The Varieties of Concealed Carry Laws and the Difference They Make

In a previous post on the passage of concealed carry in Illinois, I noted that although all 50 states now have some version of a law that governs who can carry a concealed weapon in public, the specifics of the laws vary considerably and in significant ways.

As Clayton E. Cramer has argued (Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic), laws giving ordinary citizens permits to carry concealed weapons are relatively recent in American history. In the early republic, no special licensing was required to bear arms, either openly or concealed. In the 19th century and early 20th centuries, many states passed laws that either banned the carrying of concealed weapons or allowed individuals to have permits but gave various officials (police chiefs, judges) broad discretion in issuing such permits. This discretion meant the permits were issued rarely and unevenly.

Over the last third of the 20th century and into the 21st, there has been dramatic shift toward a liberalization of concealed carry laws. At the extreme end of this liberalization process are the three states that have passed laws removing the permit requirement for their residents to carry concealed firearms: Alaska (in 2003), Arizona (in 2010), and Wyoming (in 2011). Some partisans call this “Constitutional Carry” in the belief that the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms in public. Others call it “Vermont carry” in recognition of the fact that Vermont has never had a law requiring a resident to have a permit to carry a concealed firearm. (Some maintain that Arkansas has recently become a permitless carry state, but the jury is still out on that.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those states that still exercise discretion in who can and cannot get a concealed carry permit. These eight states are classified as “may-issue”: issuing authorities can apply discretion – e.g., determining the need or moral character of the applicant – in deciding to whom they issue permits.

The dominant movement in concealed carry legislation is toward state passage of what have come to be known as “shall issue” laws.  These laws require state or local authorities to issue a permit to any applicant that meets the objective statutory criteria if no statutory reasons for denial exist.

This cool graphic from Wikipedia (created by Jeff Dege ( shows the diffusion of “shall issue” and “permitless carry” laws through the 50 states:


As economists Richard Grossman and Stephen Lee report (“May Issue versus Shall Issue: Explaining the Pattern of Concealed-Carry Handgun laws, 1960-2001”), through 1979, only two states had “shall issue” laws – Washington (1961) and Connecticut (1969). 12 more states passed such laws in the 1980s, with Florida’s law in 1987 commonly regarded as a turning point. 16 more states passed “shall issue” laws in the 1990s, and 8 states in the 2000s, most recently Wisconsin in 2012 and Illinois in 2013.

Adding to these “shall issue” states the 4 “permitless carry” states, in 42 of 50 states individuals either do not need or have a right to receive a concealed carry permit.

As concealed carry laws have been liberalized, the number of concealed carry permit holders has grown. In response to a Congressional request for information about concealed weapon permitting in the states, the Government Accounting Office issued a report in July 2012 which found that “there were at least 8 million active permits to carry concealed handguns in the United States as of December 31, 2011” (Gun Control: States’ Laws and Requirements for Concealed Carry Permits Vary across the Nation). This amounts to at least 3.5 percent of the eligible U.S. population (adults who are legally allowed to possess guns).

The portion of individual state populations with a concealed carry permit varies, but shall issue states like Georgia (600,000 permits, 11.5%), Iowa (243,000 permits, 10.9%), and South Dakota (62,000 permits, 10.6%) have the highest rates in the country (GAO report, Appendix V). It would surely surprise many to know that one out of every ten adult citizens in these states is potentially legally armed in public, not to mention 3 to 4 out of every 100 Americans overall.

In states with “may issue” laws, the percentage of the eligible population with concealed carry permits is typically much lower than most “shall issue” states. In Maryland, for example, the state police must find that the applicant “based on an investigation, has good and substantial reason to wear, carry, or transport a handgun, such as a finding that the permit is necessary as a reasonable precaution against apprehended danger.” Consequently, only 0.3 percent of the eligible population is active permit holders. In Rhode Island and New Jersey it is 0.5 percent and in Delaware 0.8 percent. In California, out of nearly 27 million adults over 20 years of age, only approximately 35,000 have concealed carry permits. Because local jurisdictions are the issuing authorities in California, there is dramatic variation from place to place. In some parts of California, there is a de facto ban on concealed carry. In San Francisco, with a population of 700,000, only two concealed carry permits have been granted. Similarly, in Hawaii, it appears that no private citizens have been issued a license.


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