The passage of permitless carry laws in 2021 by Utah, Montana, Iowa, and Tennessee provides a good occasion to review concealed weapon carry permit laws in the US.
There are four basic regulatory regimes governing the carrying of concealed weapons in public. From least to most restrictive, they are:
- Permitless Carry
- Shall Issue
- May Issue
- No Issue (exists de jure but not de facto today)
The image below briefly describes these regimes and highlights certain caveats.
Distribution of States by Regulatory Regime
Before Governor Bob Graham signed Florida’s landmark shall issue legislation in 1987, only 5 states had such laws (Washington State, Indiana, Maine, North Dakota, South Dakota). Vermont was and has always been a permitless carry state.
Three decades later, a majority of states (N=41, plus the District of Columbia) adhere to the more liberal concealed carry permitting regimes, either shall issue (N=21) or permitless (N=19), making concealed carry the greatest liberalization of gun laws in US history.
Today, every state must have legal provisions for allowing people to carry concealed weapons in public (may, shall, or permitless), even if in may issue states or jurisdictions those provisions can be so strict as to be effectively “no issue.” For example, Hawaii is a may issue state but no private citizen has a concealed carry permit there. The same is true in San Francisco.
The county level perspective in this graphic highlights some of the county level variation within may issue states.
Historical Development of Concealed Weapon Carry Laws
The history of concealed weapon carry laws in the United States can be broken down into 4 eras.
Prior to 1813, there were no statewide bans on carrying concealed weapons in public. Open carry was also widely accepted as openly carrying a weapons was seen as a more honorable practice undertaken by upstanding citizens than carrying concealed weapons.
(1) 1813-1839: “Restricted Era” begins as first states ban concealed carry
Kentucky passed the first law restricting the carrying of concealed weapons in public in 1813. Over the next quarter century, 7 other Southern states followed suit: Louisiana (1813), Indiana (1820), Georgia (1837), Arkansas (1837-38), Tennessee (1838), Virginia (1838), and Alabama (1839). This launched the “Restricted Era” of American history.
(2) 1850s-1980s: Spread and consolidation of “Restricted Era”
Laws banning concealed carry spread from the Southern states throughout the country. A highly influential model for the restriction of concealed carry in the Northern states in the early 20th century was New York’s 1911 Sullivan Act, which required a license to possess and carry a pistol. In effect, where concealed weapon carry was allowed at all, it was typically permitted under a discretionary system based on subjective criteria like the “good moral character” or “good cause” of the applicant. The “Restricted Era” was consolidated and lasted until the 1980s.
(3) 1980s-2010s: Gun law liberalization – Rise of “Shall Issue Era”
Florida didn’t create shall-issue concealed carry in 1987, but it did open the floodgates for a massive expansion in the number of states with liberalized concealed carry laws. Prior to Florida, in only a few states was it relatively easy for an ordinary citizen to carry a concealed weapon legally. This included Vermont which has never regulated concealed carry of firearms, as well as Washington State, which became one of the first states to liberalize in 1961.
From 1988 to 2013, 33 states passed laws that require state or local authorities to issue a permit to any applicant that meets the objective statutory criteria if no statutory reasons for denial exist.
(4) 2010s Onward: The Era of Permitless Carry
Permitless carry represents the next phase of this liberalization of gun laws in the US. Including Vermont, 20 states now allow individuals to carry a concealed weapon in public without a permit, with certain restrictions and exception. 18 of these 20 have instituted these laws since 2010.
What the Future Holds
Given the current division of American states into red and blue, we may see additional red states go from shall issue to permitless concealed carry regimes, but it is very unlikely that currently blue may issue states will become shall issue, much less permitless carry.
[NOTE: I wrote the above paragraph on Sunday, April 26th. On Monday, April 27th, the Supreme Court of the United States announced that it would hear the case of New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Corlett which concerns the constitutionality of New York’s may issue Sullivan Law requiring a person to show “proper cause” to obtain a concealed carry permit. The decision could force all blue may issue states to become shall issue.]
At the same time, it seems there is no going back from liberalized gun carry laws, at least not yet. Since the rise of the shall issue era, no state has gone from a liberalized carry regime to a more restrictive one. That is, no permitless carry state has gone back to shall issue, and no shall issue state has gone back to may issue.
*Initial law applied only to Idaho residents was expanded to include all U.S. citizens in 2020.
** Following a 2018 decision by the Arkansas Court of Appeals in Taff v. State (2018 Ark. App. 488), the NRA-ILA and other pro-gun rights organizations recognized Arkansas as an open carry state. As the sections of the Arkansas Code that cover concealed carry have not yet been amended, however, gun control organizations like the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence continue to classify Arkansas as a shall issue permitting state.