Florida is preparing to issue its 1 millionth concealed-carry permit while a federal court ruling this week left the nation's capital as the only place in the United States with a total ban on carrying concealed weapons — developments that have gun advocates feeling that momentum is on their side in the national debate over whether Americans can remain armed once they leave home.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the Illinois legislature has 180 days to come up with some type of concealed-carry law, overruling gun control proponents in the final holdout among the states.
The ruling is considered encouraging for the plaintiffs in a similar lawsuit pending in the District, whose Democratic leadership has resisted attempts to loosen its gun laws, citing public safety and its role as the host to important leaders and diplomats.
"We've always believed he have a very strong case. The complete prohibition [in the District] is ridiculous," said Alan Gura, a gun rights lawyer from Alexandria who litigated the Illinois case alongside a Chicago-based lawyer. "The court needs to rule."
Mr. Gura sent a copy of the decision to the federal court that will decide Palmer v. the District of Columbia, which he also is handling. The case has been languishing since August 2009 and been argued twice, he said.
The Government Accountability Office reported in June that there were at least 8 million active permits to carry concealed handguns in the United States as of Dec. 31 last year.
Concealed-carry permit laws have sparked debate in state legislatures and the courts, driven by intense lobbying on both sides of the issue. Gun control advocates say public safety is at stake, while staunch defenders of the Second Amendment say the wind is at their backs in the fight for the right to carry a handgun in most public places.
"The Bill of Rights is not a smorgasbord. You can't pick and choose the ones you want to respect," said Dave Workman, senior editor of TheGunMag publication run by the Second Amendment Foundation, a gun rights advocacy group based in Bellevue, Wash.
While gun rights supporters argue that an armed society deters crime and can thwart mass shootings, groups such as the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence say a review of gun deaths shows "states with the strongest gun laws also have the lowest gun-death rates nationwide."
"Conversely, many states with the weakest gun laws have the highest gun-death rates," according to a grading system the center released in November.
Although 49 states offer concealed carry in some capacity — all 50 states if the Illinois decision holds up — a state-by-state look at the permitting process reveals a patchwork of restrictions on whether guns can be carried in bars, churches and other specified places. Ten states employ a "may issue" or discretionary system in which the permit applicant must demonstrate a need for the gun or the issuer decides who can have a permit, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The conference says 39 states have a "shall-issue" system, by which the applicant does not have to demonstrate a need or the issuer has to provide a permit if the requesting person meets certain criteria. People in Alaska, Arizona, Vermont and Wyoming do not require permits to carry concealed weapons, according to the conference and the GAO.
On Capitol Hill, the House last year approved a reciprocity act that would allow states to recognize one another's concealed-carry permits when a qualified person crosses state lines, unless that jurisdiction expressly prohibits the practice. In November 2011, Wisconsin became the 49th state to enact a concealed-carry provision, leaving only Illinois as the only one banning it.
City lawmakers in Chicago have threatened to approve an ordinance that would thwart the federal appellate court's ruling — even if it results in a protracted legal battle — out of fear that concealed carry will increase gang violence, according to The Associated Press.
Conversely, the consumer affairs agency in Florida, a state with a population of about 19 million and the location of the racially charged shooting death of Trayvon Martin in February, announced that it was on the cusp of issuing its 1 millionth active permit to carry, among 2.3 million total permits the state has issued since it began the licensing program in 1987. States with less than onerous gun laws such as Louisiana and Kansas have issued tens of thousands of permits, and interest shows no signs of waning, according to news reports.
"That tells you something," Mr. Workman said. "What it should be telling Washington, D.C.'s government is they need to wake and smell the coffee before it spills in their lap."
The District's gun laws are no strangers to controversy. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the city's long-standing handgun ban in the District of Columbia v. Heller, a landmark case that has been held up as a strong affirmation of Second Amendment rights.
Gun laws are frequent bargaining chips in local leaders' efforts to gain more autonomy from Congress. More than once, Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have attempted to amend the city's approach to firearms through legislative "riders" on bills aimed at giving the city a voting member of the House or extending the District's control over its local budget.
City officials have strenuously defended their strict gun laws. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, has pointed to the number of high-profile leaders and diplomats who are in the city and need protection.
"Every major American city has diplomatic officials," Mr. Gura said. "There are many important people everywhere, and my clients are important people."
Mr. Mendelson did, however, shepherd a bill to passage this year that cuts training sessions and other impediments to registering guns in the District.
In neighboring Maryland, a judge in July ordered the state to stop enforcing a law that requires applicants to provide a "good and substantial" reason why they should obtain a permit to carry. The courts later decided that the law may be enforced while an appeal is pending.
Mr. Gura led the effort against Maryland. However, he recently lost a similar case against New York. He said he will ask the nation's highest court to take up the case.
"It's a strong petition," he said.
The courts may vary in their interpretations of Columbia v. Heller and other landmark gun cases, but strong language in the Illinois decision showed at least one judge feels that no one place stands above the rest.
"There is no suggestion that some unique characteristic of criminal activity in Illinois justifies the state's taking a different approach from the other 49 states," Judge Richard A. Posner wrote in his majority opinion. "If the Illinois approach were demonstrably superior, one would expect at least one or two other states to have emulated it."
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