I’ve never touched a handgun and I haven’t been to Florida in decades, yet this month Florida officials mailed me a permit to carry a concealed gun.
If Congress adopts a bill that the National Rifle Association is pushing, Florida’s licenses would apply to 49 states in all -- allowing their holders to carry hidden guns in places such as midtown Manhattan, where the New York Police Department rejects most such applications for “concealed-carry” permits.
Only Illinois and Washington, D.C., where residents aren’t allowed to carry concealed handguns at all, would be exempt.
Co-sponsored by more than half the members of the U.S. House, the bill requires any state or jurisdiction that issues concealed-weapons permits to honor permits granted by any other state or jurisdiction. Rules and standards -- including safety-training requirements -- for granting such licenses vary by state. New Mexico requires 16 hours of training. Ohio requires 12, Texas and Louisiana, 10. At least 10 states require none.
“Law-abiding people are not immune from crime just because they cross over a state border,” said Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA. The 4 million-member gun-rights group has lobbied state legislatures to pass concealed-carry laws since the 1980s, and it considers the federal “reciprocity” bill a common-sense approach to the state-by-state patchwork of rules, he said.
The bill “effectively prevents a state from controlling who has guns within the state, which has always been a core police power function of state government,” said John Donohue, a professor at Stanford Law School, who said he thinks it would be held unconstitutional. “It is so ironic that it is the conservatives who are trying to push this encroachment, since they usually are very active in championing states’ rights.”
Florida, which granted my permit after I viewed a half-hour, online safety video, now says it made a mistake. “Unfortunately, our office made an error in completing your application,” wrote Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for the state licensing division in an e-mail response after I asked why somebody with no handgun experience got a permit.
While Florida law doesn’t set a minimum number of hours for safety training or specify what the training must include, it does require trainers to keep documentation that applicants “have been observed safely handling and discharging the firearm,” Ivey wrote. There was no such documentation in my case.
Resembles Driver’s License
Even so, the actual permit itself, which resembles a driver’s license, arrived in Saturday’s mail. After he was asked about the permit last week, Ivey said the state plans to send a follow-up letter detailing “what additional information will be needed.”
From 2005 through 2009, U.S. domestic handgun production and foreign-made imports more than doubled, to 4,600,232 from 1,995,802, according to data compiled by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents the firearms industry.
With states’ adoption of concealed-carry laws and U.S. Supreme Court decisions affirming the right to keep and bear arms, “it is not surprising that there has been an increase in consumer demand for firearm and ammunition products,” said Lawrence G. Keane, the foundation’s senior vice president and general counsel.
In Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker, a Republican, signed the nation’s newest concealed-carry law on July 8, the legislation spurred an immediate increase in handgun purchases, said Eric Grabowski, who manages the Shooters Shop in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis.
“Ordinarily, we could go on vacation in July and not miss many sales,” Grabowski said.
‘Something to Carry’
No vacation this July. The shop sold about 500 handguns in the first two weeks of the month, almost all to customers who said they wanted “something to carry” when the state begins issuing permits in November, he said.
A 2007 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, the most recent data available, estimated the number of privately owned firearms in the U.S. at 283 million -- more than one for each of the 245 million Americans over the age of 20.
If adopted, the federal reciprocity bill would cause the number of handguns to “jump significantly,” said Grover Norquist, an NRA board member who’s better known as the president of Americans for Tax Reform. Among other reasons, Norquist cited his belief that people who live in one state and travel frequently to another for work or other reasons would buy more guns.
‘Race to Bottom’
States can already choose to adopt reciprocity agreements -- Florida has such pacts with 35 other states, although 4 of them require that the permit holder be a Florida resident. The federal bill would eliminate states’ discretion. As a result, even the most exacting jurisdictions would be required to honor permits from the laxest. Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg called it a “race to the bottom.”
“In some states, the permits are practically a rubber stamp,” said Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney with Legal Community Against Violence, a San Francisco-based public interest law center dedicated to preventing gun violence. “In others, authorities are very careful about whether the applicant is fit to carry a concealed and loaded weapon in public.”
In New York City, it’s nearly impossible for most applicants to get concealed-carry permits, said Jerold Levine, an attorney who handles appeals of denials. Officials with the New York Police Department, which vets applications in the city, declined to comment for this story.
Unlike many jurisdictions, the city considers the applicant’s “moral character,” Levine said. “If you were arrested in a bar fight, even if it was 15 years ago, forget it,” he said. “You’re not getting a permit.”
Florida didn’t ask about my moral character on the application I downloaded from the state Division of Licensing’s website. I filled it out and sent it to Tallahassee, along with a set of fingerprints taken by my local police department in Maryland ($14); a color passport-style photo ($5); and a check for $117.
I also sent a “Certificate of Completion” that I earned by watching an online video about gun safety offered by the Maryland Police Training Commission, a state agency. I never left my desk and never touched a handgun.
