Self-defense is a fundamental right, and the right to use firearms for self-defense is recognized by the Constitution of the United States, the constitutions of 44 states, the laws of all states, and the common law. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects “the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.”
Today, 42 states, accounting for 74 percent of the U.S. population, have Right-to-Carry (RTC) laws. Legislation introduced in Congress would require states to honor each other’s carry permits.
Gun control supporters believe that RTC laws cause crime. However, since 1991, when violent crime hit an all-time high, 25 states have adopted RTC laws, the number of people with carry permits has risen to over 16 million, and the nation’s violent crime rate has decreased to one of the lowest points in recent history.
Right-to-Carry (RTC) laws recognize the right to carry concealed handguns when away from home without a permit, or with a permit issued by a state to an applicant who meets requirements established by the state legislature. The laws expand upon the right, recognized in most states, to carry handguns openly without a permit. RTC laws are consistent with the constitutions of the United States and 44 states, the laws of all states, and the common law, all of which recognize the right to use firearms in self-defense.
RTC laws are essential because self-defense is a fundamental right.2 In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court ruled that “the inherent right of self-defense has been central to the Second Amendment right,” which is “the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation. This meaning is strongly confirmed by the historical background of the Second Amendment.”3 Also, while law enforcement personnel provide protection generally, they are not required to protect individuals.4
There are 42 RTC states, accounting for about three-quarters of the U.S. population. Forty of these states and the District of Columbia have “shall issue” laws, requiring that concealed carry permits be issued to qualified applicants.5 16 states, including 15 of the 40 “shall issue” states, allow concealed carrying without a permit.6 In 2014, Guam became a “shall-issue” jurisdiction.7 Eight states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have restrictively-administered discretionary-issue carry permit systems.8
As the numbers of RTC states and carry permit-holders have increased, violent crime has decreased. Since 1991, when violent crime hit an all-time high, 26 states have adopted “shall issue” laws, replacing laws that prohibited the carrying of concealed firearms or that issued concealed carry permits on a very limited basis.9 Concurrently, the number of carry permit-holders has risen to over 16 million,10 many other federal, state, and local gun control laws have been eliminated or made less restrictive,11 and the number of privately-owned guns has risen by over 150 million.12 At the same time, through 2015, the nation’s total violent crime rate, and especially the murder rate, has decreased to a near all-time low.13
Americans support gun ownership for defensive purposes. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 57 percent of Americans believe that gun ownership protects people from crime, while only 38 percent disagree, and that support for the majority viewpoint is increasing among men, women, whites, blacks, all Republicans, conservative Republicans, Independents, and conservative and moderate Democrats.14 The poll also found that support for protecting, rather than restricting, gun ownership increased among men, women, all age groups, persons of all levels of education, all Republicans, conservative Republicans, Independents, all Democrats, conservative and moderate Democrats, parents, non-parents, urbanites, suburbanites, and rural dwellers. In 2013, Gallup found that personal safety is the top reason Americans own guns.15
Gun control supporters oppose the use of firearms for self-defense. The Brady Campaign, a gun control activist group, has said “the only reason for guns in civilian hands is for sporting purposes,” violent crime criminals should “put up no defense - give them [criminals] what they want,” and self-defense is “not a federally guaranteed constitutional right.”16
Congressional legislation proposes national RTC reciprocity. Legislation introduced in Congress would require states to recognize each other’s carry permits, just as they do for state-issued driver’s licenses.
