Guns in Public Places: The Increasing Threat of Hidden Guns in America

Posted on July 1, 2011

Last updated August 17, 2011

Guns in Public Places examines how dramatic changes in state laws have significantly expanded the number of people who may carry concealed, loaded handguns in public. This brochure also documents how weak laws in many states now allow hidden guns in schools, places of worship, bars, and parks, creating dangerous new risks to the American public.

Download an annotated full-color PDF of our Guns in Public Places brochure.


The Dramatic Weakening of Concealed Weapon Laws Nationwide

Common sense dictates that having more guns in public increases the risks of gun violence, which is why 56% of Americans oppose laws allowing people to carry concealed, loaded handguns in public places.1 Historically, most states either prohibited or severely limited concealed carrying. Handgun carrying bans were among the earliest gun laws adopted by states;2 even legendary Old West frontier towns like Dodge City, Kansas, knew better than to allow the carrying of hidden pistols.3 In the twentieth century, some states adopted “may issue” permitting systems, granting law enforcement the discretion to issue concealed carry permits to persons who could demonstrate a legitimate need to carry a hidden gun in public.4 Other states continued to ban concealed carrying altogether. 

Over the past three decades, however, state laws have changed dramatically. In that time, a determined gun lobby has succeeded in convincing state after state to ignore public opinion and adopt weak “shall issue” laws that remove law enforcement discretion from the permitting process. “Shall issue” laws force law enforcement to issue permits to practically anyone, including people who law enforcement may already know pose significant safety risks to the community (such as domestic abusers who have not yet been convicted of crimes). Several states have gone even further, and no longer require a permit to carry concealed; in these states, it is easier to legally carry a handgun than it is to legally drive a car. Relatively few states continue to have “may issue” systems. Only one state now prohibits the carrying of concealed weapons.

Weak permitting laws have radically increased the number of people who may carry hidden, loaded handguns. As discussed below, the gun lobby is now on a crusade to expand where people may carry these weapons, placing us all at risk.


Comparing Concealed Weapons Laws from 1981 and Today

The maps below demonstrate the weakening of laws regulating the carrying of concealed weapons over the past 30 years.


Weak State Laws Allow Guns in Schools, Places of Worship, Bars, and Parks

According to a nationwide poll, nine out of ten Americans oppose laws allowing guns on college campuses, or in bars, restaurants, stadiums, hospitals, or government buildings.5 Despite near-universal agreement that public space should be gun-free, however, most states do not prohibit the possession of concealed weapons in a variety of public places. Often, state law is simply silent about whether a person with a concealed carry permit may bring a gun into a particular location; these gaps allow permit holders to bring guns into a variety of sensitive places by default. The adoption of “shall issue” or “no permit” systems over the past few decades makes these omissions exponentially more dangerous, since more people than ever may now carry concealed handguns.

In recent years, the gun lobby has mounted a nationwide campaign to undo existing location-based restrictions and explicitly allow the carrying of firearms in places where large numbers of people are likely to congregate. Some of these laws are particularly egregious. In Kansas, for example, permit holders may carry concealed, loaded handguns into bars and restaurants, where they may drink alcohol as long as they do not become so intoxicated that they are “incapable of safely operating” their weapons.6 In Utah, permit holders are allowed to carry concealed weapons in elementary schools.7 Individuals carrying concealed weapons may have the best of intentions, believing that carrying guns will protect themselves and the rest of us from some imagined, unforeseen danger. The reality, however, is that concealed handgun holders create new risks of intentional or accidental shootings.8 Members of the public who carry guns risk escalating everyday disagreements into public shootouts, especially in places where disputes frequently occur—in bars, at sporting events, or in traffic.

Permissive concealed carry laws violate our shared expectation that public places will be safe environments where we can be free from guns and gun violence. Instead, they subject all of us to the cynical worldview of a frightened few, a view that says that a person can’t be safe in public without a loaded handgun at his or her disposal. Weak concealed carry laws force us to ask a new question whenever we leave our homes: will there be guns where I’m going? Because concealed firearms are hidden from sight, you might not know the answer until it is too late.