As of last month, Florida had issued 843,463 such permits, 93,722 of them to people who don’t live there. Its concealed-carry law, adopted in 1987, doesn’t distinguish between in-state and out-of-state applicants, said Ivey, the spokesman.
Once my application arrived at Florida’s licensing division, a background check was conducted to see whether I met the requirements mandated by federal law: no felony conviction, never forcibly committed to a mental institution, not guilty of misdemeanor domestic violence, not a fugitive from justice, never dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces.
I happen to be clear on all counts. In 2007, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale reported that 1,400 people in the state had permits even though they had been sentenced for major crimes, including assault, drug possession, sexual battery and manslaughter. Judges had withheld formal convictions under a state law that allowed the practice.
Since 2007, after the NRA lobbied on the issue, 39 states have limited the amount of public information that’s available on permit holders -- making investigations into their backgrounds more difficult.
Shall and May
In Florida and 34 other states, laws require that authorities “shall issue” concealed-carry permits to applicants who qualify. Five of those states -- Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Washington -- also issue concealed handgun permits to out-of-state applicants.
Ten other states, including New York, have “may issue” laws, which leave permitting decisions to state or local law-enforcement authorities. Four states allow residents to carry concealed weapons without permits.
In 14 states, residents need some form of license, permit or other prerequisite just to purchase a handgun from a dealer, according to the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. Those requirements wouldn’t be affected by the federal bill.
Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, credits “the work of countless NRA members” for expanding concealed-carry rights nationally, according to a column he wrote for the August edition of an NRA magazine, America’s First Freedom.
“The progress we’ve made on this issue is nothing short of amazing,” Cox wrote, while warning that “we won’t rest until no one, at any level of government, anywhere in this country, can arbitrarily limit the right of good people to carry firearms for defense.”
Co-Sponsors in House
The federal legislation, introduced by U.S. Representative Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat, and Representative Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, has already attracted 241 other co-sponsors in the House, enough to guarantee its passage in that chamber.
Two Republican senators, David Vitter of Louisiana and John Thune of South Dakota, are expected to introduce a companion bill that at least 10 Democratic senators are likely to support, said Chad Ramsey, a lobbyist with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which opposes concealed carry. That would give the bill 58 votes if all Republican senators supported it, two short of the number needed to avoid a filibuster.
Luke Bolar, an aide to Vitter, said Republicans might append the bill to another measure that President Obama would have to sign, such as the pending Flood Insurance Reform Act.
White House Silent
Obama declared his opposition to carrying concealed weapons during the 2008 campaign. Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman, declined to say whether Obama would veto a national reciprocity bill if it reaches his desk.
The bill, which is scheduled to come up during a House subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, is opposed by the American Bar Association. At its convention last month, the lawyers’ professional group adopted a resolution supporting “broad discretion” for local law enforcement in deciding whether to grant permits.
A coalition of 600 U.S. mayors announced its opposition to the bill today in a news release. The group, Mayors Against Illegal Handguns, is co-chaired by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
The 22,000-member International Association of Chiefs of Police also opposes the measure.
‘Potpourri of Standards’
“Our problem is the potpourri of varied training standards for each state,” said Scott Knight, the police chief in Chaska, Minnesota, and chairman of the group’s firearms committee.
Largely because of the differing standards among “shall issue” and “may issue” states, the bill raises what Harvard University professor of constitutional law Laurence Tribe calls “interesting and difficult constitutional questions.”
Tribe said the bill is “an unprecedented attempt by Congress” to require states with more stringent concealed carry laws to accede to “the more permissive laws of whichever state initially licensed someone’s carrying of a concealed weapon.”
While the Constitution’s commerce clause gives Congress authority to regulate commerce between the states, the reciprocity bill probably wouldn’t fall within that power, said Weisberg, the law professor who serves as faculty co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. Nor would it fall under Congress’ power to enforce such existing constitutional liberties as the right “to keep and bear arms,” he said.
Right to Carry
That’s because the Constitution is silent about whether there’s a specific right to carry a concealed firearm outside the home, and the Supreme Court has not yet spoken on the issue, he said.
“This is a completely unsettled question,” Weisberg said. “We have a very long way to go. The rights that this bill purports to enforce are not clearly established rights at this point.”
David Kopel, an adjunct professor of advanced constitutional law at the University of Denver and an NRA member, says the bill could survive a constitutional challenge.
The inability to carry a concealed firearm might dissuade a business traveler from visiting an unfamiliar and possibly dangerous place, thus interfering with his right to conduct commerce via interstate travel, as guaranteed by the commerce clause, Kopel said.
When the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the right to keep handguns in the home in 2008, it specifically avoided infringing laws against carrying firearms in “sensitive places,” such as schools and government buildings, he noted.
In specifying “sensitive places,” the high court implied a right to carry firearms in “non-sensitive places,” which could define almost any other venue, Kopel says.
