For Mark Fiorino, strapping his gun to his hip is as regular a habit as grabbing his wallet or cellphone. On a recent day, he openly carried while walking his dog, Barrett, near his Allentown home.
And when he headed off to a local yard sale, the handgun rested on his hip, too. Three other shoppers were carrying, showing Fiorino their sidearms in solidarity, he said.
Fiorino is among a small but passionate group of open-carry advocates (you may remember the then-Lansdale resident from his 2011 clash with police during a stop in Northeast Philadelphia). They connect through online forums, post their views on Facebook, and often upload cellphone videos of themselves being stopped by police officers in towns across the country.
Last week, their passion was at the crux of heated debate in the Philadelphia suburbs after a young man walked the streets of Abington Township, Montgomery County, with a loaded AR-15 rifle strapped to his back.
"It was just someone who was carrying openly," Fiorino said. "My first thought was, it shouldn't even be in the news."
In 45 states, open carry is legal in some capacity (California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and South Carolina ban the practice). In some states, including New Jersey, a permit is required. New Jersey also generally bans the open carrying of long guns. Pennsylvania does not require a permit — except in Philadelphia, where people must have a license to carry.
"The roots of the American gun culture are very deep in our history. It is not a new thing," said Daniel Feldman, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "You have a country that was founded on the basis of distrust of central authority."
At first, the Abington man — whom authorities have not publicly identified – told police he was trying to educate the public about open carry and "gauge the political climate." Authorities confirmed that the man was doing nothing illegal by simply carrying the gun.
But, after his friends told police he had joked of "shooting up" schools and talked of suicide, officers took a closer look. Internet searches found on the man's iPhone via a search warrant included "what weapons were used in Columbine" and "how many times were AR-15s used in mass shootings." Police last week took his gun and ordered his involuntary commitment for mental health treatment, due to the threat he posed to himself and others.
Abington police said this week that a hearing would be held to determine whether additional mental health treatment, of up to 20 days, was needed. The man has not been charged.
As for those searches, Fiorino said he has Googled similar things to ensure he is educated when he is faced with counter-arguments. But he doesn't necessarily agree with the message this Abington man was sending.
"Rifles are much more appropriate to carry openly at rallies and organized events," Fiorino said. "When one individual [alone] exercises his rights like this, he sends a louder-than-needed message."
Perhaps, Fiorino said, the man is new to open carry, and unaware of the possible interpretations of walking alone with that weapon, which has been used in many mass shootings.
The Abington man, who was in high school last year, did appear to record his encounters with officers, authorities said. According to a search warrant, he texted a friend before his first of two walks with the semiautomatic weapon, writing, ""I'm gonna record the whole thing in case I get shot."
"To actively pursue the police, to try and get them into an altercation, is wrong," Fiorino said. But as soon as an officer approaches Fiorino, he starts recording. "It's just as much an element of self-defense as carrying the gun in the first place."
Stuart Kinckner, 35, who grew up in Abington and now lives in nearby Oreland, plans to buy a handgun soon for self-defense. But, even as future gun owner, Kinckner was concerned upon seeing reports of the man with the AR-15, especially because his young child was at an area preschool program at the time. Kinckner posted his thoughts on Facebook.
"This is completely what I'd consider irresponsible gun ownership," Kinckner said in an interview.
The reason Kinckner does not own a gun yet, despite getting his license two years ago, is because he and his wife wanted to agree on exactly how to safely store it. They settled on a fingerprint-lock safe, with the ammunition to be kept separately.
Kinckner plans to own only one gun, he said, and does not plan to carry the weapon outside his home.
"Do I want to protect my house? Do I want to be safe? Yes," Kinckner said. But "I see [guns] as weapons. They're dedicated for one purpose – to kill or maim."
In rural Marlborough Township in upper Montgomery County, Elaine Ehrlich Hannock – a real estate broker, grandmother, and local Democratic leader — owns two handguns and a rifle for protection. She has a concealed carry permit and enjoys target shooting, an activity she calls "stress relieving." Hannock, however, is not a fan of open carry, or of AR-15s being in the hands of everyday people.
While growing up "a rowhouse girl from North Philly," Hannock said, the world was much different than the one she now inhabits.
"We did not have guns," said Hannock, who also posted on Facebook about the Abington man. "I had no idea of this culture."
She saw her first gun at a neighbor's home shortly after moving to Marlborough more than a decade ago. She was startled, she said, when she walked onto that porch and saw a rifle casually propped up.
But when Hannock began to feel unsafe showing homes to potential buyers by herself, she got a concealed carry permit. She does not understand why folks in Pennsylvania do not need such a permit in order to openly carry.
"I think it's insane any time someone walks around openly carrying," Hannock said. "What is the purpose of walking into a restaurant with a gun on your hip?"
In Hannock's mind, the answer is "intimidation," she said, and she finds it offensive.
In Allentown, Fiorino said he is pleased that in recent years he has logged fewer negative encounters with police officers and fellow citizens while openly carrying.
"I feel a lot less heat from people attacking our rights as Americans," he said.
And those who do have something to say about the gun on his hip?