If a woman from Utah wanted to drive from Salt Lake City to Virginia Beach with a pistol strapped under her coat and a concealed carry permit from her state in his wallet, she could legally do so, just as long as she takes a 200 mile detour to avoid passing through Illinois, where her Utah concealed gun license won’t be recognized.
A concealed carrier from Miami, meanwhile, could drive straight up I-95 without any problems until he got to Maryland, which doesn’t accept any out-of-state concealed carry licenses whatsoever.
Replacing this patchwork quilt of what are called “reciprocity” agreements with a federal right-to-carry standard is a top political objective of the National Rifle Association, which spent more than $30 million to elect Donald Trump. The incoming president promised to deliver that change during his campaign, and the NRA has been quick to remind him of his commitment.
The gun group’s top executive, Wayne LaPierre, used his first post-election communication with members to repeat his demand for a law that requires states to accept a permit issued by any other state, declaring “the individual right to carry a firearm in defense of our lives and our families does not, and should not, end at any state line.”
For many gun owners, the concerns are logistical: Embarking on a road trip with a gun means researching state laws and the possibility of long detours. Carrying a concealed weapon with an invalid permit is a felony offense in many states. Advocates invariably compare concealed carry licenses to drivers licenses: Why is the right to self-defense so limited if Americans can drive across the country with just one license?
But opponents say a federal mandate would force states that exclude people they deem high risk to accept licenses issued in states with looser standards. Existing training requirements for concealed gun permits vary greatly: from quick and cheap online courses, to 16 hours of in-person training with supervised live fire. As The Trace has reported, 24 states will issue permits without requiring live fire experience.
Lindsay Nichols, a staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, argues that the fact that state standards vary so widely gives lie to gun rights proponents drivers’ license analogy. She points out that states recognize each other’s drivers licenses because “states have almost uniformly adopted strong standards with regards to driving. They require drivers tests in a uniform manner in a way that doesn’t apply to guns.”
Many states also allow people who live elsewhere to apply for their license, and easy-to-obtain licenses draw applicants nationwide. Utah’s requirements, for instance, are seen as among the laxest in the nation. And two-thirds of all people with a Utah-issued permit now live out-of-state.
In short: Under national concealed carry reciprocity, states that impose high bars through their own permitting systems could be undermined by the loose standards in place elsewhere.
“I would have a grave concern about the public safety effects,” says Douglas Gansler, a former Maryland attorney general who in 2012 joined ten other state attorneys general to condemn an earlier federal reciprocity bill. “The people of Maryland don’t want lots of people walking around the state while armed.”
Gansler’s home state has one of the strictest concealed carry licensing standards in the country. Maryland goes further than barring people with felony and domestic violence conviction records from obtaining a permit. It also refuses to issue licenses to anyone with an alcohol or substance addiction, or to those who police have previously determined have a “propensity for violence or instability,” even if they have never been convicted of even a low-level offense, such as public drunkenness. The biggest barrier to getting a concealed carry license in Maryland, though, is that even an applicant as clean as Mr. Rogers must still demonstrate a “good and substantial reason” for needing to carry a concealed weapon. A simple desire for “self defense” does not meet that standard.
If the applicant clears Maryland’s requirement, he or she must still complete 16 hours of state-approved firearms training, and undergo another eight hours of training every two years to renew the permit. Because so few states have standards this strict, Maryland has no reciprocity agreements, and very few license holders overall: only 14,000, as of 2014.
Across the Potomac, licensing standards are much more lax. Virginia may reject applicants who fail specific criteria, two or more convictions for non-traffic related misdemeanors in the past five years, or public drunkenness within the past three years, and law enforcement officials can block permits by submitting a written declaration that he or she is likely to use the weapon unlawfully or negligently. But permit seekers don’t need to prove they have any substantial reason to need a concealed weapon. They can demonstrate firearms competency by just completing a brief online class.
