The Message and Murder of a Pistol-Packing Soccer Mom
The murder last week of Meleanie Hain, “the pistol-packing soccer mom” of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, was a tragedy rich in easy irony. Killed in her home by her husband, Scott Hain, a probation officer, who shot her several times as she was in the midst of a video chat, Meleanie was unarmed when she died. Neighbors heard three children run screaming from the house, “Daddy killed Mommy!” Scott Hain killed himself shortly thereafter, in the upstairs bedroom.
Meleanie Hain’s handgun, a Glock 26 semi-automatic, was in a backpack hanging on a door, a bullet in the chamber. Neighbor Aileen Fortna remarked, "I'm shocked at the whole thing. I'm surprised she didn't defend herself."
According to the Associated Press, Lebanon County District Attorney Dave Arnold commented, "I'm a pretty big advocate for the right to possess and own firearms, so I don't look at this as something where there's an indication that stricter gun regulations are necessary. Obviously responsible gun ownership is the key to gun ownership."
Meleanie achieved notoriety for an incident last year in which she wore her holstered Glock in plain view to her daughter’s soccer game. This is called, in the parlance of gun rights activists, open carry. It is a term you will be hearing a lot more of in the not-too-distant future. The opposing team’s coach, Lebanon County public defender Charlie Jones, aggressively confronted Meleanie about packing heat, and then complained formally to Sheriff Michael DeLeo about her behavior. Sheriff DeLeo took the complaint seriously, very seriously, and issued a summary decision revoking her concealed carry permit (necessary to carrying her gun in her car and thus to the park) on his authority to prohibit unstable individuals from carrying guns. Carrying a gun to a kid’s soccer game, he reasoned, was just nuts—and illegal.
Turns out he was wrong.
Meleanie in the park with Glock and friends
Meleanie open-carried her gun everywhere she could, ensconced in its holster, a bullet in the chamber, ready to fire, everywhere except posted private property. It’s legal in Pennsylvania, except in Philadelphia. I guess you already know that because of recent incidents related to President Obama’s appearances in Pennsylvania.
Open carry is legal (to a confusing variety of degrees) in 43 states. Here is a map to help you sort it out.
There are only seven states that prohibit the open display of weapons: Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. It may surprise you that a number of these are in the South, where gun rights are big, but that is no accident. The open carry prohibitions in these states were enacted precisely to prevent African-Americans from carrying weapons in public.
Pennsylvania has one of the more liberal open carry laws in the nation and is a hotbed of open carry activism. Meleanie Hain wasn’t your casual I’m-here-to-prove-a-point-and-disappear gun-toting soccer mom. She was a committed activist with an organization known online as opencarry.org. She challenged Sherrif DeLeo’s decision on legal grounds and succeeded in getting his order reversed. It wasn’t hard. He didn’t have a legal leg to stand on.
A very professional and well-researched 5,000 word brief filed by Meleanie’s attorney, Matthew B. Weisberg, posed the legal question like this:
“II. Question Presented
For political gain and as punishment, can Lebanon County Sheriff DeLeo revoke Hain’s permit to carry a concealed firearm under 18 Pa.C.S. §6109 without pre-seizure process or good cause to prevent, via §6106, Hain from openly carrying a firearm as she is entitled under both the United States’ and Pennsylvania’s Constitutions?
Suggested Answer: No.”
Meleanie won this round, and felt confident to go farther. Working again with Mr. Weisberg, she filed a civil suit for damages—and big bucks—against Sheriff DeLeo and the county. Ironically, this suit is still pending and Weisberg insists it will go forward.
“A symbol of personhood…”
This ruckus made Meleanie hugely popular with a certain interested group of folks—Open Carry. Open Carry exists primarily as a social networking site at opencarry.org. The goal of Open Carry as described on its website is to "naturalize the presence of guns, which means that guns become ordinary, omnipresent, and expected. Over time, the gun becomes a symbol of ordinary personhood." Its motto is "A Right Unexercised is a Right Lost." It seems to have about 8,000 members. The website features forums, organized by state. If you are interested, you can find your own state here. The Open Carry Pennsylvania forum was apparently one of the more popular forums. It boasts over 10,000 posts.
Some 250 of those posts were written by shefearsnothing—Meleanie Hain, who joined the group on September 20, 2008. Meleanie’s posts reflected the work of a dedicated, savvy activist. She discussed her court cases and her media appearances, about which she solicited and received detailed responses. She never ranted like some of the men. She was on a mission.
Publicly, she stated her reasons for carrying a gun matter of factly: "It's not a matter of being paranoid. People have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in their homes. They're not paranoid; they're prepared."
But it was never about smoke detectors. It was about the Second Amendment, and Meleanie was a true believer. The Open Carry crowd believes two things as fundamentals: a) carrying a gun reduces the chances of becoming a victim of a crime, and b) carrying a loaded weapon openly is a practice that must be made commonplace in the U.S.
