The back-to-back wins for gun-rights advocates who want to see fewer restrictions on the Second Amendment signal how partisan divides and relentless activism at the state level are significantly reshaping the landscape around gun possession.
“This is the latest front in the battle over gun rights in America,” said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and an expert in gun policy and the Second Amendment. Winkler sees a broader takeaway in the changes to Alabama and Ohio’s gun laws.
“The lesson is: It’s coming to you,” Winkler said. “It’s a rising tide of reform, and it’s a wave we’ve seen before.”
Seventeen of the 23 states that allow permitless carry passed their laws in the past seven years. By contrast, concealed carry wasn’t even legal in every state until 2013, when Illinois lifted its longtime ban decades after most other states.
The push to end restrictions on concealed carry is reminiscent of one made by lobbyists and gun rights activists 30 years ago with “shall issue” permitting. States adopted laws that held authorizing agencies shall issue concealed-carry permits to anyone who meets the basic requirements set by the state, such as completing a training course or passing a background check — a shift that rapidly expanded who could carry a concealed weapon.
Before the advent of “shall issue” permitting, most states would let individuals concealed carry only if licensed; the permits, Winkler said, were hard to get and required applicants to demonstrate a justification for carrying a concealed firearm.
“The NRA has been incredibly effective in loosening gun laws at the state level and have completely transformed how individuals can carry guns in public since the 1980s,” Winkler said in reference to the National Rifle Association.
Winkler said energy for gun control that often swells after shooting incidents — including calls for change at the federal level — but that such energy obscures the on-the-ground reality.
“Nothing has changed since Newtown,” Winkler said, referring to the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that killed 27 people, including 20 first-graders. “If you think that [it has]you’re looking in the wrong place: The states are a hotbed of activity of gun reform these days, and it’s mostly gun-rights advocates that are winning the battles.”
The primary group that lobbied for Ohio’s permitless carry law was the grass-roots Buckeye Firearms Association. Executive Director Dean Rieck, in a recent podcast episode, described its strategy as “moving the Overton window” from a place where the public was largely wary of anyone with a gun to a place where opponents welcomed licensing laws.
“You get to the point where there’s enough trust to pass a law like this,” Rieck told The Washington Post in an interview. “I think we’ll find the dire predictions in passing this law don’t come true.”
Opponents of permitless carry argue that the law decreases public safety by eliminating the requirements attached to permits, such as background checks, safety training and, in Ohio, an application through a local sheriff’s office.
Gary Wolske, president of the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio, the state’s largest police union, said the FOP believes in the right to carry a weapon — but also in background checks.
“Last year, an estimated 2,000 were denied permits,” Wolske said of Ohio concealed carry applicants. “But going forward, when this becomes law, there’s no more requirements for anything. You don’t have to know how to turn on the safety, how to carry your weapon or even know which end of the gun goes ‘bang.’ ”
Anyone who purchases a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer is vetted through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which screens for disqualifications such as felony convictions, involuntary commitment to a mental health facility or dishonorable military discharge.
But the databases on which the government relies are often flawed, outdated or incomplete; such was the case in the 2017 massacre in Texas at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. The gunman, who killed 26 people and injured nearly two dozen others, was never flagged in the NICS because the Air Force repeatedly failed to submit records that would have disqualified him from purchasing three of the four weapons he used in the rampage.
Rieck argued that licensing laws end up stopping only law-abiding citizens from fully exercising their Second Amendment rights, since lawbreakers won’t submit to restrictions whether they exist or not.
“The kind of people who have criminal intent or have a record that would prevent them from carrying a firearm aren’t going to go to a sheriff’s office and get a background check,” he said. “It’s sort of self-selecting.”
Training is another issue. While Rieck said groups like his advocate for people to get as much training as they can, they don’t want training to be a barrier.
“There’s a difference between recommending training and mandating training,” he said.
Jake Pelletier, who owns Raven Firearms Training in New Hampshire with his wife, Crystal, offered a comparison he has heard others make in states that make training a hard-and-fast requirement of concealed carry: “I’ve heard it put that it’s like saying you can exercise your right to free speech as long as you take a communications course.’”
At the same time, the Pelletiers said it’s easy for someone to underestimate the training needed to safely use a gun in a defensive situation.
“They have no idea how difficult it is to use your weapon in a use-of-force situation for defense safely, legally and while avoiding collateral damage,” Jake Pelletier said. He estimated that beginners need a baseline of roughly 32 hours of high-quality training.
“We stress to our clients, if you put out a round, you own that round,” Crystal Pelletier added. “That’s not easy to do if you haven’t trained — especially if you haven’t trained.”
Although New Hampshire hasn’t required concealed-carry permits since 2017, the Pelletiers saw an uptick in customers seeking safety classes following protests and riots that emerged in parts of the country following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in 2020.
Despite public polling that indicates a majority of Americans favor more gun control, gun-control advocates have been losing ground for years because of activism at the state level in part because of increased political polarization, according to Sean Holihan, state legislative director for Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The number of states where the legislative chambers and the governorship were carried by different parties has shrunk.
“Increasingly, you’re seeing a trifecta and the needs of the most active members of the party are being met,” Houlihan said.
Both Ohio and Alabama state houses and governorships are controlled by Republicans overwhelmingly along partisan lines; in Ohio, the bill didn’t earn a single vote from Democrats in either chamber.
Winkler, the UCLA law professor, said a hidden factor driving looser gun laws is partisan gerrymandering.
“In an environment where there are very safe seats, you get candidates who, with an issue like gun control, try to outextreme the other candidate,” he said. “And in the Republican Party, it’s been especially pronounced; you don’t want your opponents to say you’re soft on guns, because that hurts you in the primary.”
Gun-rights advocates commonly invoke crime reduction and self-defense in their arguments, but Winkler said that loosening restrictions has shown to be driven more by politics than public safety. The data, he notes, is largely inconclusive.
Researchers have sparred for years over the question of whether easing gun restrictions lessens crime or fuels it. A 2021 analysis by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker found states with looser concealed-carry laws had a higher homicide rate on average during a recent five-year period than the eight states with stricter permit laws — and that the role looser laws played in higher crime rates — if any — was unclear.
With a midterm election eight months away and major election year in 2024, experts expect more laws easing gun restrictions to pass. Already, bills to allow permitless carry are active in Indiana and Florida.
Houlihan expects the expansion to stop after the remaining Republican-controlled states enact permitless carry.
“We’ll have states with moderate-to strong gun control police along the West Coast and some Great Lakes states, and other states where it’s much easier to get and carry a gun, they’ll move on to other issues like stand-your-ground,” Houlihan said.
The result, he said, will be a picture with which the country is already familiar: two Americas, and one deep ideological divide.