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Advocates for concealed weapons laws have some points to make
By Howard Witt, Tribune Southwest Bureau
Chief, recently on assignment in Phoenix
PHOENIX -- Depending on your point of view, the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Phoenix was either the safest or most dangerous place in the nation one Saturday night this fall.
Inside the main banquet hall, some 400 assorted Arizonans, nearly all of them with guns strapped to their hips, stashed in their waistbands or stuffed in their purses, were gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the state's concealed carry law, which allows citizens to pack heat wherever the sun doesn't shine.
All the major pro-gun groups were represented, of course, including the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation. So were some quirkier offshoots, such as the Second Amendment Sisters ("If you are a woman who owns a gun, you have an equalizer") and Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership ("No nonsense. No compromise. No genocide."). There was a man dressed as Wyatt Earp--the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral occurred in Tombstone--and another impersonating George Washington.
But what really distinguished the crowd was how devoutly law-abiding it was--and exceedingly polite too. As banquet organizer Alan Korwin jested in a news release after the dinner: "Food Service Very Slow But Waiters All Still Alive."
That was, in fact, the message the gathering last month was intended to drive home: Ordinary gun owners don't fit the wild-eyed caricatures often drawn by anti-gun groups. And they ought to be trusted to carry their weapons, openly or concealed, wherever they wish.
"When the concealed carry law first started, the news was filled with fear of blood in the streets and Wild West shootouts at traffic lights, and all that turned out to be virtually delusional," said Korwin, whose company publishes manuals for gun owners.
Concealed weapons permits are one of the lightning-rod issues in the ceaseless national debate over gun control, provoking divisive passions between rural and urban America. Here in the West, guns are about as common as bow ties are in Washington, D.C. But just as no self-respecting Arizonan would be caught dead wearing a bow tie, many residents of big cities such as Washington fear being caught dead by people carrying concealed weapons.
Jeanne Carey, 64, understands the conflict. She was a lifelong Chicago resident--and an ardent foe of guns--until she moved to Phoenix two years ago.
"This is my home now, and you gotta get with the program," she said. "I went out and bought a Glock. Everybody has one. It's a fashion statement."
Only five states, Illinois among them, prohibit private citizens from carrying concealed weapons. In 11 others, police may deny permits based on their discretion. The other 34 states, like Arizona, allow any law-abiding citizen to obtain permission to carry a concealed weapon, although usually a background check and a gun-safety course are required. Pro-gun activists would like to see concealed weapons allowed without restriction nationwide.
Proponents contend that concealed weapons make communities safer by introducing the element of doubt: Criminals never know whether a potential victim might have a pistol up his sleeve. The laws also empower private citizens to protect themselves and others from harm. And the required training impresses upon gun owners just how carefully they must decide whether to draw their weapons.
Pro-gun Web sites are filled with stories of gun owners around the country using their concealed weapons to ward off criminals, and the banquet honored several with Human Right of Self-Defense Awards. One of the recipients was 72-year-old Zelda Hunt of Tucson who stopped a burglar from breaking into her home with the aid of her .22 revolver.
But gun-control advocates scoff at such anecdotes, and counter with their own.
Gerry Anderson, executive director of Arizonans for Gun Safety, noted the case of a mentally ill Phoenix man whose family had begged state authorities to hospitalize him, to no avail. Last summer the man purchased a gun and obtained a concealed weapons permit; in August he shot three Phoenix police officers, killing two, before he committed suicide.
"It's very hard to get hard evidence about this, but most studies show that availability of a firearm can turn a fistfight into a gunfight," Anderson said.
The truth is hard to discern. Most law-enforcement agencies do not rigorously collect data that might reveal whether concealed weapons holders are more or less likely to be involved in crimes--or in stopping them.
But Arizona authorities report that as of June 2003, out of 67,689 concealed weapons permits issued, only about 1,400, or less than 2 percent, had been suspended or revoked.
Much of the talk at the banquet, however, centered on other concerns, such as the awkwardness of ordering business suits that can accommodate a holster in the waistband.
"If you go to Men's Wearhouse, they want to know why you want those 2 extra inches," explained Todd Rathner, an Arizona member of the NRA's national board of directors.