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Many states are pushing through more permissive gun laws

THE QUESTION of what to wear outside as America reopens is on the minds of many, who have spent the past year at home in pyjamas and fitness clothes. Some have in mind an unexpected accessory: handguns. Across the country, states are trying to make it easier for people to carry their guns with them in public without applying for a permit, being subject to a background check or going through training.

The trend of “permitless carry” of firearms has taken off like a shot. Since February five states have passed new or expanded laws. Some states, such as Utah, where permitless carry will go into effect on May 5th, require guns to be concealed (say, in holsters tucked underneath a jacket), but others, like Tennessee, will allow people to carry their handguns in plain sight. Five more states, including Louisiana and South Carolina, are considering permitless-carry bills, as is Texas, where the state’s Republican Party has listed the legislation as a priority.

Twenty years ago, only Vermont allowed people to carry handguns without a permit. By the end of this year, at least 20 states will. Three-quarters of them have passed permitless-carry laws in the past six years. The new laws unwind safeguards and trump “concealed carry” licensing schemes that states already have in place. To carry a concealed handgun in Texas today one needs to apply for a licence, which includes a background check, fingerprinting, training, a written exam and shooting test. Under the proposed legislation, all that would go.

The rise of permitless carry is notable because it highlights how many states are loosening gun laws at a time when mass shootings are occurring frequently, violent crime is rising and gun sales have hit record levels because of concerns about the pandemic and safety. In 2020 a record 39.7m federal background checks were conducted for firearm sales, and the first three months of this year set another record. In its most recent quarter, Smith & Wesson, a gun manufacturer, recorded sales that were double—and gross profits triple—what they were a year earlier.

The pro-gun lobby, including the National Rifle Association (NRA), has armed red-state politicians with arguments that more citizens with guns could help boost public safety and that the government should have no say in whether someone can carry a gun in public. Proponents have rebranded it “constitutional carry”, instead of “permitless”.

It was not so long ago that red states banned people from carrying handguns in public at all. However, in the 1980s and 1990s the NRA pushed for new laws allowing people to carry concealed guns with a permit, and then, having achieved that, pushed through a new set of “shall-issue” permitting laws that gave law enforcement less discretion over restrictions on who should receive a permit, even for people with histories of mental illness and crimes. Permitless carry is the “next frontier” for the gun lobby, says Adam Winkler, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Law School. “Permitless carry is taking off because gun-rights supporters don’t have many rights left to loosen,” he says.

It may be surprising that permitless carry is spreading at a time that the NRA is besieged by problems, including an investigation by New York’s attorney-general into financial fraud by the non-profit’s leadership that has led it to file for bankruptcy in Texas. But permitless carry shows how the NRA has already changed the political culture and interpretation of the Second Amendment through its lobbying. It also reflects how moderates have been weeded out of the Republican Party, contributing to radical stances on guns getting more support, says Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Centre for Gun Violence Prevention and Policy.

Those championing permitless carry argue that having more armed citizens will help save lives. Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee, has called his state’s new law “core to a strong public-safety agenda”. But there are reasons, such as law enforcement’s opposition, to be sceptical of this. In Tennessee and elsewhere, police have campaigned against permitless carry, saying it endangers them and makes it more likely that criminals and felons could walk around armed. As Stan Standridge, the police chief for San Marcos, Texas, has pointed out, the Lone Star state requires licences to drive a boat and cut hair. Yet guns can wreak far more havoc than boats or hair-clippers. This is a rare issue where Republicans have openly split from the concerns and interests of police in favour of pleasing their base.

Nor do more permissive gun laws make people safer. There are several reasons why armed citizens rarely interrupt shooting rampages, including fear of the police believing them to be the shooter, says Kris Brown of Brady, a gun-control organisation. A study by researchers at Stanford looked at the impact of “right-to-carry” laws and found that ten years after adoption, they were linked to a 13-15% increase in violent-crime rates. Yet the full impact of permitless carry on Americans’ safety could take many years to prove. There are so many guns already in circulation that it is difficult to discern the effects of specific changes to laws, and for two decades, the NRA successfully stopped federal funds from going to firearms research that might point toward the need for more gun control.

With Congress unlikely to pass federal gun-control regulation because of Republican opposition, the states are where gun laws are being reshaped. Some, including Colorado, New Jersey, and Virginia, have tightened gun policies in response to mass shootings and safety concerns. But there are more states going in the direction of gun deregulation than regulation, says Mr Webster of Johns Hopkins.

A further example of how states are loosening gun laws is the growing number that are becoming “Second Amendment sanctuaries”, as Oklahoma and Arizona have already done this year, resolving not to comply with new federal gun laws. Much of this is symbolic, says Mark Jones, a professor at Rice University, but it could become a problem if the federal government passes new gun laws, such as a ban on certain types of weapons. Ms Brown of Brady says that the “Second Amendment sanctuary” laws will have a “concerning, chilling effect” on law enforcement and says her group may challenge them in court.

This autumn the Supreme Court will hear its first gun-rights case in years. Justices will rule on whether a New York law, which makes it difficult to receive a permit to carry a gun in public for self-defence, is legal. Because of Donald Trump’s three conservative nominees to the Supreme Court, the balance of the court’s views on guns may have shifted to become more sympathetic to gun owners.

Texas, the country’s largest red state, will be an important litmus test for how far politicians are willing to push their agenda on guns. The state is so gun-friendly that there is a separate “fast track” at the Capitol building allowing those with concealed-handgun licences to bypass metal detectors and bring their guns in. The governor, Greg Abbott, has said that Texas should become a “Second Amendment sanctuary state” and has recently come out in support of permitless carry. This year the Texas legislature is considering a raft of gun bills in addition to permitless carry, including another bill that prohibits hotels from banning guests from bringing guns to their rooms and one that prevents the state from doing business with companies that discriminate against firearms firms and groups.

Yet even in Texas, permitless carry remains controversial. According to a recent survey, only 26% of Texans said that the state should change its law to allow people to carry their handguns without permits, while 58% were opposed. It is unclear whether Texan Republicans will risk alienating moderate voters in order to please their base. Doing so could bring political risks in a general election, says Mr Jones. However, most Republicans are more worried about out-flanking conservative rivals in the primaries than they are about winning a general election. If Texas does pass permitless carry, it will become the most populous state to do so. But not the last.