Concealed-Weapons Law Draws Only Sporadic Fire


IN a long, slow drawl, State Rep. Fred Stanley explains that arming private citizens with concealed weapons is the best way to make America safe again.

"Today in the 1990s, there's no way you can put enough law-enforcement officers out there to protect every man, woman, and child," says Mr. Stanley, a Democrat who sponsored the Oklahoma Self Defense Act of 1995.

With the law - which takes effect Jan. 1 and will allow anyone without a criminal record or certain handicaps to carry a concealed firearm - Oklahoma joins 23 state legislatures that allow citizens to pack hidden heat.

Advocates of the right to carry a concealed weapon argue that individuals should be able to defend themselves with a gun, and that assailants are less likely to attack someone who may have a gun.

Opponents counter that these right-to-carry laws will result in more violence, more accidental shootings, and vigilantism.

But the Oklahoma case is, in many ways, unique. Because Oklahoma City was the site of the nation's worst terrorist attack, some people here are surprised at the level of support for a law that puts more weapons in citizens' hands.

"I'm amazed that in the midst of all this we passed a law that we can carry concealed weapons," says Carol Arnold, the host of one of Oklahoma City's most popular radio talk shows.

"That just flies in the face of what we have paid this horrible price to learn," Ms. Arnold adds. "We don't need concealed weapons here ... we need unconcealed compassion."

Nevertheless, Arnold admits people calling in to her program are overwhelmingly in support of the law passed the month after the April 19 bombing.

Florida case study

Supporters of the law argue that grim predictions of increased violence have not come to pass in right-to-carry states. Officials here say they hope for results similar to those in Florida, which in 1987 passed what has become the prototype for many of the new laws. Known as "shall issue" statutes, the measures require the state to issue a concealed-weapons permit to anyone who applies and qualifies - without requiring a reason.

Statistics gathered by Florida officials show that of the 180,000 permits issued there from 1987 to 1994, 19 have been revoked. And in Dade County, which has 22,000 permit holders, there were 63 incidents - none fatal - involving the newly registered guns.

Nevertheless, some here are upset about the law's passage. "I am not at all comfortable knowing that if a police officer stops somebody to give them a ticket or warning, he or she may be having a bad day and say something in the wrong tone and get killed," says Willah Johnson, City Council representative from the 7th District in Oklahoma City.

While some local police associations did lobby against the law, not all police think it's a bad idea. Maj. Gerold Spencer of the Oklahoma City Police Department has been in law enforcement for 27 years.

"I think there are a lot of good people out there who feel if the bad guys are going to have a gun, I should have a gun. But I don't think we will have significant problems." Mr. Spencer predicts once people realize how inconvenient it is to actually tote a gun, they will stop.

'Not in my shop'

Already, the law has spawned a side industry for signs reading "No guns allowed here." You can't carry a weapon into a church, for example, or anywhere liquor is sold. Many businesses are also posting the signs on their doors.

Oklahoma officials are uncertain how many people will apply for the permits. "Oregon is most like us in size and demographics and they had 25,000 applicants the first year, roughly, and that is what we assume we will have in the first year," says Kim Koch, a spokesman for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. "We have been told it could be twice, even four times that many," he adds.

Oklahoma may soon have more company as other states consider right-to-carry laws. A half-dozen states are expected to take up such measures in upcoming sessions. And this week, hearings on concealed weapons are set to begin in Michigan.

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