Conceal-Carrying the Day

We debated arming more people in the 1920s as a solution to gun violence. The idea lost then, but it’s winning now.

NRA leader Wayne LaPierre.
NRA leader Wayne LaPierre.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Public opinion polls in the wake of the Parkland massacre have shown that a majority of people believe additional gun controls would be a partial solution to America’s epidemic of mass shootings and gun violence. There is a minority of people, however, who believe the problem could be solved by ensuring that more people can carry more guns in more places—President Donald J. Trump and the National Rifle Association are the current leading purveyors of this view. Such people also believe that the Second Amendment, the right to “keep and bear arms,” guarantees a right to carry guns everywhere and anywhere.

This is not the first time that we, the American people, are being presented with this line of argument. In the mid-1920s, when the country was experiencing a rise in shootings and gun violence, largely at the hands of organized crime, there were calls from the public, press, and law enforcement officials for strict gun controls. Pushing against this was a number of gun enthusiasts, who believed that a hands-off policy concerning guns was the better solution. This would allow more people to be armed to handle any dangerous situations swiftly.

As former New York City Police Commissioner and Chief Magistrate William McAdoo detailed in his 1924 book When the Court Takes a Recess:

[These gun enthusiasts] say the outlaw and criminal can get a pistol anywhere, and thus being armed, the only antidote is to arm the citizen who is the prospective victim. In other words, if all citizens were armed…they would not collectively or individually be held up by highway robbers.

Ultimately, this idea of arming more people rather than fewer lost out. The American people thought it was much more prudent to have laws restricting who may go armed in public places. These early laws—which did allow some people to carry in public—in no way resembled the free-wheeling gun carrying laws being adopted by Republican-dominated state legislatures today. Rather, these laws resembled what is referred to today as “may issue” carry laws. These are laws that afford government officials discretion before issuing any gun-carrying license.

“May issue” carry laws date as far back as the mid-19th century. Adopted by cities, towns, and municipalities across the United States, such laws were almost unanimously accepted as a conciliatory measure to those laws that outright prohibited the carrying of weapons in public places. At the turn of 20th century, “may issue” carry laws continued to be the norm. In fact, “may issue” laws were so widely accepted that the earliest gun rights advocates referred to them as being both “sane” and “reasonable.”

This included the first organization to advocate for Second Amendment rights—the United States Revolver Association. In print literature that the USRA distributed widely, it stated that lawmakers should always exercise “great care” when drafting a law “concerning the carrying of concealed weapons,” and that it would behoove said lawmakers to require “convincing evidence of necessity … before such a permit is granted.” This was in 1924.

Up through the 1960s, gun rights organizations, most notably the NRA, continued to express support for “may issue” carry laws. It was in fact often stated that “may issue” carry laws were within state and local governments’ police powers, and therefore did not offend the Second Amendment. In 1934 for instance, NRA President Karl T. Frederick testified before Congress: “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons … I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.”

Fast-forward 30 years to immediately following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In a press release outlining the NRA’s position on firearms legislation was the following concession regarding the constitutionally of “may issue” carry laws: “Only those citizens who have a definite need to carry concealed weapons should be licensed for this purpose … the words ‘to keep and bear arms’ do not mean that any person may carry concealed weapons at [their] pleasure or without the consent of the proper authorities.”

But arguably the most forthright concession came in a 1969 speech by NRA President Harold Glassen. In discussing the constitutional limits of the Second Amendment before Duke University Law students, Glassen asked, “Does [the right to keep and bear arms] mean that every individual has a right to carry a gun at all times, concealed or openly?” Glassen answered his own question: “Obviously not.”

Of course, not everyone that supported gun rights from the 1920s through the 1960s agreed with this view. Some gun rights supporters firmly believed that the Second Amendment protected a right to carry guns anywhere and everywhere, and this was also prudent public policy. The NRA and other gun rights group, however, strongly disagreed—that is, until the mid-1980s.

By that time gun rights–funded scholars had transformed the historical meaning of the Second Amendment to include a right to carry firearms. With history now supposedly behind them, the NRA and other gun rights groups started to push for liberalizing gun-carrying laws. In lobbying for this reform, lawmakers were told—much like the gun enthusiasts of the 1920s asserted—that having more guns in more places would ultimately result in less gun violence and fewer shootings.

What was different this time was that the argument resonated with state lawmakers. The gun rights mantra that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” suddenly made sense to lawmakers, incidentally just as the NRA switched its position and achieved a new height in lobbying power. In 1987, Florida was the first state to agree to the NRA’s reforms. By the close of the 20th century, 28 other states followed suit. From there things snowballed to liberalizing self-defense with “stand-your-ground” laws and attempts to remove most restrictions on the carrying of firearms in public, or what is otherwise referred to as “constitutional carry.”

Needless to say, the pendulum on responding to gun violence has certainly swung from a consensus approach that dates as far back as the mid-19th century. At this point, one can’t help but wonder if it will ever swing back.