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Moves to Ease Gun-Carrying Restrictions Expand

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 5/16/2017 Joe Palazzolo

A convergence of state and federal legislation could ease restrictions on carrying concealed firearms nationwide, a long-sought goal of gun-rights activists that their opponents say would threaten public safety.

More states are giving their residents the right to carry a concealed handgun without permission from authorities—including two this year, bringing the total to 12—while Congress is considering legislation to make that right portable across state lines.

New Hampshire, for example, eliminated the need for permits this year, allowing anyone who can legally own a gun to carry it concealed in public.

If bills introduced by Rep. Richard Hudson (R., N.C.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) become law, a New Hampshire resident could bring his or her concealed handgun to any other state, even those such as New York that require their own residents to undergo vetting and obtain approval from law-enforcement officials for the same right.

The legislation, introduced in January, has broad support among Republicans, who hold a two-vote majority in the Senate. But it would need 60 votes for Senate passage, a steep climb in this hyperpartisan climate.

If passed, the measure could hasten the spread of permitless-carry laws, which were rejected in at least 15 states where lawmakers introduced bills in the most recent legislative sessions, gun-control activists said. States with strict permit regimes likely would face pressure to lower their standards to make carrying guns as easy for their residents as for out-of-state visitors.

The National Rifle Association calls the reciprocity bills its highest priority and a necessary substitute for a confusing patchwork of agreements among states that allow concealed-carry permit holders to travel with their guns to some places but not others.

“The right to defend yourself against a violent attack doesn’t end when you step outside your home or cross state lines,” said Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokeswoman.

The patchwork is the result of state autonomy and mirrors differences among state regulations that dictate such things as who gets a license to drive a car, cut hair or sell insurance, opponents of the legislation point out.

Gun-control groups describe the bills as a menace to public safety and an attempt to drag gun-safety standards down across the country.

“‘Permitless carry’ eviscerates all safety standards and confers an unfettered right to carry,” John Feinblatt, president for Everytown for Gun Safety, said in an email. “The NRA’s ‘concealed carry reciprocity’ would only make matters worse—if practically everyone can carry across the country, then it’s anybody’s guess who’s trained, law-abiding, and responsible, and who isn’t.”

The U.S. Supreme Court held in 2008 that individuals have a right to own a gun for self-defense, but the ruling left undecided whether the Second Amendment guarantees a right to carry a firearm in public.

State laws on carrying concealed guns vary widely, and sometimes conditions vary from county to county. They may require training, background checks and cooling-off periods that disqualify applicants with recent misdemeanor convictions or drunken-driving offenses.

Some more-restrictive states including New York have “may issue” regimes that require applicants to show good cause to carry a gun, such as proof they face a physical threat.

© DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Hudson’s Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act and Mr. Cornyn’s Constitutional Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act would allow anyone who is authorized to carry a concealed gun in one state to do the same in the 49 others.

As for gun purchases, federal law requires background checks for gun sales from a licensed dealer. People who fail the check because of a felony conviction, a history of drug abuse or involuntary commitment to a mental institution are still barred from owning a gun in states that require no permits.

But in more than half the states, buyers can purchase a firearm in private sales without a background check.

Mr. Hudson’s bill has 192 co-sponsors in the House, while Mr. Cornyn’s has 36 in the Senate. A previous reciprocity measure introduced by Mr. Cornyn in 2013 garnered Senate 57 votes, including 13 from Democrats, who held a majority in the chamber at the time. President Donald Trump has expressed support for the legislation.

Neither bill has been scheduled for a hearing, though discussions on setting up such sessions are under way, said Tatum Gibson, a spokeswoman for Mr. Hudson.

Concealed-carry permits enjoy bipartisan and law-enforcement support in many states. In Montana, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has twice vetoed legislation to eliminate the permits. Sheriffs in the state, who issue the permits, may require basic firearms-safety training and can deny a permit to someone with mental illness.

“I cannot support an absurd concept that threatens the safety of our communities by not providing for the basic fundamentals of gun safety or mental health screening,” Mr. Bullock wrote in a Feb. 23 letter to lawmakers explaining his latest veto.

Gun-rights activists compare the concerns voiced over permitless-carry laws to the rhetoric surrounding legislation beginning in the 1980s that made it easier to obtain concealed-carry permits. Opponents said the legislation would lead to greater violence.

But violent crime has since tumbled—experts cite a variety of reasons—and firearm-related police officer fatalities have fallen, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

While the NRA and other gun-rights groups say the Second Amendment guarantees a right to carry outside the home, federal appeals courts in California, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia have upheld strict permitting regimes in recent years.

In the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,” and gave as an example prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons, noting that the majority of 19th-century courts held the prohibitions lawful.

In New Hampshire, state Sen. Jeb Bradley saw his permitless-carry legislation vetoed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, two years in a row, but the state’s new governor, Republican Chris Sununu, signed it in February.

Mr. Bradley, a former U.S. congressman, said the federal reciprocity legislation would have to overcome deep reservations about permitless-carry in the Senate and many states.

“Permitless-carry is not going to be the law of the land in every state,” he said. “It is a state-rights issue, and I think people in New Hampshire support it.”

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