Background: The RTC Movement Begins in Florida
Before 1987, there were 10 RTC states, six of which had “shall issue” concealed carry permit laws, two of which had fairly-administered discretionary-issue carry permit laws, one of which was varyingly interpreted within the state, and one of which did not require a permit to carry openly or concealed.17
In 1987, Florida enacted a “shall issue” RTC law that became the model for similar laws thereafter adopted in 33 other states.18 Gun control supporters predicted that Florida’s law would cause crime to rise. However, within five years, Florida’s murder rate had decreased 23 percent, while the U.S. rate had risen nine percent.19
In 1995, anti-gun researcher David McDowell tried to fault Florida’s law, claiming that gun homicide rates increased in Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa after the law’s adoption.20 However, homicide rates had fallen 10, 18 and 20 percent, respectively, in those metropolitan areas from 1987 until 1993, the most recent data at the time.21 To show an “increase,” McDowell calculated Jacksonville and Tampa trends from the early 1970s, when rates were lower than in 1993, but calculated Miami’s from 1983, since earlier rates were higher and suggested crime had decreased. None of the homicides noted by McDowell was committed by a carry permit holder, and he didn’t indicate whether any of the homicides had occurred in a situation in which a permit would have been required to carry a gun. McDowell once claimed D.C.’s murder rate decreased after its 1977 handgun ban; in fact the rate tripled.22
Florida officials had a different view than gun control supporters about Florida’s RTC law. Florida Licensing Division Director John Russi noted, “Florida’s concealed weapon law has been very successful. All major law enforcement groups supported the original legislation....[S]ome of the opponents of concealed weapon legislation in 1987 now admit the program has not created the problems many predicted.”23 In a 1995 letter to state officials, Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner James T. Moore wrote, “From a law enforcement perspective, the licensing process has not resulted in problems.”24
After Florida, as states adopted RTC legislation one after another, gun control supporters continued to predict that crime would rise, but the predictions have proven false. Attorney and law professor David Kopel has noted, “Whenever a state legislature first considers a concealed carry bill, opponents typically warn of horrible consequences....But within a year of passage, the issue usually drops off the news media’s radar screen, while gun-control advocates in the legislature conclude that the law wasn’t so bad after all.”25 An article on Michigan’s concealed carrying licensing law noted, “Concerns that permit holders would lose their tempers in traffic accidents have been unfounded. Worries about risks to police officers have also proved unfounded.... National surveys of police show they support concealed handgun laws by a 3-1 margin....There is also not a single academic study that claims Right to Carry laws have increased state crime rates. The debate among academics has been over how large the benefits have been.”26
Anti-gun groups have portrayed carry permit-holders as criminals, but permit-holders are more law-abiding than the general public. This is best indicated by the experience of Florida, the state that has issued the most permits due to its relatively early date of RTC adoption, relatively large population, and relatively large rate of gun ownership. As of June 2014, Florida had issued 2.7 million carry permits, but revoked only 168 (0.006 percent) due to gun crimes by permit-holders.27
Lott-Mustard study: Studying crime trends in every county in the U.S., economist John Lott and David Mustard concluded, “allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons deters violent crimes. . . . [W]hen state concealed handgun laws went into effect in a county, murders fell by 8.5 percent, and rapes and aggravated assaults fell by 5 and 7 percent.”28
Kleck and Kleck-Gertz studies: Analyzing National Crime Victimization Survey data, criminologist Gary Kleck concluded “robbery and assault victims who used a gun to resist were less likely to be attacked or to suffer an injury than those who used any other methods of self-protection or those who did not resist at all.”29 In the 1990s, when violent crime rates were much higher, Kleck and Marc Gertz found guns were used for self-protection between 2.1-2.5 million times annually.30 Gun control activists claim the Kleck-Gertz study is flawed. Nevertheless, the late Marvin E. Wolfgang—who professed to be “as strong a gun-control advocate as can be found among the criminologists in this country”—stated, “The methodological soundness of the current Kleck and Gertz study is clear. I cannot further debate it. . . . I cannot fault their methodology.”31 An earlier study for the Justice Department found 34 percent of felons had been “scared off, shot at, wounded or captured by an armed victim,” and 40 percent had not committed crimes, fearing victims were armed.32
Anti-gun activist group claims: In 1999, the Brady Campaign (then known as Handgun Control, Inc.) claimed that between 1991 and 1997, violent crime declined less in RTC states than in other states.33 HCI incorrectly categorized 31 states as having RTC during the period; only 17 had RTC in 1992. HCI calculated crime trends from 1992 to under-represent the impact of RTC laws. By 1992, many states had had RTC for many years and had already experienced decreases in crime. HCI misclassified Alabama and Connecticut as “restrictive,” and credited restrictive laws for crime decreasing in some states. States that had restrictive laws had had them for many years, however, and crime did not begin declining in those states until the 1990s, when crime decreased nationally.34
In 1998, the Violence Policy Center, led by a handgun prohibition activist previously with the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, claimed more women are murdered with handguns, than criminals killed in self-defense.35 However, the value of handguns for self-defense is not in how many criminals are killed, but in how often people use handguns to prevent crimes, and how often criminals don’t attack, fearing potential victims are armed. VPC also undercounted the number of criminals killed in self-defense by counting only those noted in police reports, thus excluding defensive homicides later determined to have been justified. VPC claims that permit-holders have committed crimes, but those listed by the group have mostly been crimes not involving guns, crimes committed with guns for which a permit was not required, crimes committed in locations in which a permit was not required to possess a firearm, and instances in which no crime was committed.
