After a year of contested elections, riots, and the COVID-19 pandemic, a tsunami of states have adopted, or are considering adopting, permitless concealed handgun carry laws (also known as “constitutional carry laws”). Currently, twenty-one states have enacted permitless carry laws, and at least half a dozen more are considering doing the same. More states have adopted permitless carry than have legalized adult recreational use of marijuana.
Permitless carry laws allow any law-abiding adults who are legally allowed to possess handguns or to carry them openly to also carry them concealed, without a permit. The laws vary by state; some states allow licensed carry in certain places where permitless carry is not allowed. The universal feature of the laws is once one reaches the minimum age (usually, twenty-one years old), carrying a firearm without a license is allowed for adults who can legally own handguns. The person must not have any disqualifying conditions, such as criminal convictions or mental health commitments.
In the late twentieth century, the only state with permitless carry was Vermont, where the right had been affirmed by the courts since 1903. In fact, permitless carry laws are sometimes called “Vermont carry.”
In contrast to permitless carry laws, the remaining states are either “shall-issue”, or “may-issue.” States such as California, with restrictive “may-issue” laws, allow qualified individuals to be denied the right to bear arms. For example, a California sheriff may decide that citizens do not “need” carry firearms for protection, so permits are denied even to adults who have passed fingerprint background checks and safety training. Some states, like Hawaii, only issue permits to security guards, and New Jersey only issue to victims of specific active threats from particular criminals. As a result, only 0.02% of Hawaiians and 0.02% of New Jersyites have obtained concealed carry permits.
Shall-issue states, a category Colorado has fallen under since 2003, remove arbitrary discretion. If an applicant qualifies for a permit, the state shall issue the permit. Starting in the 1980s, Shall-issue laws, much like permitless carry laws today, swept across the United States.
Permitless carry laws offer multiple advantages over our current shall-issue law status. Colorado should actively consider changing their status from shall-issue to permitless carry for a few reasons.
First, licensing fees and training costs can still make it difficult for the poorest individuals in society—those who need to defend themselves the most—to afford a permit. The state licensing fee in Colorado is $52.20, but county processing fees can be up to $100. In Larimer County, the cost of a permit exceeds $130. In Denver County, it costs over $150—which is cost prohibitive for the poorest individuals who live paycheck to paycheck. Research by the Crime Research Prevention Center has demonstrated that when permit fees or training requirements are reduced, the largest increases in permit holding happen among minority groups. Permitless carry would benefit poor people the most by making legal self-defense accessible to all, especially in urban counties where the cost to obtain a permit tend to be highest, but the need to defend yourself is also the greatest.
Second, there are many legitimate privacy concerns regarding shall-issue and may-issue concealed carry regimes. In most states, concealed carry permit holders are public information, and local newspapers can—and have—published the names of permit holders. This is not only a privacy issue but can imperil public safety: by having a public list of permit holders, criminals have a list of homes to target in order to steal firearms when the occupants are not home. In foreign countries, such as Australia, the United Kingdom, Greece, Jamaica, and Bermuda, registries of gun owners have been used to confiscate firearms.
Finally, carrying firearms is a right, not a privilege. The Second Amendment is very clear when it states: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The default position should not be that carrying in public is prohibited unless you approach the government and get permission; rather, the default should be that carrying in public is allowed until the individual acts in a manner where he forfeits that right. There is also a philosophical argument to be made. According to Article II, Section 3 of the Colorado constitution, there is a natural right to self-defense, and this right implies a right to the tools which make self-defense possible. This universal right clearly extends outside the home and would require ready access to the tools needed—namely, a firearm—in order to freely exercise this right.
The key argument against constitutional carry was the same argument levied against shall-issue laws—namely, that making it easier for citizens to defend themselves will increase crime and lead to a “wild west” situation. Those concerns did not play out then, and they will not play out now. The vast majority of the research on shall-issue laws found these laws either reduce or have no impact on crime. The research on permitless carry is scanter, but like with shall-issue, so far, no findings have been cause for alarm. According to a paper published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons surveying 30 years of data between 1986 and 2015, there was no association between permitless carry and homicide rates or violent crime.
According to my own statistical analysis, using state level data between 1980-2018, shall-issue and constitutional carry laws were actually associated with slightly lower homicide rates, but the result was statistically insignificant. Overall, there is no strong evidence that moving from shall-issue to permitless carry endangers public safety.
The rise of constitutional carry is, in many ways, analogous to the shall-issue revolution which occurred in the 1980s, where the majority of states went from no-issue or may-issue to shall-issue. Then, like now, there will surely be those who are skeptical and predict a wave of gun violence like the wild west—and these individuals will be just as wrong today as they were then. Coloradans have nothing to fear, but many things to gain, from permitless carry.
K. Alexander Adams is a second year master’s student at Colorado State University studying public policy and part of the Future Leaders Program at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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