On Thursday, for the second year in a row, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin pulled the emergency brake on legislation that seemed almost tailor-made to bring harm upon law enforcement. The bill in question sought to give persons over the age of 21 the right to carry concealed handguns without a permit. Later that day, flanked by police at a press conference, Tomblin, a Democrat, provided an explanation for his veto. “When you’re [an officer] and you walk into a dangerous situation, you almost have to expect that everyone’s carrying a gun,” he said, suggesting that the likelihood of a shootout would increase if this bill became law.
But the legislature would not be deterred. On Friday, the House of Delegates voted to override the veto, and on Saturday the Senate followed suit.
“I can hear freedom knocking at the doors in West Virginia,” said Senator Craig Blair, a Republican who supported the bill. “That’s exactly what this does.”
In May, West Virginia will become the eighth state to implement some version of permitless carry, joining Vermont, Alaska, Arizona, Kansas, Maine, Wyoming, and Mississippi. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, at least 19 other states, including Utah and Kentucky, are considering similar legislation.
Collectively, the bills seek to upend a concealed carry system that the National Rifle Association spent the past four decades building, and which now stands at the center of American gun culture and commerce. Under that system, permit applicants in most states must pass a background check and pay a fee to the state; there can also be mandatory training courses and tests, often administered by NRA-licensed instructors.
The push for permitless carry is part of the larger movement that seeks to establish new norms for the carrying of handguns in American society, wherein the ideal is a country that places no restrictions on gun owners. Proponents believe the mere existence of the Second Amendment nullifies the necessity for a permit requirement. “People don’t want to pay a fee to the state for a right that is guaranteed by the constitution,” Mike Mosher, a police officer in Kansas who owns a firearms training company called Tactical Simulations Solutions, tells The Trace.
Some supporters go farther, framing the freedom to carry guns in public for self defense as divinely given. Back in February, Senator Blair struck this note, arguing that his bill was an extension of the “God-given right to be able to protect yourself.”
In Kansas, a concealed carry permit costs $132.50, and the training fees can cost between $75 and $150. Last July, the state stopped requiring lawful gun owners to procure licenses should they wish to carry concealed handguns. According to Mosher, the new law has improved his business.
“What we’re finding is people don’t mind paying for training classes,” he says. “In fact, they want to learn about safety and decision-making. It’s not good enough to carry a gun if you don’t know the proper time to present and shoot it.”
Law enforcement tends to agree with that sentiment, while arriving at the opposite policy prescription. In West Virginia, the Executive Director of the West Virginia Sheriff’s Association said that the state’s mandatory training requirement is “paramount” to ensuring public safety. “Someone really needs to know what happens on the business end of that gun. It’s not a piece of jewelry and it’s not an adornment.”
By issuing permits, police are also able to keep track of how many people are walking around with firearms. After Kansas became a permitless state, a gun owner in the state criticized the law and the NRA for supporting it. “Why in the world would they bypass the opportunity to have permit holders on record?” he asked a reporter from the Wichita Eagle.
In some states, allowing gun owners to carry concealed without a permit is seen by supporters as a natural extension of older laws authorizing the open carry of firearms without a license: If the permit requirement is leading some gun owners to choose open carry, and if open carry tends to lead to more problematic public spectacles than concealed carry, then making it easier to carry concealed solves that problem.
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In Utah, for instance, a permitless handgun owner can openly wear his weapon so long as it remains unloaded. Representative Curtis Oda, a Republican lawmaker in the state, has sponsored a bill that would apply the same law to concealed firearms. “Carrying openly causes lots of consternation for anti-gunners,” he says. “They see the weapon, wet their pants, and call the police. We’re trying to eliminate the public consternation.”
Representative Oda does not think that his law will discourage people from getting permits in his state. There are perks to acquiring a license, he says. For one thing, 35 other states honor Utah’s concealed carry permit. And for another, says Oda, “You can keep your gun loaded.”
Last week, State Representative Hubert Collins, a Kentucky Democrat, became the latest lawmaker to push a permitless carry bill. He tells The Trace he introduced his legislation as a matter of convenience.
“I don’t have an ideological reason for it,” he says. “To get a license, you have to pass a test and pay money. And then you have to renew the thing. It’s a lot of aggravation. This way, you don’t have to go through it.”
He adds, “I think it’ll pass. In Kentucky, we can pretty well pass any gun bill we want to.”
Correction: This article originally included Arkansas on its list of states that currently have permitless carry laws on the books. It has since been removed, making West Virginia the eighth state, not the ninth, to enact permitless carry.
[Photo: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer]