Quietly and deliberately, gun rights supporters are waging a campaign to liberalize state laws governing concealed weapons, and they say Sept. 11 may have helped their cause.
Citing the public's interest in self-defense after the attacks on America, gun rights supporters say they notice a more welcoming environment for their bills in statehouses and among the electorate.
"Post 9-11, we've seen an increase in interest in firearms particularly for personal protection," said National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "It's a natural feeling that after 9-11, people want to be proactive and take necessary actions to protect themselves and their loved ones in these uncertain times."
Although it is unclear how successful their efforts will be, gun rights supporters are confident about passing many of the statutes currently pending in more than 25 states.
A 'Cynical Exercise'?
Gun control activists say these efforts are manipulative and take advantage of a national tragedy. "It's a very cynical exercise," said Luis Tolley, state legislative director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "We know if they succeed they'll try to eliminate all restrictions. The objective is to let people carry a gun wherever they want any time they want."
Gun control supporters also reject the idea that the electorate is clamoring for looser concealed weapons laws. A 1999 Harvard School of Public Health study of 4,400 adults found that 88 percent of those surveyed did not believe regular citizens should be allowed to carry guns in public places.
But Sept. 11 appears to have at least led more Americans to purchase guns. By the FBI's count, it conducted 455,000 more background checks for gun purchases in the six months since Sept. 11 than in the same period for the previous year. The FBI also conducted 130,000 more background checks than a year earlier for applications to carry concealed weapons.
"Anytime there has been an upsurge of crime or a belief Americans are less safe there's a certain tendency for gun purchases to increase," said Robert Spitzer, a gun-control expert at the State University of New York in Cortland. "People want to do something even though there is no direct connection between that action and the war against terrorism."
The current debate over concealed weapons revives a trend that swept state legislatures in the 1990s when dozens of states adopted measures to allow concealed weapons to some degree. In the 1980s, more than 40 states prohibited concealed weapons, but now, only six states do. In 13 other states, concealed weapons are allowed but with serious restrictions.
After the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the subsequent national soul-searching over guns, gun rights supporters laid low a bit.
The State-by-State Strategy
Now, they are back, trying to make carrying concealed weapons legal in every state. In the states where carrying concealed guns is already legal, gun rights supporters are trying to loosen the laws to make it easier and cheaper to carry a gun in different locations, such as churches, bars and government buildings.
In Colorado, nearly three years after the Columbine shootings, legislators are considering a bill that would require county sheriffs to grant concealed gun permits to anyone of legal age who applies unless they have a criminal background or are mentally ill.
In Arizona, legislators could reduce the maximum penalty for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit from a $2,500 fine and six months in jail to a fine of no more than $50.
In Virginia, a pending bill would allow citizens to carry guns into government buildings.
In Georgia, a measure that would have allowed concealed weapons into churches and bars was killed and amended to allow property owners to decide if guns should be carried onto their property.
In Tennessee, three bills are pending that would take away the fee for background checks to get concealed gun permits, make it easier to carry concealed guns in from other states, and would prohibit the public from knowing who has a concealed weapons permit.
The campaign to liberalize concealed gun laws is part of a strategy to expand their scope beyond the public's point of comfort without anyone noticing, gun control activists say.
"This is phase 2. It's a dirty little secret," Tolley said. "They were pushing these same bills in many states through the mid- and late-'90s, and then when Columbine happened they stepped way back. This year they have basically tried to re-up."
The NRA's state-by-state strategy makes sense, Spitzer says. Although the approach is more labor intensive than trying to get a bill through the U.S. Congress, the probability of success is far greater, he said. State political battles are much less visible than those on the national level, and rural and conservative forces tend to be more powerful in statehouses.
"The NRA does well when not under the hot glare of national politics," Spitzer said, "because most people don't support the agenda of the NRA, but those who do support it are 100 percent behind it," he said.
No Wild West, Despite Concealed Weapons
Gun rights supporters, for their part, say it is not manipulative and only reasonable to start out with more restrictive laws and relax them as the public grows more comfortable with concealed weapons.
During the debates over concealed guns in the 1990s, gun control activists argued that allowing citizens to carry weapons would lead to more gun violence and deaths.
"The horror stories about irresponsible behavior simply haven't come to fruition," said John Lott, author of More Guns: Less Crime. "In order to try to ameliorate some of that fear, you got these restrictions … now we are going to look at some of the restrictions we put in there. Gun control people lose credibility when people find out that didn't happen."
Florida's experience shows that allowing concealed weapons did not turn the state into the "Wild West," he said. Florida handed out 799,000 weapons permits between October 1987 and February 2002, yet only 146 were revoked for any type of firearms violation, including carrying firearms by mistake into restricted zones such as airports.
At the same time, though, there has been a near-consensus in law enforcement circles that keeping guns off the streets has been a critical element in suppressing crime in urban areas, Spitzer said.
"The NRA kind of argument is more guns on streets make for more safety, but the police argument is the opposite, fewer guns on the streets make cities more safe," he said.
With many state legislatures entering the final weeks of their current sessions, both sides are running out of time to line up their votes. But it is clear that the concealed weapons debate will carry over to the next session.
Gun control activists say their opponents will face uphill battles, even in states that should be prime NRA territory. "Take Nebraska, which is rural, with a lot of hunters," said the Brady Center's Tolley. "If the NRA is so powerful, why are they fighting in Nebraska?"
But the NRA is still confident. "The need [for loosening concealed weapons laws] comes from the electorate," says Arulanandam. "I think the electorate out there has taken personal security and placed a higher premium on it."