Pat Sullivan was working as a local police chief in southern New Hampshire a few years ago when a man with a tinfoil hat came into his station to apply for a license to carry a concealed weapon. Based on the man’s hat and the fact that he had been arrested for threatening the life of a radio host in the state, Sullivan denied him the license.
New Hampshire is an open carry state, but gives local law enforcement officers like Sullivan the power to deny concealed handgun permits at their discretion.
Now, New Hampshire is on the verge of eliminating the 94-year-old law that requires residents to get a license in order to carry a concealed weapon. Without that law, the police won’t even get a chance to look over the next man in the tinfoil hat.
It’s already legal to carry a concealed handgun without a permit in nearly a dozen states. The current efforts in New Hampshire and several other states to repeal even their modest licensing measures reflect the determination of the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates to make it even easier to carry a gun. With Republicans gaining control of a record number of state legislatures in November, that push looks likely to succeed.
The New Hampshire Senate has already passed a bill to repeal the state’s licensing measure and the House is expected to follow. Former New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D), who is now a U.S. senator, had vetoed two previous attempts to repeal the licensing requirement, but a spokesman for Gov. Chris Sununu (R) says he will sign the measure should it reach his desk.
A vetting process allows law enforcement to make sure that people who might be a threat to others and who have a history of violent misconduct or other problems aren’t allowed to carry a concealed weapon, said William Rosen, counsel at the gun safety group Everytown. Repealing concealed carry requirements, he said, would dismantle a “longstanding and sensible public safety system.”
Sullivan, now the executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, and other law enforcement officers have spoken out against the New Hampshire bill.
The state’s century-old licensing requirements have worked well, according to Zandra Rice Hawkins, executive director of the progressive advocacy organization Granite State Progress.
“Somebody may not be a prohibited person on paper, but they’re certainly not somebody who should have that added benefit of having a hidden loaded weapon,” Rice Hawkins said in explaining why the police should have discretion whether to grant concealed carry licenses.
She said people ask how concealed carry differs from open carry. “I give that example of the person who has been in several bar fights or has a history of assault. It is a very different situation if you are exchanging words with someone and you do not know that they have a hidden loaded weapon with them ― versus someone who’s open-carrying, you have a little bit more sense of where that person is coming from.”
Sullivan said the permitting requirement also provides an additional level of security for police officers.
“There are many people that carry concealed weapons that are doing good, that aren’t doing bad things. However, there is an element that we deal with as law enforcement, in terms of a regular basis, that are no good,” he said. “They are committing crimes, violent crimes, and we don’t know whether or not they do or do not have a weapon on them. With the permits, you at least have an idea as to whether or not they have a legal weapon on them. You encounter someone roadside, you don’t know what you have. It kind of just gives that little bit of added security and safety.”
The Texas measure would simply remove all current licensing requirements and allow anyone who is permitted to purchase a handgun to legally carry it. Among those requirements that residents must now meet if they want to carry a gun: They must be 21 years old, have no felony convictions, not be a “chemically dependent person” and owe no child support. They have to get fingerprinted, pay a $140 application fee, complete a classroom training course and pass a written examination and proficiency demonstration.
“I think that anyone that doesn’t go through training is an idiot. But I think that government-mandated testing and training is a joke,” Texas state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R), who is sponsoring the legislation, told HuffPost. “I will tell you, I’ve put probably hundreds of hours into my firearms training. And I think most responsible gun owners understand that government-mandated stuff is typically not sufficient. I think it gives a false sense of security.”
Stickland said that his measure was intended to make it less costly to carry a handgun.
“We’re just trying to remove the barriers for the folks that can’t financially afford to do so. We think their Second Amendment rights matter just as much as the people who can pay the fees, the government-mandated tests,” he said.
Kentucky also doesn’t make it too difficult to carry a concealed weapon. To obtain a license, residents need to meet the federal requirements necessary to buy a firearm, have no felony convictions and complete a training course. They also need to be 21 and have no history of certain criminal offenses and no dependency on drugs or alcohol.
State Sen. Albert Robinson (R), the sponsor of a bill to repeal the licensing requirement, noted that the Kentucky constitution explicitly guarantees the right to bear arms. His bill, he said, was a matter of convenience for gun owners.
“If you’re in shorts and you have a holster around your ankle, it’s perfectly legal according to the constitution to do that,” Robinson said. “If you put your britches back on, it’s covered and it’s illegal. If you have a jacket or a coat or something, if you have a jacket off and you have one on your side, it’s constitutionally legal. But if you put your jacket back on, it’s simply illegal.”
Robinson feels comfortable allowing people to carry weapons without training.
“That’s a free choice that people have. If they want the training, we encourage it, but the constitution does not require it and I’m not gonna put any extra stuff on it,” the lawmaker said, adding that he wanted to allow people to be “nice and courteous” if they didn’t want to flash their gun outside.
He acknowledged that he’s worked with the NRA on his legislation.
“I worked with the NRA on it, this bill, it’s a bill that they’re promoting. I wrote the bill willingly, but of course you know they’re supporting me on this. This is an NRA bill. It is, but it’s my bill,” Robinson said. “They and I encourage people to know how to handle the weapons, because if you get one that don’t know how to handle it, you have a need to get it out and the person could take it away from you and beat your brains out with your own weapon that way.”
Bills to repeal licensing requirements to carry guns are often dubbed “constitutional carry,” a label that Everytown’s Rosen calls a “facetious misnomer” because there’s no guaranteed right to carry a concealed weapon in the U.S. Constitution. In the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to bear arms for lawful purposes, but the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, made it clear that some restrictions on the right would be constitutional.
“Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose,” Scalia wrote.
Rice Hawkins noted that if New Hampshire’s licensing requirement is repealed, suspected drug dealers would legally be able to carry a concealed weapon.
“Now is somebody who’s already breaking the law going to follow other laws?” she asked. “Probably not. But we also shouldn’t make it easier and give them the flexibility to be able to do that.”