In August, a man shot two people to death on a bridge near San Francisco. At the moment of the killings, two on-duty Marin County sheriff's deputies were within 100 yards of the shooter. One was close enough to see the muzzle blast of the shotgun. The police officers, however, did not move against the culprit. One, stuck in traffic, called in a description of the killer's vehicle as he fled. The other positioned her car to prevent traffic from entering the crime scene.
These two law-enforcement officers did what police officers tell the public to do: Don't intervene. Get a description of the offender. Call the police. Be a good witness.
Much debate ensued about whether the officers' behavior was appropriate, but the real tragedy is that the victims of this rampage did not have the legal opportunity to arm themselves. To them, the message was clear: Be a good victim.
In Marin County, the jurisdiction where those two officers work, Sheriff Robert Doyle requires residents to demonstrate "extreme need" before they can get concealed-handgun permits. Among the few who have met this burden are private investigators, jewelry dealers, and a former district attorney.
Ten states still use a system that subjects lawful self-defense to the whim of a functionary such as Sheriff Doyle, a practice known as a "may issue" policy. (Two more refuse to grant concealed-carry permits to anyone.) The decision rests with the local chief law-enforcement officer, who may employ whatever criteria he deems valid — or deny permits for no reason at all. The result is that only those who are wealthy or politically connected are able to secure permits. Sean Penn got one after he claimed that a former employee was stalking him and that he had received a number of crank calls and letters.
This is not the case in most of the nation. Thirty-eight states have "shall issue" permit systems, which essentially require the chief law-enforcement officer to issue permits to everyone who passes background checks and training requirements. Many of these states have established reciprocity agreements, making the permits they issue valid in much of the nation. Years of experience have shown that permit holders are far more law-abiding than the general populace.
The propriety of "may issue" permitting is now being challenged in court on the opposite coast. The District of Columbia maintains a "shall issue" or, more appropriately, a "no issue" policy. After the Supreme Court struck down the District's ban on handgun possession within the home last year, the District repealed the police chief's power to issue permits to let gun owners carry their weapons outside the home. Several plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit challenging this refusal to issue handgun-carry permits.
In the Heller decision last year, the Supreme Court affirmed the Second Amendment right of individuals to keep arms in their home and have them in a condition useful for self-defense. The Court stressed that the individual right to arms was not an unlimited one, leaving undisturbed bans on carrying guns into "sensitive places" such as schools and government buildings. The D.C. suit does not challenge this power, but asks the court to recognize that the whole of the District of Columbia cannot be a "sensitive place."
The District will almost certainly mention that the Heller decision also did not call into question 19th-century bans on concealed carry. This ignores the fact that while concealed carry was considered the mark of a brigand, open carry was accepted and legal. Modern feelings are the reverse; concealed carry is now practiced far more often than open carry. The plaintiffs do not specify the method of carry — open or concealed — merely that the Second Amendment does not stop at your front door.
The lawsuit intends to make the District face reality. Criminals have guns. They brandish them when the police are not on the scene and victims are outside of their homes. The D.C. government should not handicap the honest, law-abiding citizens who wish to carry arms in order to defend themselves.
One of the plaintiffs, Tom Palmer (disclosure: Tom is my colleague at the Cato Institute), once used a handgun to deter a mob of violent aggressors who were yelling death threats at him. Tom's right, and the right of any other citizen, to arm himself should not be subject to approval by a civil servant who will not be present to protect them. Even if the police are present when someone is being assaulted or killed, they don't necessarily have a duty to intervene — as evidenced by the praise given to the two Marin County officers by their sheriff after the aforementioned incident.
Just as the Supreme Court affirmed a right to be armed in the home for self-defense, the courts of the District of Columbia should affirm the right of law-abiding citizens to be armed and defend their own lives outside of their homes. Ending "may issue" policies that work to ensure the victimization of average people will make the District, and eventually the nation, a safer and more just place to live.