A drive to expand concealed-weapons rights has stalled on Capitol Hill, now gun-rights groups are hoping a flurry of lawsuits currently in the courts will overturn state laws restricting who can apply for the right to carry a concealed firearm.
The pro-gun groups were buoyed by last year’s ruling invalidating the District of Columbia’s strict laws, and they are now looking to the Supreme Court to weigh in and establish a nationwide guarantee that Americans are entitled to some concealed-carry rights.
A Maryland resident and a gun-rights group in the state filed a lawsuit in April challenging the state’s stiff criteria for obtaining a concealed-weapons license, while a federal judge could rule this month on whether a similar challenge filed in New Jersey in February can move forward.
“The government cannot require citizens to prove a special need in order to exercise their fundamental rights,” said Chris Cox, executive director of the legislative-lobbying arm for the National Rifle Association, which is backing the residents’ challenges.
Concealed-carry is the natural battleground for pro-Second Amendment groups and gun-control advocates. The Supreme Court over the last decade ruled that Americans have a personal right to bear arms, but said states do have the power to impose reasonable restrictions on that right.
Courts have generally said the right to own a firearm in one’s home is now protected — but what restrictions can be placed on carrying a weapon outside the home is heatedly contested.
A federal judge in Massachusetts has sided with gun-control advocates, upholding strict concealed-carry requirements in that state. An appeal is pending, and 19 state attorneys general petitioned the appeals court in April to reverse the ruling and strike down Massachusetts law.
Gun-rights advocates point to last year’s high court ruling overturning the D.C. law. The court in that case said the city’s law requiring residents to prove a “good reason” why they needed a concealed weapon was unconstitutional.
“If the Supreme Court were to accept a case addressing the constitutionality of concealed-carry [laws], I feel confident that they would get it right,” said Tim Schmidt, founder of the U.S. Concealed Carry Association.
Matthew Maruster, a firearms instructor in the Columbus area, said he wants the Supreme Court to put the issue to rest “once and for all.”
“Everybody’s kind of hoping and keeping their fingers crossed,” he said.
Mr. Maruster, who spent years working in law enforcement in California, said in some cases the decisions were left to the whims of individual county sheriffs.
“I’ve realized how difficult it is for Californians to get a concealed handgun license compared to here in Ohio,” he said.
Though the issue is raging in lower courts, the Supreme Court has declined to take up gun cases in recent years.
But the ruling in D.C. will likely force the high court’s hand, said Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law who writes about Second Amendment issues.
“They’re trying to get a Supreme Court case,” he said of the challenges. “There is now an official split in the circuits, so the Supreme Court’s going to have to step in sooner rather than later.”
Most states generally require law enforcement officials to issue concealed-carry permits to people who don’t have disqualifying criminal or mental health issues, or simply allow people to carry-concealed weapons without a permit.
Like the states defending their laws, gun control advocates say other appeals courts have already spoken.
“Last year lawyers for the National Rifle Association and other gun lobby groups tried to convince American judges that the Second Amendment leaves no room for reasonable gun safety laws,” said Eric Tirschwell, litigation director for the group Everytown for Gun Safety. “They failed time and time again.”
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed legislation last year that would recognize state-issued concealed carry permits nationwide.
But Senate Democrats have vowed to oppose any bill that includes those provisions, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police urged congressional leaders in April to abandon the push entirely.
“This legislation is a dangerous encroachment on individual state efforts to protect public safety, and it would effectively nullify duly enacted state laws and hamper law-enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence,” the IACP said in a letter sent to Congress that was endorsed by 473 law enforcement agencies from 39 states.
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