Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - As violent crime rates continue to drop in states that allow citizens to carry concealed firearms, some of those states are reconsidering the limits they place on that constitutional right.
Citizens of Virginia who hold a valid "carry concealed weapons" (CCW) permit will "officially" be allowed to possess their weapons in state parks beginning Feb. 12, 2003.
Gov. Mark Warner (D) ordered the policy change Sept. 23, 2002, after the commonwealth's attorney general, Jerry Kilgore (R), determined that the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation had "exceeded its statutory authority" by prohibiting legally possessed firearms.
Anti-gun activists decried the move.
"We could have an incident with these concealed weapons people," said Jim Sollow, board chairman of Virginians Against Handgun Violence. "When people have these weapons, our concern is that they tend to do dumb things with them."
But Erich Pratt with Gun Owners of America told CNSNews.com there's nothing "dumb" about defending oneself from a deadly criminal attack.
"Women have been raped and murdered in parks, so I think they would want to have a firearm for protection," he said. "You also have cases where people who are out in the parks have been attacked by a small gang of people, and [the criminals] will be armed despite any type of ban."
Pratt also argued that CCW permit holders are typically some of the most responsible and well behaved of citizens. The statistics appear to bear that out.
Virginia issued 172,347 CCW permits between July 1995 and April 2002.
During that same period, 0.2 percent of those permits (372) were revoked for any reason, including crimes committed that did or did not involve a firearm, medical deficiencies and individuals who moved out of state but did not surrender their permits. The average number of CCW permit revocations nationwide is 0.5 percent.
Despite those figures, Sollow questioned the need for private citizens to be armed in the parks.
"The other side couldn't say of anybody being assaulted or attacked or anything in a park where a gun, had they used it properly, would have warded off the bad guy," he claimed.
But an unarmed park visitor was killed during an argument at Holliday Lake State Park in Appomattox County in the early 1990s. Pratt noted that there are other incidents of violence in parks, but they often go unreported.
He said many citizens who merely display a gun to ward off criminals, but don't have to fire it, do not notify police for fear of harassment. That, Pratt added, makes it more difficult to track defensive uses of firearms.
In the fall 1995 issue of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, researchers Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz reported the findings of their surveys on defensive gun uses in an article entitled "Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense With a Gun."
The pair determined that citizens displayed firearms, threatened the use of those firearms, aimed firearms at criminals, fired at criminals or actually shot criminals to stop crimes in progress 2.5 million times annually.
Virginia is not the only state to give its residents more leeway in carrying revolvers and pistols for self-defense.
"We are seeing a tidal wave across the nation of different states that are making it easier for citizens to carry concealed," Pratt said, noting that 44 states have some form of CCW law, even though roughly 12 routinely deny most applications.
"However strict or permissive the law may be, they are all heading in one direction, and that is to liberalize gun ownership," he said.
In fact, former Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) signed a law his last full day in office, Dec. 31, 2001, easing the restrictions on CCW permit holders in that state.
Among the changes, permit holders may carry in restaurants that derive less than half their profits from alcohol sales (but may not consume alcohol while carrying) and may carry their guns onto the parking lots of many locations - like schools, churches and hospitals - even though they are prohibited from taking the weapons inside.
Pratt said any expansion of the state's recognition of their citizens' right to self-defense is good, but he noted that such "safety-free zones" advertise the fact that patrons are defenseless.
"That's a wide-open invitation to thugs who, more than likely, are not going to face any resistance when they go into a church or school," he said. "It's simply ridiculous to say that a responsible teacher or principal or, in the case of a church, any responsible adult cannot, by law, have a gun to protect either themselves, their families or their children."
Only California, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey and New York do not recognize an individual citizen's right to own and carry firearms for self-defense in their state constitutions, according to research by the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.
Thirty-seven states prohibit counties and cities from imposing limits on gun owners more stringent than those set by the state legislature.
Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin forbid private citizens from carrying concealed weapons under any circumstances.
While California Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York claim to have a CCW permit system, Pratt noted that those governments have effectively banned concealed carry by issuing permits only to a very limited number of people.
He said regardless of whether it is a state, county, city or even a private business that bans law-abiding citizens from carrying concealed weapons, they are making a "foolish" choice.
"They are adopting the failed path of Washington, D.C., which has basically put signs up everywhere in the city saying 'Your guns are not welcome here,'" Pratt explained. "Of course, we've seen that that doesn't stop criminals from bringing their guns and committing crimes.
"Washington, D.C., frequently has the highest murder rate in the country," he concluded.
According to data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the violent crime rate in the U.S. has dropped every year since 1991 and hit a 23-year low in 2002. In that same period, 17 states added CCW laws and 13 states eliminated some restrictions from existing CCW laws.
States with CCW laws experienced lower violent crime rates without exception.
On average violent crime was 24 percent lower; there were 22 percent fewer murders, 37 percent fewer robberies and 20 percent fewer aggravated assaults than in states that do not issue CCW permits.
Similarly, the states with the lowest violent crime rates all have "shall issue" CCW permit laws that force police to issue permits if applicants meet the qualifications established by the state legislature.
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