At Your Own Risk
CCWs proliferate, issues arise
By John Hay
to many earlier predictions, the right to carry a concealed
handgun is spreading across the country like a prairie fire.
There are now 33 states that have so-called "nondiscretionary"
or "shall-issue" concealed carry weapons (CCW)
permit laws. Another 11 states have "discretionary"
CCW laws. The remaining six states and the District of Columbia
are content, at least for now, to maintain their no-CCW-permit
the citizens of nondiscretionary states may now enjoy seemingly
unfettered rights to carry concealed handguns, they must
also wrestle with some thorny but very important questions:
Which areas are permitted and prohibited for concealed carry
weapons? What constitutes justifiable use of a handgun for
personal protection? May a handgun be used to protect other
individuals? May it be used to protect property?
task of addressing these issues is further complicated by
the veritable crazy quilt of laws and court decisions governing
handgun use in the individual nondiscretionary states. It
is indeed discouraging to realize that, while a CCW permit
may appear to solve a crucial personal-defense problem,
in actuality the permit holder must be exceedingly careful
to ensure that he does not find himself in serious legal
jeopardy as a consequence of exercising his Second Amendment
rights. While the Founding Fathers may have intended rights
and responsibilities to go hand-in-hand, they could never
have imagined the situation that exists today.
first thorny issue slaps you right in the face the moment
you walk out of the courthouse or police station with your
new CCW permit. Where are you allowed to carry your concealed
handgun? Where are you prohibited from carrying your gun?
It helps to do a bit of research before actually carrying
a concealed handgun. An excellent website for this purpose
is gunlaws.com. Also, some
jurisdictions provide a pamphlet or other information with
the permit that may provide some guidance. Unfortunately,
the law is unclear in many states, and other states have
virtually no statutes--only court opinions--to provide guidance
for CCW permit holders. Remember: Ignorance of the law is
not a defense against arrest and prosecution for a crime,
so know what you're getting into before you start packing
nondiscretionary CCW states actually list the categories
of prohibited areas in the body of the statute. The statute
may also contain a provision that essentially states that
clearly posted "No Firearms" areas shall also
be considered prohibited areas for CCW purposes. The individual
prohibited areas listed in the statute--such as courthouses,
churches and schools--will most likely not be posted, so
be sure to commit the prohibited-areas list to memory or
keep a copy of the list with you. Otherwise, you may inadvertently
find yourself an unwilling overnight guest of the local
the prohibited areas listed in most state laws are logical
and simple to remember. These areas generally include schools,
courthouses, law enforcement facilities, correctional facilities,
churches, airports and establishments where alcohol is served.
The state with the most categories of prohibited areas listed
in its statute is Texas, with 15. Oddly enough, Vermont
only has two prohibited areas listed: state government facilities
and schools. It's also interesting to note that the school
gun prohibition applies only to students, not to adults
who may be working at or visiting a school. In fact, Vermont
does not even require a permit to carry a concealed handgun,
yet Vermont is hardly known as a hotbed of gun-related violence.
(How do the anti-gun zealots explain this apparent "Vermont
nondiscretionary CCW permit states allow private-property
owners to prohibit the carrying of concealed handguns on
their property. Most of these states, while they do not
require no-firearms-allowed areas to be posted, recommend
the practice in order to prevent any confusion or misunderstanding.
If you carry a concealed handgun with a CCW permit into
a clearly posted no-firearms area and the property owner
becomes aware of it, you will most likely be arrested.
if you carry a concealed handgun with a CCW permit into
a nonposted area where the owner does not want firearms
and he becomes aware, you may simply be asked to leave.
