As many gun owners learned last year, having a concealed-weapons permit still does not give one carte blanche to tote a handgun anywhere.
Ordinance after ordinance restricted the legal right to bring guns into hospitals, private businesses, nursing homes, banks and numerous other places, resulting in a tug of war in some states between state legislators, who did not appreciate being second-guessed by local governments, and municipal officials, who fear the Wild West mentality that could arise when every citizen is armed and allowed to carry his gun anywhere.
According to a survey released last August, four in 10 American adults live in households where guns are present. Gun ownership is highest among whites (45 percent), Southerners (46 percent) and conservatives (52 percent). Texas, which enacted its concealed-handgun law last January, has been a flagship state for gauging the ups and downs of relaxed gun-ownership laws.
Since November 1995, 98,148 Texans have been licensed to carry concealed handguns the overwhelming majority of them white and male. Dozens of municipalities and counties took action to curb where these weapons may legally be carried, in what was seen as a backlash against the new state law. The growing regulation, some observers said, could land local governments in court.
At present, Texans are specifically banned from carrying concealed weapons in hospitals, nursing homes, amusement parks, voting sites, courts, police stations, government meetings, bars, racetracks and houses of worship. Fourteen of the state’s largest cities, including Dallas, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Houston and El Paso, have passed ordinances restricting guns in city buildings.
Officials said in July that since enactment of the state concealed-weapons law, there were 23 reported incidents involving Texans carrying hidden guns, including two shooting deaths and two suicides. The most widely reported incident, and the one that most graphically illustrated the fears of opponents to concealed-weapons laws, involved the fatal shooting of an unarmed motorist by another driver during a traffic altercation.
In April, a Grand Prairie grand jury refused to indict Gordon “Buddy” Hale, who said he was in fear for his life when he shot 33-year-old Kenny Tavai. The two drivers had bumped side-view mirrors while driving. Stuck in traffic, Hale said he was unable to move his car as Tavai began punching him in the face.
Across the country, states have struggled with whether to allow concealed handguns, where to allow them, and what restrictions should be made as to who can carry a concealed handgun. A bill that would allow anyone over the age of 20 to carry a concealed weapon embroiled the Kentucky legislature in fierce debate. An Oklahoma House committee approved a bill in March that would allow gun safety instructors to receive temporary permits to carry concealed weapons before the completion of an FBI background check. In Kansas, the House took up a bill that would issue permits to some state residents.
In Alaska, meanwhile, Gov. Tony Knowles in June vetoed a bill that would have expanded the number of sites where concealed weapons are permitted to include banks, bars, and state and Federal office buildings.
Down South, where the majority of gun owners live, The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported in April that 49 percent of the state’s voters opposed a plan by Gov. Mike Foster to allow concealed-weapons permits, as opposed to 40 percent who agreed with the proposal. Tennessee passed legislation permitting concealed weapons on Oct. 1. And in North Carolina, as of October, more than 20,000 North Carolinians had applied for concealed-weapons permits. Since the law took effect in December 1995, more than 18,000 permits have been issued.
One California police chief, Isleton’s Eugene Byrd, found himself in a crossfire for issuing weapons permits to more than half the town’s 833 residents. Byrd was criticized not only for promoting a “Wild West mentality” in the small, economically-depressed town, but for charging residents $500 each a rate that contributed to a $50,000 windfall for Isleton. Byrd’s budget was increased by 80 percent by the City Council last year when he predicted that gun permit fees would bring in $176,000. State Attorney General Dan Lungren froze the town’s permit applications in October, saying that officials could charge only $3 unless a higher fee were approved by voters.
Police and prosecutors in Virginia were given a bit of unwelcome news in September when the FBI notified the state it would stop checking fingerprints on concealed-weapon permits. The bureau was not authorized by the state Legislature to check applicants’ fingerprints, but had provided the service under a one-year grace period. Since the state’s concealed-weapon law took effect in July 1995, more than 25,000 Virginians have obtained permits.
In the ongoing battle to keep guns out of the hands of teen-agers, an agreement was signed at the White House in July by police chiefs and prosecutors from 17 cities, who agreed to voluntarily provide information on every gun seized for entry into a Federal data base. Project LEAD, as the data base is called, will be run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Each gun entered into the system will be traced back to its original owner through documents and serial numbers, allowing gun traffickers to be prosecuted. Boston’s pilot version of the program was so successful last year that no juvenile has been killed by gunfire in a 15-month period.
Gun battles of a different stripe raged in the other branches of Government. After months of controversy, Congress voted overwhelmingly in July to cut $2.6 million from the budget of the Centers for Disease Control roughly the amount the CDC spends annually on research into gun-related violence. The fight to cut the funding was led by the National Rifle Association, which said the CDC’s research was biased in favor of gun control. One of the more controversial grantees who will lose funding is Dr. Arthur Kellerman, director of Emory University’s Center for Injury Control, who has found that homes with guns were five times more likely to be the scene of a suicide, and three more times as likely to be the scene of a homicide, than a home without firearms.
The U.S. Supreme Court may be the site of the most significant gun battle of the year, one whose outcome won’t be determined until early 1997. On Dec. 3, the Justices heard a challenge to the Brady Law’s requirement that local police check the backgrounds of would-be gun buyers. Sheriffs Jay Printz of Ravalli County, Mont., and Richard Mack of Graham County, Ariz., contested the requirement, contending that local authorities cannot be compelled to carry out a Federal regulatory program.
Representative Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.), the Brady Law’s sponsor, has said he will introduce legislation next year that would deny Federal anti-crime funds to counties that refuse to conduct background checks.