A powerful movement to allow ordinary citizens to obtain permits easily for carrying concealed weapons is taking hold across the country, a product of both the new Republican control of many state governments and of increasing fears that the police are incapable of protecting citizens from criminals.
In the last few weeks alone, Legislatures in Virginia, Arkansas, and Utah have passed laws that would make it far easier for law-abiding adults to obtain permits to carry handguns. Several other states, including Texas, the nation’s third largest, are expected to pass similar bills soon.
About 20 states generally grant permits to adults without a criminal record or a history of mental illness, but in a growing movement at least 13 other states in addition to Texas are considering bills to make it easier for people to carry handguns.
The Texas bill is virtually assured of passage, and Gov. George W. Bush has pledged to sign it.
In Oklahoma, the State Senate last Monday passed by a 43-to-4 vote a concealed-weapons measure known as the Oklahoma SelfDefense Act, which is expected to pass the House soon. “Citizens want a way to protect themselves,” said State Senator Frank Shurden, a Democrat from Henryetta, Okla.
Opponents of the bills, including some, but by no means all, law enforcement officials, contend that more guns will only spur more violence, and some paint modern-day Dodge City scenarios in which routine fender-bender accidents could escalate into bloody duels among gun-toting motorists.
But proponents take a very different view. About midway through a seven and a half hour hearing in the Texas State Capitol this week, a witness named Suzanna Gratia got out of her chair and walked over to State Senator Royce West of Dallas. She pointed her index finger at him and cocked her thumb. Gratia, whose parents were among 23 people killed in a Luby’s Restaurant in Killeen, Texas, by a gunman in October 1991, was speaking in favor of the bill that would allow most adult Texans to carry a gun. West, a former prosecutor, is the leading opponent of the bill.
“Tell me, senator,” Gratia said to West, gesturing with her head at the senator next to him. “Would you like him to have a concealed weapon at this point or not?”
West said he had little hope of stopping the bill here in Texas, but he is now trying to gain approval for a requirement that state residents vote in a non-binding referendum this fall on whether they think the measure is a good idea.
“Before we begin packing heat for our walks to Sunday service, before we strap on six-shooters for our run to 7-Eleven, let’s talk about it,” he said. “Let’s just talk about it.”
Bush has said he sees no need for a referendum. A variety of newspaper polls, depending on how the question was worded, have shown that Texans either support the right to carry a gun or are evenly split on the issue.
Florida is the largest of the nearly 20 states that currently have broad laws that allow citizens to easily obtain permits to carry guns. The state has issued 266,710 right-to-carry permits since the law went into effect in October 1987, according to the State Division of Licensing.
Nearly 20 other states require people to demonstrate their need to carry a gun, with the decision on whether to grant a permit left to their local police chief or sheriff, or to a judge. In many of these states, there is a strong push to relax such requirements.
In Virginia, for example, where judges in many counties rarely approve permits, the State Legislature late last month enacted legislation that would make it almost as easy to obtain a carrying permit as it is to obtain a driver’s license.