Commentary

The Terrible Fear That People May Exercise Their Rights

By Jeffrey R. Snyder
April 20, 2002

On April 10 an Ohio appellate court unanimously ruled that Ohio’s ban on carrying concealed weapons, in effect since 1974, violated the people’s right to keep and bear arms. The appellate court also upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the prosecution of a pizza deliveryman who carried a handgun in his waistband for protection while making his deliveries. Since 1851, the Ohio Constitution has said, “the people have the right to bear arms for their defense and security.” In striking down the ban, the court noted that the framers of the Ohio constitution “put the citizens’ rights up front. We believe they meant what they said.” This ruling is a victory for the citizens of Ohio.

Prior to the decision, Ohio was one of six states that have nearly complete bans on the carrying of concealed weapons for self-defense. Thirty-two states, including every state bordering Ohio, have concealed weapon licensing statutes that require the issuance of a carry permit to citizens who undergo a background check and meet certain objective criteria, including, generally, that they be at least 21, have no felony conviction, and have completed a gun safety course.

Nearly all of those states have enacted the “shall issue” licensing systems since 1987. The horrors predicted by critics — that such laws would transform our cities into “Dodge Cities,” where blood would run in the streets as citizens took to settling disputes with gunfire — have not materialized. Apparently, this portrait of the ordinary citizen as one insufficiently restrained by moral and legal injunctions against murder, having murderous impulses that he would promptly act upon if only a gun were handy, is false.

Moreover, research by Yale University economist John Lott, and publicized in his book, More Guns, Less Crime, shows that states that have enacted concealed-carry laws have experienced a notable decrease in violent crimes against persons.

Eleven states, including California and New York, still have the older, discretionary licensing statutes. They permit the chief of police or a local judge to issue carry permits to persons of “good character” and who have some “good reason” or “proper cause” to carry a gun. The language of these statutes is so vague that issuance of carry permits is completely discretionary, and generally these statutes are administered as near-total bans, especially in cities and suburbs.

In New York City, for example, the people who seem most often to have both “good moral character” and “proper cause” to carry, besides those whose work requires them to carry, are celebrities, such as Howard Stern, or persons who have wealth, political influence or connections. Meanwhile, cab drivers — who are murdered or shot more frequently than police officers and far more frequently than celebrities — fail time and again to have “proper cause.”

In this manner, discretionary licensing schemes reveal an ugly fact: the state that operates on the basis of such a law clearly believes that only certain of its citizens are important enough to warrant the right of self-protection; the rest can just take their chances.

Only one state, Vermont, has neither a ban nor a licensing system. Vermont’s law prohibits carrying with intent to commit a crime, but does not prohibit carrying for self-defense. Since even “shall issue” licensing systems constitute a prior restraint upon our right, Vermont is the only state that respects the right to bear arms.

If you believe that it is laws that keep you safe, then you should steer clear of Vermont, because in this regard it is “lawless.” Evidently, however, the tourists who flock there year after year do not perceive the great danger they face because of an absence of words in the Vermont statute books. Apparently they are sufficiently assured of their safety solely on the basis of the trustworthy character of the Vermonters that they meet.

For many years, Ohio’s gun owners have unsuccessfully lobbied their representatives to repeal the concealed-carry ban and pass a “shall issue” licensing system. If Ohio state officials appeal the appellate ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court and that court strikes down the ban on carrying concealed weapons, Ohio would join Vermont as one of two states that respects the right of the people to carry weapons for their defense.

Paradoxically, the Ohio Court of Appeals decision may, therefore, finally drive the Ohio governor and legislature to enact a “shall issue” licensing scheme. It may be the only way left to address the terrible fear that Ohioans may begin exercising their rights without benefit of state supervision or approval. Heavens!

Jeff Snyder is the author of the Cato Institute study, “Fighting Back: Crime, Self-Defense and the Right to Carry a Handgun,” and the new book, “Nation of Cowards — Essays on the Ethics of Gun Control” (Accurate Press).