By Aara Ramesh
The Gordian knot that is the gun control debate in America has flared up in recent weeks, as the number of mass shootings has surged and as the National Rifle Association (NRA) is battling bankruptcy and corruption charges in New York. Against this backdrop, half a dozen states have passed laws that make it easier to carry firearms in public, since February.
Gun control remains one of the most divisive and contentious issues in American politics. Opinions, both among lawmakers and the general public, tend to be split down party affiliation.
Public opinion for stricter gun control measures has waxed and waned over recent years. Bipartisan support for more stringent regulation peaked in 2019 but has declined since then. Still, a majority of Americans continue to favor more gun control. A national poll in March found that 65% of those surveyed believed that gun laws should be stricter — 41% said they should be “a lot more strict” and 24% said they should be “somewhat more strict.”
The most popular gun control measures across party lines are those that prevent people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns, and those that enhance background checks for private gun sales. In regards to allowing permitless concealed carry, majorities in both parties opposed the idea, with only 20% saying they would favor that.
The most recent development on this front came in Texas on May 24, when the state legislature sent Governor Greg Abbott a bill that would legalize the permitless carrying of concealed handguns by those who are legally allowed to possess them. Abbott has committed to signing the bill, which greatly expands gun rights in Texas, despite also including some concessions made to law enforcement. The House approved the deal on Sunday in a 82–62 vote, followed by the Senate on Monday in a 17–13 vote. Despite the bill’s smooth passage, recent polls indicate that almost 60% of Texan voters do not believe that adults should be allowed to carry handguns in public without licenses or permits.
Currently, all 50 states and the District of Columbia allow concealed carry in some form, and 20 have some form of permitless concealed carry laws in place. Nearly every state, however, has restrictions on where firearms may be carried, banning their presence at bars, schools, hospitals and public sporting events.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up an NRA-backed challenge over New York’s restrictions on carrying concealed handguns in public, which lower courts ruled did not violate the Second Amendment. This lawsuit is likely to be a watershed moment in the gun control tussle, according to experts. The ruling is due by June 2022.
Earlier in May, the South Carolina House voted 83–34 to allow those who undergo training and background checks to openly carry firearms. At the same time, however, they rejected another attempt to do away with the permit requirement altogether. The bill was signed into law by Governor Henry McMaster on May 17. A number of prominent elected officials and law enforcement leaders were against the bill, calling it “too expansive” and “too permissive.” The law goes into effect August 16. State authorities have 90 days after the law was signed to reorganize and familiarize themselves with the new mandates.
At the tail end of April, the Louisiana state Senate sent to the House a measure that would allow anyone over the age of 21 allowed to possess a firearm to carry it in public without a permit. This eliminates previous provisions that required hours of training and a fee payable to the state police before a permit would be issued. The bill passed largely on party lines in a 27–11 vote. Democratic governor John Bel Edwards has signaled that he will veto the bill. If he does do so, Republicans in the legislature will struggle to override that veto without the support of their Democratic compatriots.
In March, the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill allowing most adults to carry handguns without requiring a permit. The law, signed by Governor Bill Lee on April 8, allows both permitless open and concealed carry. The measure passed the Senate in a 23–9 vote and the House in a 64–29 vote. Law enforcement officials in Tennessee largely opposed the measure.
Starting May 5, gun owners in Utah were no longer required to possess a state-issued permit to legally carry a concealed firearm. Previous laws had already allowed for the open carry of guns. The legislation was passed by both the state House and Senate in early February with little opposition. Governor Spencer Cox was quick to sign the measure into law shortly thereafter. Despite the relatively smooth process, 55% of voters said they did not believe that gun owners should be allowed to carry and conceal firearms without a permit, according to one poll.
In February, Montana governor Greg Gianforte made the concealed carry of firearms legal in the state. The new law, which went into effect immediately, allows adults to carry concealed weapons in bars, casinos, restaurants and financial institutions, while allowing owners of private properties to ban firearms at their individual locations. Meanwhile, the Montana University system is challenging the constitutionality of the law in regards to concealed carry on university property.
By some estimates, states that have weak permitting laws have a violent crime rate 13%–15% higher than states where the permit requirements are stricter. States with lax permit laws also see 11% higher rates of homicides committed with handguns than states with stringent permit policies in place.
On the federal level, there has been limited movement on the gun control front. In the wake of two mass shootings, President Biden in April 2021 announced a handful of executive actions designed to combat what he called “an epidemic and an international embarrassment.” In March, the House of Representatives passed two bills that would mandate universal background checks on all commercial gun sales and extend the waiting period for background checks to 10 days, from the current three. There are ongoing efforts to pass legislation that would close loopholes associated with so-called “ghost guns” and the concealed carry of “assault rifles.”