Meleanie demonstrated her fidelity to the first notion by working on a project to survey Pennsylvania inmates about whether they would have committed the types of crimes for which they were incarcerated if everyone in society had been armed. She demonstrated her fidelity to the second principle by suing the government for a million dollars for interfering with her right to carry. Meleanie was a home day-care provider. Here husband was a probation officer. Yet they had sufficient income for some pretty fancy legal work. Online partners encouraged her to bring her case to the attention of the Pennsylvania Firearm Owners Association, which she did. Probably somewhere along the way she found some deep pockets to fund her suit. It is interesting that Mr. Weisberg is planning to press the case after her death—for the sake of the children most likely.
Her posts reflected her savvy as an activist. Prior to an appearance on a local TV show she enlists support for making her case. “If there are any points anyone would like me to have in my notes please post them here and I will come back and check before I finalize them on Monday,” she posts.
“There's people that are offended by T-shirts with scriptures on them, others are offended by piercings or tattoos, and still others get upset over breastfeeding in public. Should any of those people change their harmless habits or behavior against their will because of the discomfort of others? Here, you are exercising the god-given (or inalienable) right of self-defense, as the founding fathers intended to be protected by the Second Amendment.”
That’s right. Breast feeding.
Open Carry Pennsylvania mostly lionized Meleanie for her poster gal status. At a gathering of the group loosely linked to her birthday, her compatriots presented her with a certificate of appreciation as shown in the photo below.
Another overlay manifests itself in Open Carry forums—the attitude of the Disenfranchised Patriot—a topic I have written about previously on Open Salon. The confederate flag, screen names like “Praying for War,” and the curious Greek phrase “Molon labe!” permeate the culture. “Molon labe!” is what the Spartans were said to have screamed in the face of the Persian onslaught, as enshrined in the film 300. It means, to the Open Carry crowd, a composite of “Bring it on!,” “Come and take us!,” and “Over my dead body!” Take your pick.
When an anti-gun advocacy organization, Moms Against Guns, announced it would lobby the state of Pennsylvania for stiffer gun laws, a photo appeared in newspapers with one of the principals, an elderly woman, appearing in a tee shirt bearing the name of the organization. One Open Carry regular photoshopped the tee shirt to read “I’m not armed, rape me” to the amusement of some. He went on to add swastika buttons to the attire of the anti-gun representatives here. So you can’t say these guys don’t have a sense of humor.
Interestingly enough, when Todd Palin came to town last fall, members of this very group reversed their in-your-face attitude as displayed in close proximity to the president and left their weapons at home (or in their glove boxes). The rationale was revealed in this posting:
“I have one request of all of you.
IF there is a sign saying NO Firearm around Todd Palin or they metal detectors that the secret service has around to protect the safety of the Todd Palin.
PLEASE don’t make a big scene, follow the instructions of the Secret Service they have a very difficult job to do, don’t make it worse. IF the Secret Service ask you to secure you firearm in your vehicle just cooperate. Don’t make this event into a negative reflection on responsible gun owners or Pitcairn-Monroeville Sportsmen's Club."
Turns out the Pitcairn-Monroeville Sportsmen’s Club has a bit of an overlap with Open Carry. One of those members is “Mountain Jack" Nobles, who open-carried a handgun to an Obama rally on August 29, 2008—and was later acquitted of any wrongdoing by a jury of his peers.
Visions of Freedom
Upon receiving news of Meleanie’s death, Open Carry posts were raw and angry—at her husband, and at those who would use the occasion to mount anti-gun arguments. The tone in some of the posts was, to put it bluntly, hateful. But amidst this rancor, there were posts by those who had heard her recount serious difficulties in her marriage. The group laid plans to organize a “memorial shoot” in her memory.
You may think this sounds like Mars, but this is Main Street—coming to a mall parking lot or public park near you. We have laws on the books that go back to the days of deer rifles and squirrel guns that allow citizens to carry their weapons in public, pretty much where they please.
You have to ask yourself, are you willing to fight to change this? Because if you don’t, the new, “new normal” is going to include people with some pretty ugly political views and dispositions getting right up in your grill with their guns. And their kids, too. There is nothing stopping 17-year olds from open carry in some states.
These folks know the law. Some, like Meleanie, have faced down the law before and won, and they are just itching to carry and be challenged so they can swing their legal artillery into range.
You might think that at least some Democratic lawmakers would like to change these laws. Don’t count on it. Open carry proponents are deeply wired into the mindset of the NRA, even without the explicit backing of the gun rights lobby. In fact, towns across America are being pressured to repeal their open carry prohibitions to accommodate our patriots.
Meleanie Hain’s death was a tragedy, whatever her political views. But she was just one of the 1,100 or so women murdered by their husbands or boyfriends each year. The folks at Open Carry have much in common with Lebanon County District Attorney Dave Arnold, who thought it—the murder—was just an issue of “responsible ownership.”
The problem with open carry is that you never know who is on the other end of that holster. It comes down to competing visions of what constitutes a civil society. To borrow from the movies, this town ain’t big enough for both visions. If you believe in the vision to live free of a lock and load mentality, you just might want to get out there and advocate for your vision, because the other guy—or gal—is at it with a vengeance, regardless of a recent murder.
Update 10/20/09: Meleanie Hain’s family requested that memorial donations be sent to the Pennsylvania Firearms Owners Association.
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For more on the open carry movement see, "Meet George Donnelly—He Wants to Show You His Gun".