Concealed Handgun Laws -- (Fire)Power to the People?

The proliferation of gun laws that permit civilians to carry a concealed firearm triggers many important questions. For starters, what are the social effects of more citizens packing more heat? Aside from the cultural throwback to the Wild, Wild, West, what are the social repercussions in an age where shootings have become commonplace on school campuses? Such questions are complicated by open-carry laws and those permitting gun-carrying on college campuses.

In public discourse, the will to arm is typically framed in terms of public safety and the right to bear arms. However, there may be other unintended consequences. For example, at first blush, these interests seem to converge with others, including civil-rights campaigns and organizations like Black Lives Matter and Color of Change, which have been impelled to action by the ongoing police killings of black citizens.

Will having more armed citizens influence conduct on the streets? No doubt that the hope of these laws is that more guns will deter wrongdoing and minimize killings. But what about the effects on police? What will be the mass effect of more citizens being armed, and more importantly, will this chill police wrongdoing?

More critically, how might these competing interests converge in favor of greater protection from police? For example, self-defense laws, including "stand your ground" laws, provide a shield from a conviction if the person who acted in self-defense had a right to do so. A corollary of this doctrine, the defense of others, allows one to come to the defense of another when that person has a right to self-defend. The self-defense justification applies to defending oneself from any unlawful, life-threatening force, and police are no exception.

Whether more civilians carrying guns will curb police conduct is uncertain. More certain, however, is that the laws themselves were created in reaction to school killings that stretch back to Columbine. There is widespread belief that the killings could have been lessened "if only someone there had a gun." This sentiment is clearly rooted in the defense of others, yet it necessarily includes defending against the police.

The growth of concealed gun laws suggests that more civilians will be in a position to render life-saving assistance to others. The point is worth pondering in respect to the police killing of Eric Garner in New York. One might wonder what would have happened "if only someone there had a gun." Indeed, if ever there were a candidate for self-defense, this unlawful, fatal chokehold by the police would be it. What about other incidences of black men and boys being killed by police--would civilian intervention have made a difference?

Of course, whether a civilian would come to Garner's defense is a different question. In an age where race still matters, it could very well be that a would-be defender would simply assume that a young black or Latino individual is getting what he deserves or worse, simply assume that the police are just doing their job.

Another issue is how many people in communities like Garner's can lawfully carry a gun in the first place. Under federal law, anyone with a felony conviction is barred from possessing a firearm. Many states have similar laws. Thus, if an ex-felon working as a school janitor would have come to students' rescue, he would face prosecution as a felon in possession.

Demographically, this situation means that blacks and Latinos are disproportionately likely to be barred from possessing a firearm, let alone carrying one. Practically, it leaves communities with the highest rates of crime the least able to protect themselves. This collateral consequence puts a racial spin on the situation and highlights that police abuse occurs in places where civilians are least able to defend themselves. Thus, while more and more Americans arm themselves legally, statistically, fewer and fewer are black or Latino.

In the end, whether expanding gun licensing is justified as self-defense or the defense of others, the interests potentially converge with movements to check government abuse. As such, these developments not only advance individual gun rights, but also have potential to advance social justice and shift the balance of power.

Toward this, license-holders should become familiar with the self-defense laws in their jurisdiction. Indiana, for example, has enacted a statute that specifically provides for self-defense against unlawful police force. Although, such an affirmative law is rare, basic self-defense principles typically draw a line between unlawful conduct by police and unlawful conduct that threatens bodily injury or death. When police break the rules and violate rights they can be sued and anyone harmed can have his day in court. However when the unlawful police conduct threatens severe bodily injury or death, it may be time to loosen the holster. Knowing these lines is critical to maximizing the power of one's gun license and pushing more power to the people.