As states require people to wear masks in what is being promoted as an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, state officials are having to answer an unexpected question: How does this impact concealed carry?
Gun owners—who are already responsible for following a host of gun laws that vary by state—became concerned after alarming, all-caps memes circulated on social media claiming state laws forbade concealed carry if citizens complied with mask mandates. Media and sheriff’s offices in almost a dozen states reported numerous calls, letters and posts asking if medical masks turned gun owners into criminals.
Their short answer is, it depends on the particular law and circumstances. To date, however, there appears to be no evidence this has actually been a problem for otherwise lawful concealed carriers wearing masks to comply with public-health mandates.
Rumors seem to have started in Illinois in April, where, in response to mask mandates, a local news site raised concerns over a seemingly conflicting state statute that criminalized carry or possession of a weapon “when he or she is hooded, robed or masked in such manner as to conceal his or her identity.”
The Illinois governor’s office responded with a statement saying “the Executive Order does not require or suggest that law enforcement should arrest or criminally charge conceal carry license permit holders for wearing protective masks while in public as long as they are complying with the other provisions of the Illinois Concealed Carry Act and are not committing any other violations of Illinois law.”
The statement, which now appears on the Illinois State Police CCL FAQ page, heightened confidence that law enforcement would apply appropriate judgment, and state attorneys would show “sound prosecutorial discretion.”
One Illinois sheriff acknowledged that “there are some folks who look for any technical violation as an opportunity to shave off a little of the Second Amendment,” but he reassured Illinois gun owners that as long as they weren’t committing crimes while medically masked and armed, there wouldn’t be any issues.
As mask mandates took hold in other states, other rumors sprang up.
In early June, conservative news source The Daily Caller fact-checked (and disproved) a viral meme—a likely culprit of the false rumor—which claimed Pennsylvania gun owners were forbidden from being armed while masked. “There is no prohibition in Pennsylvania on license to carry permit holders wearing a mask during the ongoing COVID-19 mitigation efforts,” a Pennsylvania State Police spokesman told the Caller.
Likewise, a June 24th order from North Carolina’s governor Roy Cooper ruffled feathers as yet another viral meme claimed the state orders disallowed concealed carry. The Associated Press quoted sheriffs, state attorneys and state representatives who were quick to point out that, while the state does have a law against masks (dating back to 1950’s efforts against the Ku Klux Klan), the law doesn’t actually apply to concealed carry, and was temporarily suspended by special legislation, anyway.
“I don’t think there’s anybody around that’s going to say you can’t wear a mask for your personal protection, and protection of others, if you are carrying a concealed weapon,” Iredell County Sheriff’s Attorney Adam Dillard told the AP. Fact-checkers at Reuters and PolitiFact agreed the claim was unfounded.
North Carolina sheriff’s offices also clarified that the mask must be worn as part of a regimen that is intended to try to protect a person’s health, not to conceal their identity, and that masks should be removed if requested by law enforcement officers.
In Washington state, local media reported similar concerns after the governor issued a mask mandate in late June. Once again, officials noted the state doesn’t even have such a law, and that mask requirements themselves would only be enforced “in the most egregious of circumstances.”
One California sheriff’s office responded to inquiries with a press release advising that California laws against being masked “only applies to those persons who are carrying weapons while masked to hide their identity,” and that those “lawfully carrying your weapon while following the guidance from the Public Health Officer” regarding masks weren’t in violation.
Similar rumors were dispelled in Utah, Arizona, Kentucky, Wyoming, South Carolina and Nevada, where the Nevada Sheriffs’ & Chiefs Association posted an announcement suggesting the claim was an unfounded rumor. (In at least one location in Ohio, masks are actually required while renewing concealed-carry applications.)
Shortly before press time, a leading fact-check website investigated the same claims and concluded “we were unable to find an example of a regulation that makes it illegal to carry a permitted concealed weapon while wearing a face mask for health reasons.”
In short, so far police and state officials are uniformly clear that compliance with medical mask requirements in the absence of any other wrongdoing will not preclude concealed carry.
The internet will always be awash in rumors and misinformation, and no less so in strange and unusual seasons. As we just mentioned, gun owners are uniquely responsible for knowing and complying with a bevy of nuanced and sometimes contradictory gun laws from state to state. It’s certainly a high burden, but one which research shows armed citizens are consistently able to meet.
That’s why gun owners continue looking for responsible sources of information, and why qualified legal professionals, not internet memes, should be relied on for legal advice. (David Burnett is an ICU nurse based in Detroit, Michigan. He holds bachelor’s degrees in business and nursing from the University of Kentucky, and a law degree from the University of Akron, and is a frequent contributor to America’s 1st Freedom.)