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Are gun permits an affront to freedom? West Virginia says yes.

Models of thought

Drastically different views of rights and responsibilities separate pro- and anti-gun perspectives, leading to today's impasse. Could a 'responsible middle' find its voice? 

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    Police officer Jeffrey Gonzalez loads a revolver for students to practice unloading during the training course for concealed carry permits in Germantown, Wis., in February 2013. In March 2016, West Virginia passed legislation allowing concealed carry without a permit or training for those over age 21.
    John Ehlke/West Bend Daily News/AP/ File
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"I can hear freedom knocking on the doors in West Virginia," state Sen. Craig Blair (R) told reporters this weekend, as lawmakers voted to become the seventh US state to allow carrying a concealed gun without a permit or training. 

To the bipartisan group in both houses who voted to override Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's veto on HB 4145, training requirements and permit fees constitute an "infringement" on the Second Amendment's right to bear arms, an attitude increasingly common in the US.

Having won the right to concealed carry in all 50 states, the gun rights advocates' push is now extending to a new battleground: lobbying to expand where they can bring their weapons, particularly on college campuses, and to eliminate permit requirements.

A new Texan law allowing concealed carry at public universities, for example, has roiled the state university system, where President Gregory Fenves spoke out against the legislation, but similar laws have already taken effect in seven other states, from Wisconsin to Mississippi, although most are for concealed carry.

Meanwhile, in 2015, the movement to allow concealed carry without a permit spread to more than a dozen states, becoming law in Maine and Kansas, for example, while it was vetoed in New Hampshire and stalled in South Dakota, Utah, and Indiana. Similar legislation is pending in Colorado and Idaho, as well. 

The divide over guns in America often boils down to differing paths to freedom and safety. Second Amendment advocates demand their Constitutional right to protect themselves. Opponents see expanding gun rights as a source of violence and insecurity – especially after a mass shooting. Polls show most Americans – including West Virginians – want gun ownership background checks and training. And feeding the divide is language – on both sides – that's heated and often misleading. 

Under West Virginia's law, which will go into effect in May, adults over 21 will not need a permit to carry concealed firearms. Those between 18 and 21 will require training and a permit. 

Gov. Tomblin, a Democrat, said he refused to sign the bill because of police officers' safety concerns. But to many of West Virginia's lawmakers, something more essential was at stake.

"While we completely respect the law enforcement community, we also will always come down on the side of the Constitution and ensuring that our rights are protected," Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael (R) told the Charleston-Gazette Mail.

Pressed about whether requiring a permit violated Second Amendment rights, he said he did not consider it unconstitutional, but "somewhat of an infringement" on the right to bear arms.

"Our rights are under attack like never before," the National Rifle Association's (NRA) website proclaims, a key slogan since the organization, once a club for hobbyists, solidified its anti-restrictions stance in the 1970s, giving shape to today's gun rights movement. As late as 1968, it was still supporting some restrictions, backing to the 1968 Gun Control Act amid fear about political assassinations and the rise of the armed Black Panther movement. 

And although NRA rhetoric suggests the opposite, gun rights have always been restricted in America; what's changed is who supports those laws, and why. In the country's earliest days, for instance, ownership was only granted to white men who had supported the American Revolution, who had not just a right, but a duty, to keep a gun, train with a militia, and register their weapons.

If anything, rights have expanded over time. George W. Bush had "the most gun-friendly presidency in American history," State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland professor Robert J. Spitzer, the author of "Guns Across America," says in a phone interview; and in 2008, the Supreme Court affirmed individuals' right to a firearm, with or without a militia. 

So why the alarm that those rights are under threat, when many argue they're actually expanding? Much of it, historians and legal scholars say, can be explained by both sides' messaging, which tends towards alarm to rustle up support. But there's also a legal difference at play: gun control advocates' struggle to explain their arguments in terms of "rights," the pro-gun movement's watchword. 

There's a "very dark, pessimistic, apocalyptic rhetoric that there’s danger everywhere, the only way you can protect yourself against danger is to buy a gun" despite historically low crime rates, Dr. Spitzer says. The reality of citizens' safety, and their guns', "is of no use to the gun lobby. What is of use to the gun lobby is anger and fear," channeled through the idea that individual liberty and safety are at stake. 

For some people, it's convincing. Since the mid-1990s, the height of gun control legislation with acts like the Brady Law and now-defunct assault weapons ban, the average gun owner's arsenal has doubled from 4.2 firearms to 8.1, although the percentage of Americans owning a gun has actually slipped by about 10 percentage points: today, it's just 32 percent, a historic low since 1977, reports the Washington Post.

Although the NRA is frequently blamed for alarmist rhetoric aimed at increasing gun ownership, gun control organizations aren't immune from making overwrought claims, either: both sides, after all, depend on public opinion. Mass shootings in America are tragic, but not necessarily growing worse each year; 2015 was only slightly above average for the past 15 years.

But the impasse between so-called "pro-" and "anti-" gun views is driven by more than marketing. Another part of the problem, according to Fordham University Professor Saul Cornell, is that the gun rights and gun control movements are barely speaking the same legal language. 

For gun rights supporters, it's all about individual rights, Dr. Cornell says in a phone interview, as are many public debates: abortion advocates emphasize the "right to choose" an abortion, for example, over other aspects like equality, or gender. But 18th century thinkers also emphasized that rights come with obligations, he explains, such a reasonable restrictions on gun ownership in the name of public safety.

That collective rights argument is harder to fit "on a bumper sticker," he says, in contrast to NRA slogans like "Taking any right is wrong." Instead, gun control leaders often talk about it in terms of public health, not rights. 

Indeed, there has been a shift among some traditional "gun control" advocates to use terms such as "gun safety," to overcome perceptions that they want to give the US government more "control" over people's lives.

If a more nuanced view combining the "cans" and the "shoulds" can make the leap into national debates, it might find a ready audience. Nationwide, 85 percent of Americans support expanded background checks for gun buyers, a 2015 Pew Research survey shows. Even in West Virginia, where the legislature just did away with concealed carry permits, 87 percent of gun owners prefer requiring permits for concealed handguns, although lawmakers apparently listened to the vocal 13 percent who don't, a January 2016 poll shows.

There are organizations, such as the Americans for Responsible Solutions, that might find common ground. This gun violence prevention group was founded by former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who are both gun owners. An assassination attempt on her life in 2011 left Ms. Giffords determined to help represent the "responsible, respectable middle [who] have been drowned out" as Communications Director Mark Prentice says in a phone interview. 

Mr. Prentice says the group has been encouraged by state-level, bipartisan solutions to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people and domestic abusers, and helps project important voices he says have been left out of national-level gun debates so far, including veterans, law enforcement, and business leaders.

To keep up the progress, though, leaders' rhetoric needs to go beyond "pro" and "anti," he says; to reflect what Americans really believe, and act on it, we need "a more balanced conversation." 

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