The list of sensitive places is shorter in some states than others. Last month, Ohio became one of a handful of states where it’s legal to carry a concealed firearm into a bar -- though some allow bar owners to opt out and others forbid the gun owner from drinking or being drunk.
Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman fought the measure, as did the state’s bar and restaurant owners. Lawmakers approved it despite a survey commissioned by the Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence that found 69 percent of Ohioans opposed the bill, Coleman said.
As many as 26 colleges and universities, mostly in Colorado and Utah, allow concealed weapons on their campuses -- though only Utah requires schools to allow them inside academic buildings, said David Burnett, a spokesman for Students for Concealed Carry on Campus.
Nationwide, 24 other states prohibit guns on campus, 15 leave the decision up to individual schools and 10 don’t address the issue, Burnett said. His group says that arming more students might prevent incidents like the 2007 mass shootings at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in which a disturbed student killed 32 people and wounded 25 others before killing himself.
While the number of handguns is growing, it’s not clear how often they’re being used for defense. Estimates of the numbers of concealed-carry permits nationwide range from 4 million to 7 million. Data from 14 surveys conducted by academic researchers, polling organizations and the federal Centers for Disease Control show that between 700,000 and 3.6 million people each year say they’ve had occasion to draw concealed firearms -- though not necessarily to shoot an assailant.
“Surveys are not a reliable source of information on this issue,” said Phillip Cook, an associate dean and professor of economics and sociology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He prefers the U.S. government’s National Crime Victimization Survey, which he said shows about 100,000 “defensive gun uses per year.”
Longtime carrier Zak Johnson, a technical writer in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has never had to draw his five-shot, .357 magnum revolver in an emergency.
“I do a lot of camping and hiking in the backwoods by myself or with my kids,” Johnson said. “I like the option of concealed carry.”
Johnson says he’s not worried about encountering angry animals. “It’s the people,” he says. “I carry in the cities, too, although Portsmouth isn’t exactly a high-crime area.”
Richard Feldman, a former lobbyist for both the NRA and the NSSF, advocates national reciprocity and has a personal story to back up his convictions.
It began as “a road-rage kind of thing,” Feldman recalls. He and the other driver pulled to the side of the road, “and the guy gets out of his car and he’s carrying a tire iron.”
Feldman drew the Smith & Wesson Holding Corp.’s .38 caliber Chief’s Special Airweight, a five-shot revolver that was a gift from his girlfriend. He rolled down his car’s window and pointed it at the approaching driver.
“‘You got a problem, Bud?’” he recalls asking.
“He dropped the tire iron and said ‘Sorry, my mistake,’ and retreated back to his vehicle,” Feldman said. “I’m not sure what would have happened if I hadn’t had that gun.” Feldman still has the tire iron in his garage.
As concealed-carry legislation has broadened the market for smaller, lighter firearms, few companies have taken better advantage than Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc., of Southport, Connecticut. In 2009, Sturm, Ruger was the leading U.S.-based producer of handguns, according to data compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is known by its former acronym, “ATF.”
‘It’ll Probably Happen’
Sturm, Ruger, whose share price has increased 100 percent this year, should get a sales boost from Wisconsin’s new concealed-carry law, Michael Fifer, the company’s chief executive officer, said during a July earnings call.
“We’re all looking enthusiastically forward to it, and, as your good common sense tells you, it’ll probably happen.”
The company sells for $373 a 5-inch-long semi-automatic pistol, the Ruger LCP, that weighs 10 ounces -- about a quarter as much as Colt’s Manufacturing Co.’s iconic Colt 45. It holds seven rounds of the .380 cartridge. Other gun makers have also begun producing smaller, lighter, more powerful guns suitable for pocket or purse.
Smith & Wesson of Springfield, Massachusetts, says on its website that its sub-compact revolvers have “become the most popular small frame personal defense revolver on the market.” One model, with a 2-inch-long barrel, weighs 13 ounces and fires the powerful .357 magnum cartridge, used for many years by the U.S. Secret Service.
“Absolute Concealed Power,” reads an ad in an NRA magazine for a pistol produced by Kahr Arms. “The Ultimate in Concealed Firepower,” boasts an ad for Kel-Tec CNC Inc.’s P-40. “User Friendly Pocket Rocket,” says an ad for the Standard Arms 9 mm sub-compact.
Some marketing is aimed at younger, more urban and more affluent women, despite data from the National Opinion Research Center showing that the portion of U.S. women who report owning guns has hovered around 10 percent for decades. Smith & Wesson produces small, high-powered handguns under the LadySmith brand.
Charter Arms produces a pink snub-nosed revolver called the “Chic Lady,” which comes with “an attractive pink faux alligator case,” and the .32 caliber “Lavender Lady,” which the company claims is “fun, attractive and much less likely to be ‘borrowed’ by the gentleman of the house!”