Last year, on Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans police made more gun arrests than any single day in at least 13 years, maybe more, according to arrest data kept on the City Council website, which only goes back that far. 

Officers arrested 40 people. Most were on Bourbon Street. More were charged with the same misdemeanor offense, attempting to conceal a weapon without a concealed carry permit. 

All 40 of the people arrested were Black.

The Fat Tuesday arrests are reflective of a larger trend: a steep increase in gun arrests in the city over the last several years. Over the entire span of Carnival last year, law-enforcement officers seized roughly 200 guns. It’s likely that most of those arrests were of Black people, given a larger sample of gun arrests analyzed by the Orleans Public Defenders, which determined that 97 percent of those arrested were Black. 

It’s unknown how many people were stopped and frisked and found not to have guns, and what the racial breakdown looks like for that larger universe of people.

The spike in gun arrests – and who is arrested for gun possession –  is particularly noticeable during Carnival, when the city is in the national spotlight and tourists crowd the French Quarter. It’s a time when there is a heightened risk of violence spinning out of control, law-enforcement officers say.

Last year, the shooting during the Bacchus parade that left one dead and four injured marked the thirteenth time since 2011 that there had been a shooting or stabbing along that parade route, according to an analysis by the Times-Picayune / New Orleans Advocate.

As Mardi Gras approached this year, city leaders again warned people to leave their firearms at home.

“This is no place for a gun,” NOPD Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said at a recent press conference. “If a gun is brought to any of these festivities, we will arrest you and you will go to jail.” 

It is illegal to carry a firearm in bars under state law, and New Orleans law bans them within 1,000 feet of demonstrations — which have included parades. The Louisiana law outlining concealed-carry permitting also bans concealed weapons from being carried at a parade. It’s illegal for felons to carry firearms and illegal to carry a stolen or unlicensed weapon. 

But it’s not a crime for an adult to carry a visible legal gun — or a concealed gun with a permit, in most places. Instead, the vast majority of people arrested in the city for gun-related arrests are charged with “intentional concealment” of a firearm without a permit, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum six months in prison and a $500 fine. 

During Carnival, gun arrests spike, when the city is in the national spotlight and tourists crowd the French Quarter. It’s a time when there is a heightened risk of violence spinning out of control, law-enforcement officers say. Photo by Mizani Ball / The Lens

Orleans Public Defenders: 350 gun arrests, 97% Black people

Critics say that many of the stops and arrests for guns are tinged with racial bias, are questionable constitutionality, and do little to actually prevent violence.

The Orleans Public Defenders did an analysis of nearly 350 gun arrests between the beginning of Decemeber 2022 and February 2023, most of which were instigated by officers conducting a proactive patrol, driving through communities looking for anything amiss – as opposed to officers responding to a call for service. 

Of the arrested people, 97 percent of the people were Black.

“You don’t need a degree in statistics to realize that those numbers strongly suggest police are engaged in biased policing,” said Bruce Hamilton, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center in New Orleans. 

The NOPD did not respond to questions regarding gun arrests.

Eric Hessler, an attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans, and former NOPD officer, said that he couldn’t comment on the specific numbers. “Race shouldn’t have anything to do with it, clearly,” he said.

“Race has no role in the officer’s assessment of whether or not you have reasonable suspicion or not,” Hessler said. “Or at least it shouldn’t.”

If any of the individuals arrested felt that the stop was based on racial bias, they should alert their attorneys, Hessler said. Or they should file a complaint with the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau, he said.

Hessler said that it was “clearly reasonable and necessary to control the number of firearms on Bourbon Street and the persons who are carrying them.” Proactive patrols were part of that, he said.

“If they see a person in possession of a concealed weapon, and they have reasonable suspicion to believe that that weapon is being possessed illegally, they’re duty bound to investigate,” Hessler said. 

But Hamilton questioned how officers can “see” an illegal concealed weapon. Just seeing a person who police suspect is carrying a gun isn’t enough to warrant a stop, he said.

“Carrying a gun isn’t itself criminal, ” Hamilton said, “and it’s not necessarily indicative of criminal activity.” So generally speaking, seeing someone with a gun is not enough to justify a stop, he said.

There could be some circumstances, he said, that might make it rise to the level of a legal stop – such as if the person was displaying it in a “menacing fashion” or if it was near the location of recent gun violence. 

One third of stops prompted by “bulge” underneath clothing

Of the stops analyzed by public defenders, at least 109 occurred after officers claimed to have observed a “bulge” underneath someone’s clothing.

One man who was arrested on a concealed-carry violation over Halloween in the French Quarter in 2022 said that when police stopped him on his way to get pizza, officers told him it was because of a bulge in his pocket that they thought might be a weapon. In fact, there was no gun in his pocket — only a wallet and his girlfriend’s makeup. 

But there was a gun in his back waistband, and he informed the police as they searched him that it was there.

The gun was registered in his name, but he didn’t have a permit for it. He said he had been working on saving up the money for one. He asked to not be named for fear of police harassment. 

In the meantime, he said, he needed the gun for his own protection. He had been shot about two years previously, in a shooting that left a bullet in his body, and he fears having something like that happen again.

“They was making it seem like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re taking another gun off the street, it’s good with us,’” he told The Lens. “But I’m like bro, I got a bullet behind my heart. You’re taking something that’s pertaining to my safety at the moment.”

Plus, the idea that he would be fine with his weapon only if he was openly carrying it seems wild to him. “It’s wishy-washy with the rules and regulations they got,” he said. “If I’m able to buy it, I should be able to carry it how I want.” 

In 26 other states with permitless concealed-carry laws, that’s the case. 

In a statement, Lindsey Hortenstine, a spokesperson for the Orleans Public Defenders said that given the amount of tourists that come to the city for Mardi Gras, “we need to take a more proactive approach to education about local gun laws in an effort to minimize interactions with people otherwise following their local gun laws.” 

In recent years, some Republicans in the Louisiana state house have made unsuccessful attempts to eliminate the need for permits for concealed weapons. But now they have the backing of Gov. Jeff Landry. In a proclamation announcing a new special session on crime released Thursday, Landry identified permitless concealed carry as a priority. 

But according to Louisiana law, some places— including parade route — are still off-limits, even to people with legitimate concealed-carry permits. Perhaps Bourbon Street should be on that list, Hessler suggested. 

“Personally, I understand why persons that are legally qualified to carry weapons in a concealed capacity may want to do so,” Hessler said. “But even as a police officer serving on Bourbon Street, I would be very, very reluctant in almost every circumstance to use that weapon, and to feel confident that it wasn’t going to hurt an unintended person. It’s just a very unique environment, to say the least. 

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...