WASHINGTON — Despite the scrutiny of state gun laws following the February shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., state legislators across the country continue to work on scaling back gun restrictions this session.
The Kansas House passed a bill last month to allow concealed-carry permit holders to carry their weapons into any public building that doesn’t have “adequate security,” like metal detectors or security guards, and Oregon pro-gun legislators narrowly defeated a bill that would have banned guns on school grounds, which included K-12 schools, community colleges and universities.
Virginia repealed its statute that blocked residents from buying more than one gun a month unless they got dispensation from the police, and Oklahoma legislators are likely to allow gun owners to visibly carry their now concealed weapons.
South Dakota lawmakers ventured the furthest in removing gun restrictions this session by voting to get rid of concealed-carry permit requirements and allow any state resident over age 18 with a valid drivers’ license to carry a concealed weapon without undergoing the background check now needed for a permit. Under the legislation, law enforcement officers in the field would have had to assess whether the gun owner had a criminal background or mental illness history that would preclude them from carrying the gun.
“I believe this simply restores some of the constitutional rights for the citizens of South Dakota,” said state Sen. Larry Rhoden, during floor debate. The bill passed both houses and looked likely to become law. But after being persuaded by law enforcement officials, Gov. Dennis Daugaard vetoed it.
“This (bill) weakens the reasonable protections currently in place, and it could lead to confusion and to longer and more frequent detainment of innocent citizens who choose to carry a concealed weapon,” Daugaard wrote in his veto message. “The current process preserves Second Amendment rights while respecting concerns for public safety, in particular the safety of law enforcement officers who put themselves at risk to protect us.”
South Dakota would have been the fifth state to allow residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit, along with Alaska, Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming. With Daugaard’s veto, it looks as though no additional states will eliminate permits this year — New Hampshire’s House voted to eliminate permits, although Governor John Lynch has said he would veto the bill.
But legislation loosening gun restrictions is still gaining momentum, even in Washington. The national “right-to-carry” reciprocity act was just introduced in the U.S. Senate, which would allow any person with a valid concealed-carry permit to carry their handgun in any other state that issues permits. The National Rifle Association is heavily supporting the bill, which passed the House last year by a vote of 272-154.
Law enforcement officers across the country are becoming some of the loudest critics of eroding gun restrictions. For Chief Scott Knight, police chief in Chaska, Minn., and chair of the International Association of Chiefs of Police firearms committee, the move away from gun permitting is troubling.
“The fact that a permit is required in no way infringes on anyone’s rights to own a gun,” Knight says. “We are not here to take away anyone’s guns. We are concerned about the prohibited person (mentally ill, drug history, felons) being able to legally carry a gun. Reasonable gun owners have no problem with background checks.”
As the gun debate becomes more polarized among state and federal policymakers, advocates on both sides are also ratcheting up their efforts. Groups supporting gun control are calling for more local ordinances restricting gun ownership, while others are fighting to allow guns in schools, workplaces, courts and even churches. The drive to open up gun restrictions, says Laura Cutilletta, se nior staff attorney at Legal Community Against Violence, stems from political reality.
“In the last election, a lot of the legislatures became dominated by more Republican and conservative officials that might cater to the gun lobby,” says Cutilletta, “and with new elections coming, there might be a move to get more bills passed on this issue as soon as possible, before the next election.”
Evidence on whether restrictive or laissez-faire gun policy works is mixed. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun and Policy Research found that a more restrictive permitting system is more consistent with respect for personal autonomy and harm prevention. Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University and author of a number of studies on gun policy and its effects o n crime, found that doing away with background checks and bans on guns for convicted criminals could increase violent crime.
But of the gun restrictions that have been implemented so far, Kleck adds, “most have no measurable effect on crime rates. For example, eliminating restrictive requirements for getting carry permits … did not increase crime rates (or reduce them, contrary to what some analysts claimed).”
An increase in crime was a worry for South Dakota sheriffs, who opposed the legislative effort to eliminate concealed carry permits for state residents. “If they would have done away with the permit,” says Sheriff Kevin Scotting, president of the South Dakota Sheriff’s Association, “if you had a drivers’ license, you could carry a concealed weapon. I don’t think that is enough oversight.“
Scotting also raised concerns that in a state like South Dakota, where more people carry guns than not, eliminating the permitting system for in-state carry would force police to check that everyone who was carrying a gun did not have a criminal background.
Scotting predicts that the efforts to eliminate permits will not stop with this year. “I do believe that bill, in some form or another will be back. I’m pretty confident that we’ll probably see it again.”