Success Stories

Despite the gun lobby’s efforts to expand concealed carrying nationwide, supporters of common sense gun laws won several important victories in 2011:

  • Illinois activists defeated the gun lobby’s latest effort to force the state to issue concealed carry permits. Governor Quinn threatened to veto the concealed carry bill if it made it to his desk, stating, “The concept of concealed, loaded handguns in the possession of private citizens does not enhance public safety. On the contrary, it increases danger for everyday people as they go about their lives.”9
  • A coalition of activists, including concerned parents, students, and educators, successfully defeated bills to allow guns to be carried on college campuses in eleven states.10
  • In the courts, state and local governments have continued to win important victories against plaintiffs who argue that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to carry handguns in public places. Courts have upheld discretionary concealed carry permitting laws11 and laws prohibiting firearms in public places, including places of worship12 and college campus facilities.13
  • Expressing concerns about the risks the bill posed for law enforcement, the Governor of Montana vetoed legislation that would have allowed concealed carrying without a permit.14

Get Involved! Help the Law Center Fight for Common Sense Gun Laws.

About the Law Center

The Law Center is a national law center formed in the wake of the July 1, 1993 assault weapon massacre at a law firm in downtown San Francisco.We provide critical support to the gun violence prevention movement. In addition to tracking the latest developments in all state firearms legislation nationwide, we offer legal and technical assistance to elected officials, government attorneys and activists promoting laws and policies to reduce gun violence. You can learn more about our services, receive annotated copies of this brochure, and request additional information or call (415) 433-2062.

Find out about the firearms laws in your state by visiting our state and local laws page.

Regardless of where you live, you can help improve our nation’s gun laws.

You can:

Become a member.

Your support is critical to out efforts to end the nation’s gun violence epidemic. Members receive a range of benefits, including regular communications and invitations to educational events. Learn about how to improve your state’s gun laws. On the Law Center’s web site, you can find copies of model laws, including a model concealed carrying law, that legislators can use as the basis for important legislation to reduce gun violence.

Perform pro bono work.

The Law Center provides a variety of opportunities for pro bono work. Contact us for more information.

  1. Lake Research Partners for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Findings from a National Survey of 600 Registered Voters, April 26-28, 2010. []
  2. Saul Cornell, A Well-Regulated Militia 137-44 (2006). []
  3. Bill Draper, Guns Still an Issue in Modern-Day Dodge City, Lawrence J.-World, Mar. 7, 2004. []
  4. See Md. Code Ann., Pub. Safety §§ 5-303, 5-306(a). []
  5. David Hemenway, Deborah Azrael, Matthew Miller, National Attitudes Concerning Gun Carrying in the United States, 7 Inj. Prevention 282, 283 (2001). []
  6. Kan. Stat. Ann. § 75-7c12. []
  7. Utah Code Ann. § 76-10-505.5. []
  8. According to the Violence Policy Center, since May 2007, concealed carry permit holders have killed at least 11 law enforcement officers and 319 private citizens. Violence Policy Center, Concealed Carry Killers (June 2011). []
  9. B.J. Lutz, Quinn Says He’d Veto Concealed Carry Bill, NBC Chicago, May 3, 2011. []
  10. In 2011, guns on campus bills were defeated in Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Virginia. []
  11. Richards v. County of Yolo, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51906 (E.D. Cal. May 16, 2011). []
  12. GeorgiaCarry.Org, Inc. v. Georgia, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6370 (M.D. Ga. Jan. 24, 2011) (holding that state law prohibiting carrying a firearm in a place of worship does not violate the Second Amendment). []
  13. Digiacinto v. Rector & Visitors of George Mason Univ., 704 S.E.2d 365 (Va. 2011) (upholding a state university’s regulation prohibiting firearms in campus facilities). []
  14. Associated Press, Schweitzer Continues Veto Spree with 15 More, Bozeman Daily Chron., May 11, 2011. []