On March 3rd 2011 Wyoming became the third US state to adopt “constitutional carry,” allowing eligible citizens to carry a firearm concealed without a permit. While overall I tend to feel that this is good news, I do feel uneasy about folks carrying concealed without even a modicum of training. I’ve written on this subject before (See: “The Need for More Concealed Carry Training,” April 18, 2010) and my persistent concern is that while bearing arms in the cause of personal defense is certainly a right, it comes with many responsibilities that your average person may not be prepared to discharge appropriately.
Among the people I know who have concealed handgun permits in Virginia, most are committed to responsible carry. They want to learn more about shooting to make themselves more effective in defending themselves without putting others at risk, while also improving their understanding of the law, so they can make informed decisions about when to use their firearm. I wonder if that same level of commitment to responsible carry would exist if you made it possible for anyone and everyone who isn’t a convicted felon, stalker, or crazy person to carry a gun concealed. Maybe it would. After all, the existing requirements for obtaining a permit in Virginia are pretty easy to satisfy. You take a firearms safety course, fill out some forms, and then get your permit. It’s a bit of a hassle, but hardly an onerous process.
Moreover, I do think there is actually some value to the existing training requirement in Virginia. I didn’t always feel that way, but having spent the last year teaching concealed carry courses in my spare time I’ve seen firsthand just how incredibly ignorant most people are when it comes to guns and self-defense. While some classes out there might be little more than an exercise in box-checking, I feel that my course is actually of use to students. Eliminating the existing training requirement in Virginia would probably mean that fewer folks would bother to obtain training before carrying their firearm concealed. To be sure, many people would still seek instruction, but some of the folks who need it almost certainly would not.
Of course, my concerns stem from some speculation based upon an extrapolation of my personal experiences as an instructor. The real test is how constitutional carry affects crime and public safety. Arizona’s Department of Public Safety has not yet released crime data for 2010 on its website, so it is still too soon to tell how constitutional carry might have affected that state’s crime rate. However, there is data on Alaska, which went to permitless carry in 2003. The statistics for Alaska show a sharp drop in 2003 in violent crime. The numbers go back up in 2004, but to levels that seem consistent with the pre-2003 trend. The numbers begin to drop again in 2007, but it is unclear whether that was the result of constitutional carry taking hold or if other factors are responsible for the decline in crime. Importantly, violent crime rates dropped after 2007 even as the population of Alaska increased. What is significant here is that even though constitutional carry wasn’t a panacea for the state’s crime problems, it doesn’t seem to have made them any worse either, and it is possible that it has had some positive effect.
Aside from the utilitarian concern of whether permitless carry improves or jeopardizes public safety, there are also important philosophical questions to be dealt with. The question is simple, should the government be able to impose conditions on our right to bear arms? I have the feeling that most gun rights activists would reflexively respond in the negative; however, at the same time, most pro-gun people seem comfortable with limiting the rights of convicted felons and the mentally ill. Allowing the government to rule some people as unfit to possess firearms would seem inconsistent with the position that it is inappropriate for the government to regulate the bearing of arms.
For my part, I view training as something other than a regulatory obstacle to be overcome. Indeed, responsibly implemented, I’ve seen first-hand how training requirements can be beneficial. However, for training to be useful the point of departure for policymakers has to be that the bearing of arms is a fundamental, individual right and that the role of government is to defend that right and promote its vibrancy — not to seek out opportunities to squelch it as so many local and state governments do.
I don’t believe that advocacy for effective, compulsory training is inconsistent with the position that the right to armed self-defense is a natural right that should not be rationed by an external authority. Training requirements need not serve as a form of “gun control,” in the sense that gun control laws serve as a tool to prevent people from exercising their rights. Rather, training should be seen as a way of facilitating the responsible employment of Second Amendment rights. Training need not be expensive and certainly doesn’t need to be major time burden on those seeking to carry concealed. Training requirements should simply ensure that everyone who carries a firearm knows the rules of gun safety, can fire their weapons effectively, and that they are familiar with the legal protocols surrounding use of lethal force.
Although the gun rights movement is still riding high after a series of courtroom and legislative victories, we should always be cognizant of the fact that momentum could shift in the other direction. The recent tragedy in Tuscon is only the most recent example of how a high profile tragedy can be exploited to advance and anti-Second Amendment agenda. It seems logical that robust training is one way of reducing the potential for accidents and tragedies that anti-gun forces are always so quick to feast upon.