Virginia, which issued more than 64,000 permits in 2014, the last year for which data is available, has granted concealed carry rights to some eminently unfit people. In 2006, Jeffrey Speight’s mental health began deteriorating, say family members and attorneys hired to put his assets in trust in light of his condition. Nonetheless, in 2009, he successfully applied for a concealed carry permit. The next year, Speight killed eight people and forced a police helicopter to land by shooting out its fuel tank in a rampage through the town of Appomattox.
Virginia’s Attorney General, Democrat Mark Herring, has tried to clamp down on concealed carry reciprocity, briefly cancelling agreements with other states last December before being overruled by a deal between Governor Terry McAuliffe, also a Democrat, and Republican state legislators. Herring’s move prompted a scramble for Utah permits by Virginia concealed carriers who wanted to insure they could travel around the country while armed, regardless of how their home state’s policy may change.
Though his policy has been reversed, Herring’s office maintains its criticisms of reciprocity. “When reciprocity is compelled,” says Herring’s spokesman Michael Kelly, “a state is forced to accept standards weaker than those that the people of a state have chosen for themselves.”
Utah is one of three states, the other two are Florida and Arizona, seen as the best option for gun owners who are looking for a widely accepted permit that is easy to obtain. Each allows their holder to carry concealed in 31 total states, though the list varies by state.
Some states have even looser standards, but pose other drawbacks for gun owners with wanderlust. Pennsylvania, for example, will grant a permit to anyone who can pass a standard background check, but does not provide the same level of reciprocity.
Firearms instructors around the country, in places far removed from the sunbelt or mountain west, offer courses that allow anyone to apply for a non-resident permit from Utah, Florida, or Arizona, sometimes combining multiple licenses into a single training.
Charlie Cook is a firearms instructor in central Massachusetts. He says “it’s a toss-up” between Utah and Florida as to which is the most useful and popular non-resident permit, but he and his customers may give the edge to Utah for its minimal standards. Obtaining a license from the state means submitting fingerprints, paying a $47 fee, and taking a four-hour safety and law class.
Florida charges $102 for its license, and instructors must actually witness applicants safely discharge a gun.
Utah licenses have soared in popularity. In 2015, the state issued 78,332 licenses to out-of-state residents, nearly twice as many as it issued to people who live in-state. That’s a huge increase from 2001, the earliest year for which data is available, when slightly less than 8,000 licenses, representing 12 percent of the total, went to out of state residents.
In comparison, Ohio, a state nearly four times as populous as Utah, issued about 7,000 fewer licenses in total in 2015 than Utah gave to just to out-of-state residents.
Michael, a 25-year-old Westchester County, New York, resident who asked his last name not be published, applied for his Utah permit this October. He chose a Utah license, he says, “because it has the best reciprocity in the nation.” His New York permit only allows him to bring his gun to the range and back, but once his Utah permit is processed, he says “I will carry in whichever state I’m legally allowed to carry. Once Trump is officially in the White House, I’m looking forward to the national CCW Permit.”
The NRA backs legislation creating national reciprocity written by Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn and a House equivalent submitted by Indiana Republican Marlin Stutzman. Neither version advanced out of its respective committee during the current Congress. In 2011, a similar reciprocity bill passed in the House on a vote that mostly fell along party lines, but died in Senate committee. The bill was reintroduced to the House in 2013, but never received a vote.
Cornyn’s bill simply states that anyone with a concealed weapons license in their home state will also able to legally carry in any other that allows any kind of concealed carry, which is all 50 of them. The bill imposes no minimum standard for training, nor does it say what kind of criminal history would prohibit someone from enjoying reciprocity.
The legislation would allow people from states with low standards to carry in other states where they wouldn’t be able to qualify for such a license.
A law like Cornyn’s would undermine “state’s rights to their own public policy,” says former Maryland Attorney General Gansler. Marylanders were clear they wanted to closely scrutinize just who carries a hidden weapon in public in their state, even if nearby states were not so concerned.
“The issue has come up in every Maryland legislative session, and it’s voted down every time,” he says.