Alabama residents woke up Sunday to the right to carry a gun without a permit.
The change, implemented by a state law passed last year, marked a major milestone: half of America’s 50 states now allow people to carry guns without first asking for a permit.
Thirteen years ago, only two states— Vermont and Alaska — allowed its residents the unrestricted right to bear arms, relying on the second amendment to the Constitution as a general license for all.
Since 2010, however, nearly two dozen states have followed suit, with 11 of them passing license-free carry laws in the past three years alone.
The growing movement has scored victories in state legislatures with remarkable speed, drawing cheers from gun rights advocates while raising fears among reformers that the changes will lead to more guns on the street — and likely more violence.
“If you’re a law-abiding citizen, you should be fully able to exercise all of your constitutional rights,” said Andy Turner, legislative director of the Texas Rifle Association. “Half the states of the Union now recognize it.”
Licensing systems generally require applicants to demonstrate safe handling of weapons, as well as demonstrating knowledge of often complex gun laws and the use of deadly force.
“We’ve seen in the last decade a very concerted effort by the corporate gun lobby, especially the NRA,” said Nick Wilson, a gun violence researcher at the Center for American Progress. It was a very successful campaign for the gun lobby. It helps the bottom line… But it’s very concerning for anyone concerned about public safety.
The state legal changes combine with two other trends that are producing positive results for gun advocates. First, the Covid-19 pandemic unleashed a unprecedented sales growth. And second, people of color and women made up a larger share of buyers, diversifying a gun-buying public that traditionally skews male, white, and conservative.
Gun violence has also increased since the start of the pandemic, with gun deaths on the rise a 20% jump from 2019 to 2021according to a recently published study from JAMA Network Open.
With major gun reforms like the Assault Weapons Ban or universal background checks stalled in Congress, the plethora of state laws marks a defeat for the reform movement, which views the trend as a threat to public safety.
Sociological studies tend to show that increases in gun ownership generally follow increases in violence.
“It’s no coincidence that in states with very permissive approaches to guns in public, you have higher gun death rates,” said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel of the Giffords Law Center, a nonpartisan reform group.
Over the past five years, researchers have increasingly shown that loosening gun restrictions are also linked to problems such as increased gun theft and road rage incidents, according to Stanford Law Professor John Donohue.
Letting more people carry guns also hinders police work, Donohue said — in part from gun thefts and accidental shootings, and in part because increasing the risk of being shot reduces police effectiveness.
“One of the unintended consequences of putting more guns on the street is degrading police performance,” Donohue said. “You see clearance rates for all crimes go down when states move in the direction of letting more people carry guns.”
Counting the number of states with license-free carry laws may overstate their reach, Skaggs noted. They tend to be small states with rural populations, while larger, more urban states like California and New York tend to favor a more restrictive approach to firearms.
Just over a third of Americans live in the 25 states that embrace unlimited carry.
And just as gun rights groups have made rapid progress with permitless carry laws in red states, liberal-dominated legislatures have pushed countermeasures.
New York increased its gun restrictions after last year’s mass shooting in Buffalo. Delaware enacted a statewide assault weapons ban last year. A ballot measure passed last year by Oregon voters requires a permit for all gun purchases and limits magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, though the law is bound to the courts.
But the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that has been piled on by conservatives in the New York State Rifle and Pistol Co. v. Bruen last year did it too harder for state legislatures to detain people from transporting weapons. The ruling struck down a New York law that required applicants for concealed handgun permits to demonstrate a specific need to carry a weapon.
However, the decision stopped short of completely abolishing licenses to carry weapons.
“The opinion made it very clear that there is nothing in the Constitution that requires warrantless transportation,” Skaggs said. “The constitutional metaphor may sound good in its observation and the way it slips off the tongue, but it is fundamentally untrue and misleading. Guns in public have always been significantly controlled.”
But the Bruen decision could have major implications for gun debates at the state level, according to Mark Oliva, a spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms trade group.
“States that lean left and right will probably become more polarized,” Oliva said. “And you’re going to keep seeing them go to court and say, ‘what’s the truth here?’ And if the truth follows what came out of Bruen, they will find that assault weapons bans are unconstitutional, magazine restrictions are unconstitutional, age restrictions and background checks for ammunition purchases are unconstitutional.”
No-carry states could become a majority before the end of the year.
Virginia Rep. Marie March (R) a constitutional transfer bill was tabled in November for this year’s legislative session. However, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wants the issue prioritized when Florida lawmakers reconvene in April.
In Nebraska, a permit-less carry bill failed to clear the threshold to overcome a filibuster in the state Senate last year by two votes. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) plans to try again this year.