Police in U.S. Increasingly Oppose States’ Expanded Gun Rights
By Campbell Robertson and Timothy Williams, New York Times
GULFPORT, Miss. — Guns in bars. Guns in airports. Guns in day care centers and sports arenas. Conservative state lawmakers around the country are pressing to weaken an array of gun regulations, in some cases greatly expanding where owners can carry their weapons.
But the legislators are encountering stiff opposition from what has been a trusted ally: law enforcement.
In more than a dozen states with long traditions of robust support for gun ownership rights, and where legislatures have moved to relax gun laws during the past year, the local police have become increasingly vocal in denouncing the measures. They say the new laws expose officers to greater danger and prevent them from doing their jobs effectively.
“We are a gun society, and we recognize that, but we should be writing gun laws that make us safer,” said Leonard Papania, police chief in Gulfport, Mississippi, who opposes part of a new state law that creates exceptions to the rules for concealed-carry permits. “Do you want every incident on your street to escalate to acts of gun violence?”
Mississippi’s measure, signed into law in April and pushed mainly as an effort to allow worshippers in church to arm themselves, is one of several that have passed in recent months. West Virginia and Idaho have approved laws allowing people to carry concealed handguns without a permit or firearm training — and, in many cases, without a background check. Texas has given residents the right to carry handguns openly. Oklahoma appears set to pass a similar measure in the next several weeks.
During the past year, state capitals have emerged as a fierce battleground when it comes to guns. Gun control groups have challenged and sometimes even outflanked the powerful National Rifle Association in the states, but gun rights advocates have won numerous victories in relaxing restrictions.
There has long been a tension between the interests of law enforcement and the efforts to roll back gun regulations, but the conflicts are becoming more frequent as gun laws are expanded, particularly in states with permissive policies. Police officers in Maine and Texas have described coming across people displaying their weapons near schools and libraries, daring anyone to call the police and challenge their newly won rights.
Several states, including Arizona, Georgia and Michigan, have enacted laws that prohibit the police from destroying firearms that have been used in crimes. Instead, the weapons must be sold to licensed dealers or to the public at auction.
Despite the current conflicts, police officers and gun rights advocates have long been largely on the same side of the national debate over guns. But police departments have insisted that gun owners be required to receive training, as their officers do, and that people with violent histories, who are more likely to clash with the police, be blocked from obtaining weapons. The recent legislation, including “constitutional carry laws” — which typically eliminate the police’s role in issuing permits or questioning people who are openly armed — has frayed the alliance.
“What is alarming to the police is that they have no power to ascertain the potential criminal background of an armed individual until a crime is committed, and by then it is too late,” said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, an advocacy group.
The objections to these laws are not only about officer safety. Law enforcement officials also argue that creating more exceptions to gun regulations will impede investigations. The discovery of an unpermitted weapon typically gives officers probable cause to conduct searches, but some of the new laws could take away that option. In some cases, this has upended long-standing political dynamics, with traditional law-and-order conservatives, who are championing the new gun laws, questioning the tactics of police officers as overly aggressive.
The police have “some merit to their concerns,” said Ken Morgan, a Mississippi state representative who backed the state’s new law, which allows people to carry holstered weapons without a permit.
But Morgan, a Republican, added that the police were overstating how much the measures would affect the way they pursued investigations. “A lot of times they don’t consider their own discretion,” he said.
The NRA, which supports the new laws, said opponents of the measures sought to harm people’s ability to defend themselves.
“These laws simply protect and expand the ability of law-abiding citizens to exercise their constitutional right to self-protection,” said Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokeswoman. “Gloom-and-doom predictions of Wild West scenarios in states with strong gun rights have proven time and again to be nothing more than scare tactics.”
In Mississippi, law enforcement officials said that they had learned of the new law only when it was heading toward passage in the state House of Representatives, and that attempts to negotiate the language in the bill — particularly the section expanding exceptions for concealed-carry permits — had been mostly unsuccessful.
The police said NRA members across the state had received fliers accusing law enforcement of allying with Michael R. Bloomberg, a former New York mayor who is one of the nation’s most visible gun control advocates. Another challenge for opponents was that the law, despite containing multiple parts, was widely identified as a church security measure. The success of such a law in a conservative state like Mississippi was practically predestined, they said.
Law enforcement officials in the state said the political power of the gun rights lobby had overwhelmed their calls for caution.
“We’re advocating the safety for our police officers, but on the other side you have the NRA and other special interest groups that say, ‘If you’ll do this, we’ll endorse you and make you look good,'” Ken Winter, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police, said of his efforts at lobbying in the Legislature. “We don’t have anything to offer them other than good advice.”
Local law enforcement agencies opposed to enhancing gun possession rights have generally lost the recent legislative battles.
Maine enacted a law last year allowing people to carry concealed weapons without a permit or training, despite the objections of Michael Sauschuck, police chief in Portland, the state’s largest city.
“It is absolutely ludicrous to me that we require people to go take a test to get a driver’s license, but we are allowing people to carry a deadly weapon on their person without any procedures regulating it,” Sauschuck said.
There have been some victories for the police, however.
On Tuesday, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, a Republican, vetoed a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature to allow gun owners 21 and older to carry a concealed handgun onto public college and university campuses with a permit.
The campus police chiefs of the University System of Georgia supported keeping the existing campus gun laws, according to Hank M. Huckaby, the system chancellor, who spoke before a State Senate committee in March.
Deal, in a statement Tuesday, said: “From the early days of our nation and state, colleges have been treated as sanctuaries of learning where firearms have not been allowed. To depart from such time-honored protections should require overwhelming justification.”
Last year, Law enforcement officials in California helped win approval of a law that allows the police to seize weapons from someone for 21 days if a judge determines that person has the potential for violence. And the police in Ohio have so far stalled a bill that would allow people to carry guns inside police stations, airports and day care centers.
In Texas, where concealed handguns will be allowed in university classrooms beginning Aug. 1, law enforcement officials won a surprise victory last year after Art Acevedo, police chief in Austin, held a news conference where he was flanked by law enforcement leaders from across the state.
His message to conservative Republican lawmakers, who were seeking to limit police officers’ authority to question people with firearms as part of the state’s open-carry legislation, was blunt.
“You can’t be the party of law and order and not listen to your police chiefs,” Acevedo said.
The Legislature ultimately approved the open-carry bill, which went into effect in January, but voted down the amendment curtailing the police’s power to ask questions.
To Learn More:
Georgians Sue for Right to Carry Guns into Police Stations (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)
Georgia Legislature Passes “Guns Everywhere” Bill (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
Indiana First State to Allow Citizens to Shoot Law Enforcement Officers (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
Gun Rights Expand under Obama (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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