In extreme cases, the owner may call the police. In these
cases, as a Maine State Trooper explained to me, the gun
owner will not be arrested because the area was not posted
and therefore no crime was committed.
carrying of concealed handguns in motor vehicles presents
special challenges for both gun owners and law enforcement
personnel. In the case of a routine traffic stop, the officer
may or may not be aware that the driver is a CCW permit
holder. Some states electronically file CCW permit information
with motor vehicle records, while others have no capability
to provide officers with permit information about a motor
an officer executing a routine traffic stop would prefer
to be informed as soon as possible by the driver that he
has a concealed handgun and a permit. Where I live, in Fairfax
County, Virginia, county police issue a pamphlet to every
CCW permittee containing some useful information--delivered
in overwrought prose--about how to behave when approached
by an officer. "Listen!" the pamphlet says. "Obey
all of the officer's commands. Keep your hands clearly visible.
Make every movement slowly. Verbally inform the officer
of the location of the weapon and permit. Wait for specific
instructions, and comply as directed. Do not touch the weapon."
The pamphlet also assures that "the officer does not
intend to offend you." Not to worry. I'd probably be
more petrified than "offended."
most important question a CCW permittee must face is under
what circumstances may he legally fire his weapon. May he
use his gun to defend himself, his family, his friend, a
stranger and/or his property? Must he retreat in the face
of deadly threat, as some state laws require, or may he
stand his ground and fight, as other state laws permit?
quite obvious that state laws and court precedents differ
widely between the nondiscretionary CCW states. The application
of these laws and precedents may also differ within an individual
state. The net result is that a CCW permit holder could
quickly find himself in physical and legal jeopardy, even
if he is the innocent victim of a criminal attack.
general, all nondiscretionary CCW states allow the CCW permit
holder to use deadly force in defense of
his own life. Some states, such as Arizona and Florida,
do not require the CCW permit holder to retreat in the face
of a deadly threat. Other states, such as Arkansas and Virginia,
require the CCW permit holder to make every reasonable effort
to retreat from the threat and to only use deadly force
when escape is impossible. Most states allow a CCW permit
holder to use his gun to protect the life of any individual
against a deadly threat. However, the use of a gun is generally
not permitted in defense of private property, unless it
is done in the process of protecting human life.
question of protecting human life against a deadly threat
leads inevitably to a discussion of the grim roll call of
mass murders that have horrified the world over the past
few years: 1991, Killeen, TX; 1996, Dunblane, Scotland;
1996, Tasmania; 1996, Moses Lake, WA; 1997, Pearl, MS; 1998,
Jonesboro, AR; 1998, Springfield, OR; and 1999, Littleton,
CO. The recent school shootings in Grundy, Virginia, and
eastern Germany are merely somber additions.
media and the anti-gun organizations have historically blamed
deaths on the existence of too many guns in the hands of
too many people. But what if the opposite conclusion is
correct? If there were more guns in the hands of properly
trained CCW permit holders, perhaps even one life could
have been saved. More likely, many lives could have been
even as a potential deterrent to these mass killings presents
itself, other problems arise. For instance, current federal
law prohibits loaded firearms in schools. In addition, most
CCW permit states list schools as prohibited areas for concealed
handguns. Other mass gatherings that would be attractive
to potential killers are also listed as prohibited under
many state CCW permit laws.
permit holders must undergo background checks and weapons
training, yet they're not trusted to carry guns where they
might be most beneficial in the defense of others. A spokesman
for the Jonesboro, Arkansas, prosecutor's office acknowledged
that a CCW permit holder in Arkansas could legally "shoot
the shooter" in a hypothetical Columbine-type scenario.
However, he added, the CCW permit holder would probably
still face some sort of charges for carrying a loaded weapon
onto school grounds.
while the movement for concealed carry rights continues
to sweep across the country, our optimism must be tempered
by the vexing questions that emerge in its wake. If, in
this post-9/11 security environment, we expect CCW permit
holders to act, in part, as an armed Neighborhood Watch
for the nation, then we must take steps to dramatically
reduce the physical and legal pitfalls that they face. CCW
permit holders cannot afford to hesitate when a moment of
crisis is at hand. Innocent lives may literally hang in