Armed and dangerous

March 08, 1995

By the standards of most of the industrialized world, Americans already seem armed to the teeth -- an impression born out by this country's comparatively high rates of firearms-related violence. Most Western nations don't even permit their citizens to own handguns, let alone carry them around on the street. Yet the spirit of the frontier seems to be undergoing a revival here even as the Wild West recedes into history and myth, as a growing number of states consider new laws that would make it easier for citizens to obtain permits to carry concealed weapons.

The trend is a result of the emotional revulsion Americans feel toward crime and of the new Republican control of many state legislatures. Recently, lawmakers in Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Utah and Texas have passed or proposed bills that would allow virtually any adult to carry a handgun on the street, unless they had a criminal record or a history of mental illness. Under the new laws, obtaining a permit for a concealed weapon would be almost as routine as getting a driver's license.

Maryland, which has some of the nation's most toughest gun-control laws, so far has resisted the trend. The state requires separate permits for handgun ownership and for concealed weapons. In order to obtain a carrying permit, applicants must not only have no criminal record or history of mental illness but also be able to demonstrate "reasonable and sufficient" cause to walk around armed.

In practice, most such requests are turned down. But for years gun-control opponents here have fought, unsuccessfully, the "reasonable and sufficient cause" rule. Repeal of the requirement in states like Virginia may encourage a revival of such efforts here. Recently even some moderate voices, such as The Sun's Opinion * Commentary columnist Peter Jay, have suggested that ending the ban on concealed weapons would allow police to concentrate on those who possess guns illegally.

The obvious danger is that more guns on the street will simply spur more violence. That is why most law-enforcement officials oppose lifting restrictions on concealed weapons. No one wants to see bloody duels erupt between gun-toting motorists as a result of minor traffic accidents.

When Florida became the first state to relax the ban on concealed weapons, gun control advocates foresaw a nightmare that has not materialized. Even so, neither the crime rate there nor citizens' fear of crime has declined noticeably. It seems a poor substitute for public policy to allow paranoia to undermine reasonable gun laws while producing no perceptible benefit for society.

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