someone saw him carrying his gun and called the cops. Once he was surrounded by four officers while walking in Caldwell, not bothering anyone, "just a guy with a gun," he said.
"My neighborhood isn't terrible," said Carter, "but it isn't the greatest, so I felt like carrying. And that's all I need to say: I felt like carrying. It'd be like my coming up to someone and telling them, 'you need to turn off your Walkman. It offends me.' There's not a lot of difference there."
Much of the tension of the gun debate lies within this parallel, which is common among gun advocates. One of the open carriers who showed up at IPC had a truck sporting a bumper sticker that compared guns to seat belts: you never know when you'll need them.
But a seat belt or an iPod aren't inherently deadly weapons, and the analogy seems to confuse feeling offended with feeling threatened.
Still, these analogies get at the heart of the Idaho gun debate. Pro-gun advocates like Ludlow and Carter see guns as tools. Anti-gun advocates see them as threats, as instruments of death. Like abortion, health care and marriage, guns are cultural symbols that carry political, ethical and emotional messages. The black Glocks on Carter and Ludlow's belts are capable of sparking both pride and fear.
And it's the reaction of fear that the group wants to change. But, judging from that night at Shari's, its rhetorical methods vary.
Ludlow maintained a comfortable, respectful quiet throughout the night. In the last five months, he'd drawn his weapon five times (while working in Arizona, not Idaho), once to defend himself against a motel-room invasion, another time to protect a woman who was being chased by a man with a tire iron.
He recognizes the philosophical gap between pro- and anti-open carriers. To Ludlow, guns are tools. "Some of the people on the other side see [a gun] as an instrument of death," he said. "I don't see it like that."
Carter is less judicial.
"If you have a fear that people with guns are going to run around and shoot someone," he said, "well, that's because you're afraid if you had a gun, you'd run around and shoot someone."
The question is this: How do you reintroduce firearms into a culture that, as Ludlow and Carter have admitted, has rejected them as a part of everyday life? How do you push people toward the open-carry advocate's ideal society, one in which everyone who is permitted to do so openly carries a gun.
It's often the first question you're asked when you inquire as to why they're carrying guns: Why aren't you?
"They're going to have to someday wake up and realize that they've been living in this society, and guns have been prevalent and gun crime is not," said Carter. "People aren't shooting up the streets on Saturday night."
There is, as their dinner attests, work to be done.
"As tonight proved, we're not as far ahead as people would like to think we are," said Carter. "I can't walk into any restaurant I want to. I can't go everywhere I want."