Photo of a customer at a gun shop by Sergio Flores/Bloomberg, Getty Images.
By Matt Vasilogambros, Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts
Six more states no longer require residents to hold a permit to carry a concealed firearm.
Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, Tennessee, Texas and Utah this year enacted what gun rights advocates often refer to as “constitutional carry” measures. A legislative priority for groups such as the National Rifle Association, 21 states now have such measures in place. Many of these states still have restrictions on possessing firearms in certain government buildings.
More states may be added to that list before the end of this legislative season. The Ohio House last month passed a bill along party lines that would eliminate a requirement for gun owners to take an eight-hour class and undergo a background check to carry a concealed firearm in public. It is now before the state Senate, which also is controlled by Republicans. Wisconsin lawmakers also are debating a permitless carry bill.
Similar bills have passed in one legislative chamber in both Louisiana and South Carolina this year. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether New York’s gun permitting system violates the Second Amendment—a case that could gut firearm permit provisions nationwide.
Permitless carry laws eliminate what proponents say is an onerous and time-consuming step for people who want to arm themselves for self-protection. When Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed his state’s permitless carry law earlier this year, the Republican tweeted that “it shouldn’t be hard for law-abiding Tennesseans to exercise their” Second Amendment rights.
Gun safety advocates and law enforcement agencies argue that having more people with concealed firearms in public places endangers communities and police officers.
“This is a dangerous step for states,” said Eugenio Weigend, director of the gun violence prevention program at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. “This could easily raise some confrontations in some places, further escalating violence to reach lethal levels.”
The debate over self-defense figured prominently in the recent trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who was charged with homicide after he killed two people in the tumultuous aftermath of a police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020. A jury acquitted Rittenhouse last month, finding that his use of deadly force in the chaotic streets was legally justifiable. Prosecutors called him a dangerous vigilante.
In Georgia, Travis McMichael argued he was acting in self-defense when he shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man who was jogging in McMichael’s neighborhood. McMichael was convicted of murder last month, along with his father and a neighbor. The three men pursued Arbery in a pickup truck.
Wisconsin’s permitless carry bill, which received a public hearing in the state Senate in October, also would prohibit local governments from banning weapons on public transportation. It’s unclear when the legislation will get a vote, but gun rights advocates are confident it will pass.
Eliminating the permit requirement would be a welcome change for gun owners uneasy about being on a government list, said Nik Clark, president of Wisconsin Carry, a Milwaukee-based gun rights organization. It also would allow people who want a gun for self-protection to acquire one without having to wait through the permitting process, which Clark said is important in cases of domestic abuse or in situations such as the civil unrest of 2020.
“We have a human right to self-defense,” Clark said. “To say that you need permission from the government to do that is crazy. It’s anti-American.”
Gun rights advocates such as Clark have been pushing for a permitless carry law in Wisconsin for more than a decade. It never gained the support of key state legislative leaders or former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who said in 2017 that licenses for concealed firearms were “appropriate.”
But pressure continued from advocates. Bolstered by national momentum, this year’s bill in Wisconsin has 31 cosponsors, all of whom are Republican. If the bill passes, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers would likely veto it, to the relief of gun safety advocates.
“This puts our citizens at higher risk,” said Jeri Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort Educational Fund, a gun safety group.
Bonavia and researchers at the Center for American Progress found in a September study that since Wisconsin enacted a law in 2011 allowing residents to carry concealed weapons with a permit, gun-related homicides and aggravated assaults have risen. Gun-related homicides and assaults were on the decline in Wisconsin before 2012, but began to shift upward during the implementation of the law, the researchers found.
The gun homicide rate in Wisconsin from 2012 to 2019 was a third higher than it was from 2004 to 2011. The annual average of aggravated assaults with firearms from 2012 to 2019 increased by more than half compared with 2004 to 2011. The increase in gun homicide rates after 2011 did not occur in neighboring states without a concealed carry law.
Last month, the Republican-led Pennsylvania legislature passed a similar permitless carry bill. However, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed the legislation last week.
“Unfortunately, this bill would make gun violence worse and would put law enforcement officers at greater risk of harm,” Wolf said in his veto message.
Until 2011, Vermont was the only state that did not require its residents to have a permit to carry concealed weapons. Since then, Republican-led states have steadily dropped permit requirements. In several states, the law applies to residents who are 21 and over, with some exceptions for members of the military who are 18 and over.
These new laws have coincided with measures allowing guns in houses of worship and on school grounds and public transportation.
While Democrats widely reject the permitless carry policy, polling suggests it also lacks widespread support in the GOP. Most of the pressure on lawmakers to pass these bills has come from gun rights lobbyists at the NRA and other groups, Bonavia said.
“These bills are not a result of public demand,” she said. “There is not a groundswell of support that we need to carry these guns without any regulations.”
Indeed, just over a third of Republicans support allowing people to carry concealed guns without a permit, according to an April survey by the Pew Research Center. (The center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds Stateline.)
Gun safety advocates have called on state lawmakers to restrict gun access, rather than expand it, citing a spike in gun violence and recent school shootings, including one at a Michigan high school last week that left four dead.
While most Americans generally support stricter laws around firearms, that support has waned since it reached its pinnacle in the aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018 and the nationwide, student-led protests that followed. According to Gallup polling, support for stricter gun laws declined from 67% in March 2018 to 52% this October.
Gun rights advocates such as Clark argue that the civil unrest that occurred in some places during the mostly peaceful anti-racism protests in summer 2020 demonstrated the importance of allowing Americans to carry concealed firearms without a permit.
“If people need protection quickly,” he said, “they don’t have time to take a class.”
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