The extremely powerful but highly irresponsible National Rifle Assn. spent $30 million this year helping elect Donald J. Trump and $10 million more backing six pro-gun Senate candidates (five of whom won). Trump, in turn, said during the campaign that he was proud of the organization’s endorsement, spoke forcefully in favor of expanded gun ownership and promised to “save” the 2nd Amendment.
From the organization’s point of view, that was money well spent. But from a public safety standpoint, well, look out.
The NRA’s president, Wayne LaPierre, has already released a video statement trumpeting the victory, patting gun owners on the back for making it possible and calling for a renewed push to dismantle state and local gun-control laws. “Our time is now,” LaPierre said. “This is our historic moment to go on offense.”
At the top of LaPierre’s wish list is an absurd and dangerous federal law to require any state that issues permits for carrying concealed weapons to recognize similar permits issued by other states, even if they have different eligibility and training requirements and even if they have less stringent restrictions on gun ownership. Proponents of so-called concealed-carried reciprocity equate it with state driver’s licenses, which are recognized nationwide. But that’s a false comparison. All states follow similar standards for issuing driver’s licenses, and basic vehicle and traffic laws are largely standardized. That’s not so for gun laws, which vary widely by state, not to mention that county and city governments are allowed to enact their own restrictions based on local needs and preferences.
The reciprocity movement is nothing more than an effort to drive states’ concealed-carry laws to the lowest common denominator. Consider Utah, for instance. To qualify for a Utah permit, which is available to nonresidents and is already accepted by 36 other states, one need only be 21 years old, not be deemed ineligible under federal laws (no felony conviction or history of drug and alcohol abuse, for instance) and complete a Utah-certified Weapons Familiarity course, which can be taken outside the state. In fact, Utah has certified 169 instructors in California alone. Utah’s limited restrictions have made the issuance of concealed-carry permits something of a cottage industry for the state. Two-thirds of Utah’s 632,276 permits as of the end of last year were in the hands of nonresidents.
By comparison, California — with 33 times Utah’s population — has only 79,834 active concealed-carry permits, according to the state attorney general’s office. Among other things, California has a more stringent training regimen and requires a person seeking a permit to show good-cause for needing to carry a concealed weapon.
A federal reciprocity law, depending on its final wording, could require California to recognize concealed-carry permits issued in Utah and other states, which it chooses not to do. A California resident could simply apply for a permit from Utah and start walking around Los Angeles with a hidden handgun, no matter what California voters and lawmakers say.
Four bills — one in the Senate and the rest in the House — would create such a law and are likely to be reintroduced in January. Trump backs the concept. They could become law. That would be a disaster for public safety and a cynical usurpation of the long-standing right of states to determine their own gun laws.
Whether a federal reciprocity law could withstand a constitutional challenge will depend on its final wording. Congress has the authority to preempt state laws to regulate interstate commerce, but it’s unclear whether that would apply to a law ordering states to recognize gun permits issued elsewhere, since that isn’t a matter of interstate commerce. In its 2008 Heller decision (which we think was wrongly decided), the Supreme Court ruled that the 2nd Amendment confers on individuals the right to own a gun for protection in the home. But it also recognized the rights of lower-level governments to regulate guns, and since then has declined to hear appeals of lower court rulings upholding local and state gun regulations, including those barring carrying weapons, concealed or otherwise, outside the home.
But we can’t be confident the Supreme Court will continue to defer to the states. Reasonable minds in Congress need to head this off before the NRA and its legislative acolytes make American even more dangerous by undercutting reasonable gun controls.