1. The states that don’t have constitutional provisions protecting the right to keep and bear arms are California, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and New York.
2. In addition to the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (see note 3), in Beard v. U.S. (1895) the Court approved the common-law rule that a person “may, without retreating, repel force by force” in self-defense. The Court reaffirmed that view in Brown v. U.S. (1921). Also, the right to self-defense has been recognized for centuries. Cicero said 2,000 years ago, “If our lives are endangered by plots or violence or armed robbers or enemies, any and every method of protecting ourselves is morally right.” English jurist Sir William Blackstone observed that the English Bill of Rights recognized “the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defense,” in order “to protect and maintain inviolate the three great and primary rights,” the first of which is “personal security.”(Stephen P. Halbrook, That Every Man Be Armed, The Independent Institute, 1994, pp. 17, 54.) Sir Michael Foster, judge of the Court of King’s Bench, wrote in the 18th century, “The right of self-defense . . . is founded in the law of nature, and is not, nor can be, superseded by any law of society.”(Robert Dowlut and Janet Knoop, “State Constitutions and The Right to Keep and Bear Arms,” Okla. City Univ. Law Review, 1982, p. 183.)
4. In DeShaney v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services (1988), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, “a State’s failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause.” This was true in that case, even though the state had purported to intervene against abuse being suffered by the victim but later returned the victim to the abusive environment. In Warren v. District of Columbia (1981), the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled, “police personnel and the government employing them are not generally liable to victims of criminal acts for failure to provide adequate police protection . . . . [A] government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any particular citizen.” In Bowers v. DeVito (1982), the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, “[T]here is no constitutional right to be protected by the state against being murdered by criminals or madmen.”
5. Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Connecticut has a fairly-administered discretionary-issue permit system and Vermont does not require a permit.
6. Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky (effective July 1, 2019), Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma (effective November 1, 2019), South Dakota (effective July 1, 2019), Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming do not require a permit. These states, except for Vermont, also have a permit system for permit reciprocity. “Permit reciprocity” is the term given to situations in which one state recognizes, for purpose of lawful concealed carry, the validity of permits issued in other states. State laws vary with respect to the conditions required for granting reciprocity.
11. E.g., the federal “assault weapon” and “large” magazine ban expired in 2004. The 1993 Brady Act’s waiting period requirement expired in 1998, in favor of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). With the advent of NICS, several states eliminated waiting periods and purchase permit requirements. Many states have adopted “preemption” laws, which prohibit local jurisdictions from imposing gun control laws more restrictive than state law.
16. Sarah Brady in Tom Jackson, “Keeping the battle alive,” Tampa Tribune, October 21, 1993; Nelson “Pete” Shields, Guns Don’t Die, People Do, Arbor House, 1981: and Dennis Henigan in USA Today, November 20, 1991.
17. Note 9.
19. Note 13, FBI UCR Data Tool.
20. McDowell - “Easing Concealed Firearm Laws: Effects on Homicide in Three States.”
21. FBI Uniform Crime Reports Section, annual Crime in the United States reports, Table 6: Index of Crime, Metropolitan Statistical Areas, on file with NRA-ILA.
22. Note 11, FBI UCR Data Tool.
23. Testimony before the Michigan House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, Dec. 5, 1995.
Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.