On December 3, two days after a pair of gunmen shot 36 civilians in San Bernardino, California, a New York sheriff issued a call to arms. “I want to encourage citizens of Ulster County who are licensed to carry a firearm to PLEASE DO SO,” wrote Paul J. Van Clarcum on Facebook. He was just one in a string of law enforcement officers to implore residents to arm themselves amid the procession of terrorists attacks and mass shootings that rocked the United States in 2015. But while appeals for more Americans to carry guns intensify, there’s no guarantee that civilians will know how to handle their weapons should the need arise: A state-by-state review of training standards shows that in nearly half the country, there is no universal requirement that applicants for concealed carry permits undergo so-called live-fire training.
Just 24 states and the District of Columbia include mandatory range time as part of their permitting process, while the remaining 25 have no such requirement in place. (Vermont does not issue concealed carry permits at all.) States that do not mandate live-fire training include places such as Pennsylvania, where applicants must only meet a set of criteria — a clean criminal record and mental health history, for instance — to be handed a permit. On the other end of the spectrum, in order to receive a permit in Kentucky, applicants must demonstrate their shooting ability by placing 11 of 20 rounds on a full-size silhouette target.
At least 8 million Americans had an active permit to carry a concealed weapon in 2012, according to a report by the United States Government Accountability Office. A more recent estimate by pro-gun researcher John Lott places that figure closer to 13 million.
“I have people who come to my class who basically couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” Rick Strohmeier, a firearms instructor in Fisherville, Kentucky, tells The Trace. “I think Kentucky is doing the right thing and everyone else is doing the wrong thing.”
“It takes 2,500 repetitions to pick up a pistol correctly,” he adds.
To compile a national breakdown of live-fire requirements, The Trace examined state statutes covering concealed carry licensing. When the language of a state’s law did not specify a training requirement one way or the other — some call for a basic handgun safety course but do not spell out whether that encompasses a live-fire component — we contacted the state’s centralized issuing authority.
Some states, like California and Hawaii, have no such central authority setting the rules for concealed carry, leaving it to local authorities to issue permits and establish training requirements. It’s possible that these local authorities make permit-seekers in their individual jurisdictions go through training that goes beyond state minimums. For instance, though California does not have a statewide standard regarding live-fire training, sheriffs in half a dozen counties contacted by The Trace require it for permit seekers under their purview. Hawaii also does not have a statewide live fire requirement. At the same time, it’s been a labelled a “no issue” state by gun-right advocates: Just 21 private citizens applied for concealed carry licenses in 2014, and all were denied. But ultimately such local quirks fall outside the scope of our analysis. Instead we focused solely on state level requirements — and the simple question of whether the licensing authority takes steps to ensure that every permit applicant demonstrates competence at the range before granting a license to carry a gun into public spaces. Accordingly, neither California nor Hawaii appear on our live-fire list.
Typically, firearms laws in blue states are more strict than they are in red states. But in some places, the split on live-fire mandates does not follow the usual partisan divide. New York and Massachusetts, for instance, require permits to purchase a handgun, and Washington is one of only eight states to require background checks on all gun sales. Yet these states, named among the worst for gun ownership by Guns & Ammo, do not require live-fire training before issuing a permit to carry a concealed handgun. Even New York City — where concealed carry permit applicants go through a selective, months-long process involving letters of necessity, character references, and multiple interviews with police — does not require applicants to learn how to shoot a gun in order to carry one in public.
In Texas — a state which just legalized the open carry of handguns, and guns on college campuses — applicants are required to demonstrate their shooting proficiency by firing a series of shots from varying distances. In practice, the instructors who administer the training can let applicants keep firing until they record a passing score. But by subscribing to a live-fire requirement, Texas is aligning itself with a belief about gun safety: Concealed carriers who aren’t familiar with how to use their weapon pose a danger to themselves and the public.
An interactivemap of American gun violence.
An interactivemap of American gun violence.
“I always use the driving analogy: You get your teenager behind the wheel, it’s a complete mess,” says Kelly Venden, owner of Criterion Tactical in San Antonio. “It’s the same thing with a weapon. You get a person who’s unfamiliar and put a live weapon in their hand and expect them to be both competent and safe, you’re asking a lot of that person.”
In transportation policy, the solution is to require the driver’s license applicant to show that he or she can parallel park, execute a three-point turn, and merge safely into traffic as a DMV staffer scores their performance. But here’s where the car analogy breaks down for Venden. He thinks government mandated live-fire training for concealed carriers goes too far. “I agree with it from the safety perspective but disagree with it constitutionally,” he says. Instead, Venden sees the issue as one of individual responsibility for gun owners. “You have to do your due diligence to be both safe and proficient.”
Six states — Maine, Arizona, Kansas, Wyoming, Alaska, and Vermont— do not require a permit to carry a concealed handgun inside their borders. But some residents of these “permitless” states opt to obtain a license anyway, often for the ability to carry out of state. (Only in Vermont is this not an option, since Vermont does not issue concealed carry permits at all.) The only permitless states that require live-fire training for a concealed carry permit are Kansas and Alaska.
States recognize other states’ concealed carry permits through two mechanisms. “Recognition” agreements, in which a state honors another state’s permit, are nonreciprocal. The next level up is “reciprocity,” which describes a mutual agreement between states to honor each other’s permits. Through recognition and reciprocity agreements, 44 states allow people to carry a concealed handgun within their borders without having been required to show that they know how to properly fire one.
Only six states require both residents and concealed carriers visiting from out of state to undergo live-fire training. They are Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Minnesota.
Residents of states with higher permitting standards have used recognition and reciprocity agreements to get around licensing rules that might disqualify them from concealed carrying (or are just deemed too great a hassle). Last year, some North Carolina residents were found to be skirting their state’s basic handgun training class requirement, which includes a mandatory live-fire component, by obtaining concealed carry permits from neighboring Virginia, where the permit process is more relaxed. Permits from Virginia are valid in North Carolina, and only ask applicants to pay a fee, watch a gun safety video, and answer an online questionnaire. Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced in December that Virginia would disband recognition agreements with 25 states, including North Carolina. But last week Governor Terry McAuliffe brokered a deal to reverse the new rule, enraging gun violence prevention advocates.
Even if Virginia were still moving toward toughening its permitting rules, North Carolinians unwilling to visit the range would still have had their choice of options. Utah and Arizona not only have no live fire requirements, but also allow people to apply for their permits from anywhere in the country (Utah permit classes are popular as far away as Maryland, for instance). Through recognition agreements, permits from those two states are valid in three dozen others, making it possible for their holders to criss-cross the country toting concealed guns, without anyone having verified that their aim is true.
[Photo: George Frey/Getty Images; Maps by Joel Arbaje]