Effective in November, Wisconsin will become the 49th state to allow the concealed carry of handguns. The issue of concealed carry has a number of policy arguments on both sides, as well as statistics that have been used both for and against allowing concealed carry.
However, despite the policy arguments, the new law only begins to bring Wisconsin in line with citizens' rights under the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
For starters, everyone recognizes that firearms are both dangerous and sometimes necessary. The balance has been difficult to establish throughout our history.
On the one hand, people carrying firearms can very easily misuse them against others, with severe and irreparable consequences.
On the other hand, everyone in their right mind recognizes that firearms have those severe and irreparable consequences, and will often give someone brandishing a firearm great deference. For example, suspects cooperate much more quickly with law enforcement officers whose weapons are drawn.
Criminals recognize the usefulness of such power and deference, and have long been linked to firearm use in crimes. In fact, famous criminal lore is married to the use of firearms — whether that be of Old West era train robbers or Prohibition era gangsters. And, of course, modern gangsters, thugs and the drug culture are all tied to firearms.
In 1911, New York passed the Sullivan Act, the first measure of gun control in the United States, which required registration of any gun small enough to be concealed on one's person. Effectively, this act became the model for most gun control legislation throughout the country. The federal government began dipping its toes into gun regulation in the 1930s, in response to firepower in the hands of the Prohibition gangsters. Again, the method of choice was through registration and taxation.
As the organized crime syndicates disappeared in the 1930s, interest in gun control waned. However, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Kennedys in the 1960s again brought waves of gun control efforts to the country.
Prior to 1968, Wisconsinites could possess, carry or conceal weapons of their choice — subject to the federal gun registrations and taxes of the 1930s. But, just like in Wisconsin, many states in the late 1960s enacted concealed carry laws, which made it criminal for a person to carry a concealed and dangerous weapon.
Those laws began falling off the books in the 1990s as states reasoned that private citizens could best defend themselves from criminal activity if allowed to carry a handgun — either as a deterrent, or as a necessary tool.
States adopted one of three positions with regard to handguns. Some, such as Vermont and Alaska, elected to allow "constitutional carry" — the free and unregulated carry of weapons — with a few other states including Arizona moving toward such regulation. The remaining states (aside from Wisconsin and Illinois) elected to require some sort of permit for use.
The vast majority of such states have a "shall issue" statute. In other words, provided an applicant meets certain requirements for a permit, the state must issue the permit. A minority of states have a "may issue" statute, which gives the state some discretion in whether to allow an applicant to receive a permit, no matter how well he meets the requirements.
As one of the last states to repeal the ban on concealed carry (Illinois now standing alone), Wisconsin has the advantage of seeing statistical results. Truth be told, those results are mixed.
For example, in Missouri, which elected to be a “shall issue” state in 2003, crime rates overall have generally decreased. In 2000, Missouri saw 4,527 victims of crime for every 100,000 residents. In 2002, that number was 4,604. By 2009, that number was down to 3,877.
On the flip side, the murder rate — 6.2 per 100,000 residents — dipped around Missouri's passage of its "shall issue" statute, but rose again, as high as 7.7 murders per 100,000 people in 2008. Robberies followed a similar trend, while forcible rapes fluctuated from 24.1 in the year 2000, to a high of 30.2 in 2006, and down to 26.8 in 2009.
Ohio, which became a "shall issue" state in 2004, saw similar results. Again, its crime rate declined from approximately 4,000 crimes per 100,000 residents to a low of 3,603 in 2009. However, the murder rate actually increased after the law change. In 2000, Ohio had 3.7 murders for every 100,000 residents. That was up to 4.4 in 2004, 5.1 the next year and remained above the 2004 levels through 2009. The rate for robberies followed the trend for murders, while forcible rapes declined somewhat.
By comparison, the national average saw murder rates remain relatively constant between 5.0 and 5.7 per 100,000 residents from 2000 to 2009, robberies fluctuate wildly from 133 to 149.4, and forcible rapes generally decline from a high of 33.1 in 2002 to a low of 28.7 in 2009. Again, this means that the national average saw crime rates in general decrease.
Wisconsin, without a change to its concealed carry ban, saw its murder rates remain relatively constant between 2.6 and 3.7 per 100,000 residents, its robbery rates generally increase between 2000 and 2009, and its rape rates generally decline. Similarly, Illinois — with a concealed carry ban — followed the general national pattern.
Both sides can use these statistics to their advantage. For example, those in favor of concealed carry can argue that crime rates decrease overall where concealed carry is allowed. Unfortunately, crime rates also decreased where concealed carry was banned. Those against concealed carry can argue that violent crime escalates, even where overall crime decreases. Again, unfortunately, that is not always the case. A million variables come into play that really cloud the argument for both sides.
Fortunately, the country has a guiding principal that makes the entire policy debate a moot point. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution reads as follows, "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
From a legalistic standpoint, there is a very powerful word in that sentence. The right to keep and bear arms shall not be "infringed." This is different than our rights to free speech or the press, which shall not be "abridged" by Congress. To infringe is to limit, undermine or encroach upon. To abridge is to reduce in extent or quantity.
So, your right to speak may be limited, so long as the limit doesn't affect the extent or quantity of speech. In other words, the government can make it illegal to yell "bomb" on a plane, so long as the government doesn't simply ban the word "bomb" altogether.
According to the Constitution, however, your right to keep and bear arms may not be limited — although your right to use them may be.
Although policy makers can and will argue until they are blue in the face about whether concealed carry is a worthwhile idea, the answer has been before us for over 200 years: your right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
That right has been infringed upon for a century. Only now are the states beginning to relax those infringements. Wisconsin is taking its first step by becoming a "shall issue" state in November.