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Opinion

Analysis

Chiefs: Dropping gun permits threatens public safety—and officers’ lives

Even in a country where gun violence feels routine, the last several weeks have been shocking.

A large swath of Washington, DC shut down recently after a gunman fired dozens of rounds from an apartment window toward a nearby school. He injured four people, including a 12-year-old student, before killing himself. A week earlier, when a lone gunman terrorized subway riders in New York City, it was a miracle no one died.

Hardly does violence erupt somewhere before it’s erased by fresh headlines. Nine people shot and two 17-year-olds killed at a party in a short-term rental in Pittsburgh. Seven people hit with bullets at a South Carolina lounge during an Easter bash. An argument between young people escalates to gunfire in Atlanta, leaving five teenagers injured. A shooting at the Mississippi state fairgrounds injures at least four and scuttles a music festival.

The COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with a surge in that uniquely American epidemic of gun violence. Shootings and homicides are up, police are pulling more guns off the street, and firearms dealers report record gun sales, with millions of Americans arming themselves for the first time.

It is against this backdrop that state after state has decided residents no longer need permits, background checks, or training to carry concealed handguns in public.

It’s not a stretch to think so-called “permitless carry” will alter the nature of gun violence in these places, and also affect the police officer who stops someone and sees they have a gun in their possession.

No law enforcement official I’ve spoken with thinks these policies are a good idea.

The latest to sound the alarm was my good friend, Deborah Daniels, a former federal prosecutor in Indiana, which passed permitless carry earlier this spring. She wrote, “the new law will complicate the tasks of determining who is not permitted to carry a gun and of getting illegally possessed guns off our streets.” I recently reached out to a few police chiefs who have experienced or are experiencing this change to hear their thoughts.

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Why permits matter 

Many cops see the permitting process as a useful means of screening dangerous people from carrying guns in public. In some states, residents couldn’t previously obtain a permit to carry if they had been convicted of resisting law enforcement or had juvenile adjudications that would have been felonies had the person been an adult.

Shouldn’t responsible gun owners be willing to go through a brief permitting process to carry their gun outside the home, where it is more consequential for other members of the public?

Back in 2010, only Vermont and Alaska allowed permitless carry, but gun rights activists have vigorously promoted this policy change and lawmakers across the country have acted. Last month, Georgia’s governor signed a bill to make that state the 25th allowing permitless carry.

More people carrying guns in public, with no training or permitting requirement, may also be aggravating the under-appreciated problem of firearm thefts from motor vehicles. As more people carry and store guns in their cars, they’ve become a ripe target for thieves looking to steal a gun and make a quick score on a concealable good that is highly valued on the black market — putting guns right in the hands of the dangerous people we least want to have them.

The presence of more people carrying in public, without a permit, may also ratchet up the tensions for police working to ensure the safety of public demonstrations, a topic PERF has covered in the past.

Chiefs are worried 

Metropolitan Nashville Police Chief John Drake told me that when permitless carry was first proposed by Tennessee’s legislature last year, he didn’t think it had a chance of becoming a reality, but he still voiced his concerns.

“I felt we would begin to see a sharp increase in gun thefts and the likely outcome would be increased gun violence,” he told me. His fears have been realized, he said, linking the change in law with a surge in gun thefts and more stolen guns recovered at violent crime scenes.

Nashville recorded 1,300 gun thefts in 2021, and they’re on pace to top 1,800 this year, he said.

Atlanta Chief Rodney Bryant also believes that permitless carry will put more guns on the streets, and hamper law enforcement’s ability to do its work. “It reduces our ability to intervene early in getting an illegal gun off the street until something more catastrophic has happened,” he told me.

Chief Drake said that’s been the experience in Nashville, too. “Unless there is probable cause a crime is about to be committed, it’s difficult to frisk for weapons,” he said.

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Indianapolis Metropolitan Assistant Chief Chris Bailey shared a couple of real-world examples of how this plays out. Cops there recently stopped a vehicle with two motorists and turned up two handguns. Unbeknownst to the officers, one of the motorists was a convicted domestic abuser and barred from possessing firearms at all, but without a criminal predicate, the officer couldn’t run a full criminal check.

However, the officer was able to conduct a permit check and since neither motorist had one, they were arrested on preliminary charges of carrying handguns without a license. Only later, when prosecutors reviewed the man’s criminal past, were more serious charges brought.

“The permit check opened the door for police to arrest and disarm him,” Chris wrote me. “In other words, without the charge of carrying a handgun without a license, he may have kept the firearm.”

He also cited a recent investigation of a serial shooter that relied on ballistics intelligence and other investigative methods. The suspect didn’t have a felony history but had failed to obtain a handgun license, so the officers conducting surveillance on him were able to arrest him when he was observed carrying a gun — just one of almost 1,500 firearms taken off the streets of Indianapolis last year.

“I believe [eliminating the permit requirement] will embolden those prohibited from possessing a gun to do so with impunity, knowing law enforcement has fewer checks on their activity,” Chris told me. Indiana’s permitless carry law goes into effect on July 1.

Police will need to keep adapting

Gun ownership has been deeply woven into American culture since the founding of our country, but gun laws are never static. Police, who have primary responsibility for making sure guns in public are possessed and carried safely and in accordance with the law, have had to constantly adapt.

Policies and training that departments have carefully developed over time in how to conduct stops and searches for illegal firearms will need to be revised in many places. According to Atlanta’s Chief Bryant, “Our officers will have to caution themselves more, educate the community and be more innovative in determining if a gun is legal or if the person carrying is truly authorized.”

Citing the difficulty of frisking for weapons, Chief Drake says they are prioritizing different tactics in Nashville. “We are looking more closely to social networks and NIBIN [National Integrated Ballistics Information Network] to identify persons committing crimes with a rapid response to follow up after shootings.”

The Supreme Court may add to the disruption, as the justices are expected any week to rule on a New York case that could strike down that state’s stringent requirement that residents show “proper cause” for getting a concealed weapons permit.

That’s a little different from allowing New Yorkers to get and carry guns with no permit at all, but the effect is similar in that it could result in many more residents carrying concealed guns. Depending on the decision, it could also have consequences for gun laws across the country.

Gun laws are contentious, and that means even little changes can seem like a political football. Nevertheless, I believe it’s important for public safety officials to continue to speak openly to lawmakers and the public about gun laws, since you and your officers see the real-world effects of legislation.

And it’s time for lawmakers to pay more attention to what the chiefs have to say on issues like permitless carry.

This report was first published by The Crime Report.


Chuck Wexler is executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit Washington, D.C. research and policy organization that provides technical assistance and executive-level education to support law enforcement agencies.

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