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AWOL in a Gunfight


Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., takes aim at a target while shooting at the National Guard Armory in Bismarck, N.D. (Photo taken in 2005, when Rep. Berg was his state House's majority leader.)

Throughout his term, President Obama has approached gun-related issues like someone whose first instinct during a bar fight is to find the back door. But the president may not be able to duck much longer.

Earlier this month, the House decisively passed legislation backed by the National Rifle Association that would require any state that issues permits allowing its residents to carry concealed weapons to recognize the permits issued by every other state. That means states that set stringent training or age requirements on who is allowed to carry concealed weapons would have to recognize permits granted by states with much more lax standards—all by federal fiat.


This isn’t a theoretical conversation: If the legislation reaches the Senate floor, it has a solid chance of obtaining the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. But Obama has been conspicuously silent on the measure—to the mounting frustration of big-city mayors fighting the idea. John Feinblatt, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s chief policy adviser, noted in an interview that after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., last winter, the president promised to lead a national conversation about guns. “We’re still waiting,” Feinblatt said.

The legislation constitutes a jarring shift in priorities for the GOP. It’s impossible to turn on any Republican presidential debate without hearing all eight candidates praising the 10th Amendment and promising to devolve more power to the states. But the nationwide concealed-carry legislation, which House Republicans supported by 229-7, would instigate a massive shift of authority from local officials to Washington.

Sponsors of the legislation such as Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, argue that it does little more than replicate the requirement that each state recognize the driver’s license from another. But state standards over access to guns vary more than state standards over access to a driver’s license. Today every state but Illinois allows some residents to hold concealed-carry permits. But each state sets its own requirements for determining who can get a permit. Some states impose tougher age restrictions; several require firearms training; others bar permits for people with domestic violence records; and some give local law enforcement substantial discretion over all applicants.


Largely because standards vary so much, each state now decides which out-of-state concealed carry permits to recognize within their borders. Even some states that have relatively lenient requirements for permitting local residents refuse to recognize permits from other states that they believe have lax standards or enforcement, notes Brian Malte, director of federal legislation at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. (Utah and Florida are considered prime offenders.) Ten states, including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, refuse to recognize concealed carry permits from any other state.

The House-passed legislation would invalidate all those distinctions and require every state to allow people with any concealed-weapon permit to carry guns on their streets, regardless of whether they believe the issuing state has carefully vetted the applicants. The legislation goes further yet, requiring states to recognize concealed-carry permits even if the bearer doesn’t meet their local laws for possession, such as minimum age requirements. “The idea that we would preempt state and local laws and impose a national concealed-weapons permit system in our cities absolutely boggles the mind and ensures a race to the bottom where violent crime goes up,” charged Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in an interview.

The House passage of this legislation culminates a historic reversal on concealed weapons. As University of California (Los Angeles) constitutional law professor Adam Winkler notes in his perceptive recent book Gun Fight, state and local governments routinely banned concealed weapons in the 19th and early 20th century. Even archetypical frontier communities like Dodge City and Tombstone required “new arrivals … to turn in their guns to authorities” while in town, he writes. Over the past two decades, though, the NRA has systematically eased access to concealed carry permits, especially (but not exclusively) in red states. “Restrictions on the concealed carry of firearms [today] inspire more controversy … than they did a century earlier,” Winkler concludes.

All 10 states that refuse to recognize any other state permits are part of “the blue wall”—the 18 states that have voted Democratic in at least the past five presidential elections. In that way, the legislation represents an effort by politicians primarily from conservative red states to impose their views about access to guns onto residents in blue states. Feinblatt drily notes that it’s easy to imagine the reaction if blue states tried the reverse with their views about gay marriage. “This turns states’ rights on its head,” he complains.


Fearful of alienating blue-collar and rural voters, Obama may be hoping the Senate will bury the bill without his involvement. But 16 Senate Democrats who backed the legislation in 2009 are still serving, which puts sponsors within reach of 60 votes. If Obama stays silent, states at the core of his electoral coalition may soon find their laws controlling concealed weapons shot to pieces on Capitol Hill.

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