Concealing Guns?


When Charlton Heston played Moses in the classic DeMille film, he brought the Ten Commandments to the Israelites. Today, Heston’s leadership of the NRA has brought another law to the people of Minnesota: the Minnesota Personal Protection Act of 2003. Sometimes called the concealed carry (or conceal and carry) law, the Act changes Minnesota from a “may-issue” state, in which law enforcement has the discretion to issue concealed weapon permits to certain people, to a “shall-issue” state, in which the sheriff is required to issue a concealed weapon permit to any adult citizen who meets the criteria. Minnesota is the 35th state to become “shall-issue,” not surprising considering that the NRA made the enacting of such laws a goal and in 2002 restated its efforts to expand concealed carry laws across the United States, using the momentum of September 11th to further this aim. In light of these ambitions, the logic of reducing crime by increasing the number of guns on the street, as well as contradictions in such laws, both warrant a closer look.


Justifications


The reasoning of pundits is that a “well-armed society is a polite society.” This is by no means a far-out statement-after all, conventional wisdom has it that Mutually Assured Destruction kept peace between the superpowers for 50 years. More recently, we’ve seen that while the U.S. administration is willing to invade nations that have no significantly destructive weapons, it is more likely to engage in diplomatic talks with nations that are “carrying,” like North Korea. However, leaving aside arguments that M.A.D. is not all it’s cracked up to be (or that well-armed societies like Liberia aren’t terribly polite), it still remains that individuals tend to assault each other not after long deliberations and military build-up, but in the heat of the moment. Even the occasional pundit-promoted bogeyman who plots his murders carefully is unlikely to give the carrying victim a chance to unsheathe his/her weapon before attacking. This is why, ultimately, the Personal Protection Act will not decrease crime nor the number of handgun deaths in Minnesota.


That easier access to firearms would make a violent crime more likely seems logical to opponents of the law. However, arguments from proponents often come down to the distinction between “law abiding citizens” and “criminals.” The statement that a law-abiding citizen would never take advantage of the concealed carry law to commit a crime is a no-brainer: once the crime has been committed, the citizen ceases to be law-abiding. We might note by analogy that a law-abiding citizen without a car will never exceed the speed limit, but the same citizen, given a car, might. So restricting access to the object that enables a crime-be it a car or a gun-can be an effective way to prevent crime. Of course, society doesn’t outlaw cars because the correct use of cars does not kill, unlike the correct use of firearms.


Such theoretical arguments are unnecessary. One need look no further than the experience of Florida and Texas for evidence of the utter failure of concealed carry laws. Proponents of the law often point to Florida as a success story, as the number of gun-related crimes has decreased since 1988, when the concealed carry law was enacted. Using Florida as supporting evidence overlooks a significant fact: the number of gun-related crimes actually increased for two years after the passing of the law, and not until a mandatory waiting period was instituted in 1991 did Florida’s crime rate begin to decline.


According to a June 2002 report from the Violence Policy Center which used Texas Department of Public Safety data, concealed weapon license holders in that state have been arrested for an average two and a half crimes per day since the law went into effect in 1996. The VPC studied arrests from January 1, 1996 through August 31, 2001, and found that the number of arrests of permit holders increased each year after the law went into affect, for a total of 5,314 crimes. While permit holders are arrested and convicted in smaller numbers than non-permit holders in Texas, the evidence clearly shows that “law abiding” and “permit holder” are not interchangeable terms. While case studies cannot be detailed here, the VPC report details several instances of murder that would have been impossible had a concealed firearm not been immediately accessible to the assailant.  


Contradictions


Minnesota’s law is similar to other “shall-issue” laws in that it compels sheriffs to issue permits to anyone who applies, submits to a background check, and presents a certificate of completion in a handgun-safety course (the bill specifically names the NRA as a trainer recognized by the state, in case anyone wonders who helped author the law). The bill does block the issuing of permits to those with a criminal background. Ironically, the law might bar the sponsor of the bill, Republican Rep. Lynda Boudreau, from obtaining a gun. According to an AP report of 5/16/03, Rep. Boudreau was convicted as a juvenile of stealing money from two stores in her hometown. Boudreau admitted that her county sheriff could use that record to deny her a permit.


If the sponsorship of the bill was odd, the details were even more so. Under the law, concealed weapons are restricted on school grounds and the capitol itself (with certain specific exceptions), but not from courtrooms, parks, or public civic centers. While there have been objections from judges, no one has bothered to ask why a courtroom, which lends itself to adversarial confrontations, needs concealed weapons but the capitol building does not. Were legislators concerned about one of their own being shot?


The law allows businesses to ban concealed weapons from their premises (though not from their parking lots, which are repeatedly mentioned in the bill as being fair game regardless of location-business, school, or church) by posting a sign with language specified in the bill. However, the proprietor must also have someone orally inform all persons entering the establishment of the proprietor’s ban. Businesses across the state have complained that it is just not feasible to post a sign and have a greeter (read: bouncer) stand at every entrance and inform every customer of the ban. When asked for clarification by this writer, Rep. Boudreau maintained that this complaint is a misinterpretation of the bill, implying that proprietors may either post a sign or give verbal notice. Provided below is the actual text:


Article 2, Sec. 22, Subd. 17, (a)


(1) “Reasonable request” means a request made under the following circumstances:


(i) the requester has prominently posted a conspicuous sign at every entrance to the establishment containing the following language: “(INDICATE IDENTITY OF OPERATOR) BANS GUNS ON THESE PREMISES.”; and (ii) the requester or its agent personally informs the person of the posted request and demands compliance.


 The real head-scratcher here is why the fragile Republican majority would, with one bill, alienate its natural constituencies of businesses and churches by forcing them to post what, as writer Tom Bartel put it, “amounts to [Democrat] campaign signs all over their shops, restaurants and sanctuaries.”


 As an aside, the bill doesn’t provide much deterrence to obeying posted signs, either. The fine to a permit holder for carrying a gun into a private establishment with a posted ban carries a fine of $25, making observers wonder just how concerned lawmakers really are with public safety, especially when one pauses to reflect that carrying a gun into a public library carries no fine whatsoever.


The last irony in Minnesota’s new law happens to be a piece of heartening news. The St. Paul suburb of Eagan — the hometown of Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, an enthusiastic supporter of the concealed carry — has chosen to join several other cities and counties in defying the law. The city council on which Governor Pawlenty once served voted unanimously to ban guns on public property. A court challenge will certainly follow, but with judges across the state defying the law by banning weapons in their courtrooms, it’s not impossible that Eagan or other like-minded cities will prevail.


While it’s highly unlikely that a warlord society will emerge in states that pass a concealed carry law, it seems perfectly reasonable to believe that there will not be a significant drop in crime either. The Minnesota law requires yearly reports by the commissioner of public safety detailing “the number of convictions and types of crimes…by individuals with permits including data as to whether a firearm lawfully carried solely by virtue of permit was actually used in furtherance of the crime.” This will be useful information, but the data involves only one of several ways the law may make things worse. Uncounted will be the number of guns stolen from permit holders, the increased use of guns by criminals who fear a confrontation with an armed victim (aka “small arms race”), and the general consequences of promoting a gun culture.


One has to wonder whether Heston, given the opportunity to reprise his signature role, might add a qualifier to the Sixth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill… but pack some heat, in case you change your mind.”

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