Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Self-Defense, the Right to Arms, and the Concealed-Carry Revolution

The video I’ve shared is from a recent Cato Institute policy forum on self-defense and “stand your ground” laws. Though fairly long, it provides solid historical, political, and legal analysis, so I encourage everyone to watch. As you might suspect, I disagree in part with the last commentator,1 but I still think he made valid points about the application of the law and the possible need for further guidance. After all, if “stand your ground” laws were a reaction to the misapplication of other statutes by prosecutors, are they not at risk for misapplication themselves? Absent political motives, the mere fact that relative experts disagree on the meaning of these laws suggests there is yet a degree of ambiguity, but that is a matter for legislators and judges to resolve.

As noted in the video, the adoption of such affirmative self-defense statutes has followed the proliferation of right-to-carry laws throughout the country. However, many if not most people are still largely unaware of this quiet revolution, both because the laws encourage or even require the concealed carry of firearms and because the mainstream media usually does their best to ignore the laws once they’ve been passed.2 Naturally, there is a long and troubling history behind the right-to-carry movement, and I can touch on that only briefly here.

The right to carry in 1986.

In A.D. 1986, only a handful of states would readily issue licenses to common citizens. In the rest of the country, the carrying of firearms was either broadly prohibited or the licensing authorities had almost unlimited discretion in issuance. This was the legacy of the two-pronged gun-control efforts3 of the 1920s and ’30s, which were ostensibly intended to combat the dramatic increase in violent crime that accompanied alcohol prohibition.

That began to change when Florida became the first state in recent decades to adopt a shall-issue statute, which required the licensing authority to issue licenses to all applicants who were not legally disqualified. Florida’s concealed-carry law became a model for reform, and by the mid-1990s, over half of the United States had enacted similar shall-issue statutes. The causes have not been widely explored, but I think that they will prove clear enough once this chapter of history is written.4

Opposition to the shall-issue movement has been and continues to be fierce, and in each case it has usually taken several years for liberalized concealed-carry legislation to make it through state legislatures and past gubernatorial vetoes. Without fail, opponents have warned of dire consequences should the reforms pass into law. Blood would run in the streets, they assured, as minor disputes and disagreements escalated into shootouts. Invariably, though, such grim outcomes have failed to materialize, and violent crime has continued to decline5 as right-to-carry laws have continued to expand.

The right to carry in 2011.

Today, all but a handful of states enjoy shall-issue licensing or better. California, New York, and several other “liberal” states still maintain discretionary, may-issue regimes, while Illinois is the only state with no licensing system. Legislative reform is unlikely in these gun-control strongholds, so multiple constitutional challenges are now making their way through the federal courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court is widely expected to hear one or more of these cases within the next two years.

  1. I am far, far more worried about misconduct by the police and prosecutors than I am about the potential that a criminal might “get away with it” here or there.

  2. After vigorously campaigning against a right-to-carry reform, the news media seem to conveniently forget about the topic, except for occasional “investigative” pieces designed to expose or embarrass licensees. Here is a recent exception to that rule. “New Fashion Wrinkle: Stylishly Hiding the Gun.” The New York Times (2012).

  3. These efforts resulted in the National Firearms Act of 1934, which sought to regulate firearms at the federal level via taxation (since the federal government was presumably bound from direct infringement on the right to keep and bear arms by the Second Amendment), and the “uniform acts,” which sought to control guns at the state level (since state governments were presumably not bound by the Second Amendment). In practice, though, the various prohibitions on concealed firearms found within the uniform acts were mostly used to disarm “undesirable” people (i.e., minorities and immigrants), and that was probably a large part of the true intent behind them. Otherwise law-abiding white citizens were generally unaffected for several decades, and the wealthy and influential could always count on getting licenses or at least special consideration in the event of any embarrassing incidents.

  4. I contend that the right-to-carry revolution developed as a response both to the equalized enforcement practices reached in the 1970s and ’80s and to the political successes of the national gun-control movement from 1968 to 1994. Note that the number of shall-issue states had almost doubled within two years of the enactment of the federal ban on “assault weapons.”

  5. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports show that homicides (gun related and otherwise) have continued to decline from 2006 to 2010. Firearms-related homicides specifically dropped from 10,225 to 8,775. More guns on the street simply do not correlate to—let alone cause—more violence.