Eric Gay/AP
Jerry Williams replaces his hat after giving testimony at a hearing where lawmakers discuss whether to legalize concealed handguns on college campuses and open carry everywhere in the state, Thursday, in Austin, Texas.

Concealed carry without a permit: Will crime go up or down?

New Hampshire, Kansas, Mississippi, and Montana are considering legislation that would no longer require special permits to carry concealed weapons in public. Five states already have such laws.

This week, lawmakers in New Hampshire, Kansas, Mississippi, and Montana advanced bills that, if made into law, would no longer require special permits to carry concealed weapons in public. Five states already have no concealed permit requirement – part of a broader trend toward so-called constitutional carry.

Also this week, Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas introduced federal legislation that would turn concealed weapons permits into something like state driver’s licenses, which are legal anywhere in the United States. The measure nearly passed a Democrat-controlled Senate last year, meaning it could well end up on President Obama’s desk in 2015.

With about one gun already in circulation for every American, critics, including many in law enforcement, say constitutional carry will only make life more dangerous. However, so far, studies have failed to conclusively prove or disprove another correlation – between expanded gun carry and the decline in general and violent crime rates that has occurred in the US over the past two decades.

Some gun culture experts say that efforts to expand gun rights are starting to hint that there may be limits, in fact, to America’s passion for gun toting in public.

The operative idea for many gun owners: It’s law-abiding citizens, not the state, who should make the decision as to when carrying a gun is reasonable, or necessary. At least anecdotally, a lot of people who proclaim to be open or concealed carriers actually holster a gun only rarely, or arm themselves only for nighttime commutes or journeys into what they perceive as dangerous areas.

“What I’ve seen is, for many people it’s more about, ‘I want to be the one to make the decision [about whether to carry], and I have that right,’ ” says Brian Anse Patrick, a professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio, concealed-carry instructor, and author of the upcoming book, “Propagunda.” “While the doors to gun carry are opening more and more, it all still comes down to practicality. A lot of people with permits, who have gone to classes, don’t follow through [with carry]. You have to be a really determined person to go through this whole thing.”

He adds: “The fact is, if you conduct your life sensibly, you shouldn’t need to carry a gun all the time.”

The march toward more firearm freedoms has taken place in the wake of failed federal efforts to curb gun rights in order to check America’s high number of gun deaths – some of which have come at the hands of legal gun owners and concealed-carry permit holders. Just on Tuesday, a legal North Carolina gun owner killed three Muslim-Americans in Chapel Hill, N.C., after a parking dispute at a condo complex, according to authorities.

Yet New Hampshire state Sen. Jeb Bradley (R), who is pushing constitutional carry in the Granite State, argued on Thursday that the bottom-line effect of more gun carry is less crime. In his speech to the legislature, Senator Bradley pointed to the fact that New Hampshire has the sixth-highest violent crime rate in the nation, saying this is a reason to consider the proposal.

He then contrasted his state with Vermont. “Our radical and dangerous neighbor to the west – Vermont, which has allowed concealed carry without a license for 200 years without a problem – is the safest state in the nation,” he said.

According to one estimate by Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, up to 3 out of 4 households have firearms in the Green Mountain State. “As funny as it sounds, being the most liberal state in the Union, we also have the highest per capita gun ownership,” Mr. Cutler told last year. “Up here, even the liberals have guns.”

Others say guns don't fit so nimbly into contemporary America.

At a legislative hearing in Concord, N.H., this week on constitutional carry, Tuftonboro Police Chief Andrew Shagoury said that maintaining a concealed-carry license program is safer than constitutional carry. Currently, he said, the state can deny concealed carry for “the guy who goes into the bar on Friday nights, gets hammered, and gets into fights.”

Too many Americans caught up in "fear and agitation" think “the only cure is ammo,” adds the editorial board for the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H. That, the paper argues, is “a troubling trend.”

Researchers at Stanford University in California published a study last November that found constitutional carry laws can be tied to an increase in violent crime, including robbery and murder.

Others, however, including John Lott, author of “More Guns, Less Crime,” have found the opposite – that the addition of 6 million concealed-carry permits since 2007 correlates in some fashion to a 22 percent drop in the overall murder and violent crime rates in the US.

For many gun rights advocates, it’s clear that the spike in gun carry over the past decade has so far not resulted in mayhem.

“Even if we were to be overrun with guns given the increased legal ability to carry, we’re not going to see a lot of rough-and-tumble situations because, frankly, we haven’t seen that so far,” even with some 11 million concealed-carry permits issued, says Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America in Springfield, Va.

For many, broadening the right to carry is at heart the ability to prepare for a journey, much as pioneers would not leave their rifle at home on a trip through bear country. Gun rights advocates say the current patchwork of gun legislation in the US makes it too easy for law-abiding gun carriers to accidentally run afoul of the law.

“When most people walked out their front door, they assumed they were going on a ‘journey’ or going hunting, and thousands open-carried for over a century,” Arkansas state Rep. Denny Altes (R) said in a recent Facebook post, in defense of the constitutional carry law that took effect in 2014.

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