Gun-control advocates like to pretend that the arc of history is on their side and that America will inevitably follow its “peer” Western democracies in heavily restricting firearm ownership and banning armed self-defense. If you limit your reading to anti-gun newspapers like The New York Times or The Washington Post, you might be tempted to believe them. But my 29 years with the NRA tell a different story, with America’s ever-increasing embrace of the right to carry handguns for self-defense demonstrating that Second Amendment freedoms are as vital and relevant now as at any time since the nation’s founding. The fact that permitless concealed carry is now the majority rule among U.S. states underscores that history is on the side of law-abiding gun owners.
Of course, the carrying of firearms for self-defense is nothing new in America, as evidenced by the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to “bear” arms, which the U.S. Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller emphasized “codified a pre-existing right.” Meanwhile, various state constitutions protected a right to keep and bear arms even before the Second Amendment was ratified. Early settlers used firearms to protect themselves in the untamed wilderness of the American frontier, and handguns in particular became prevalent with Westward Expansion. Those firearms were typically carried openly, and cultural norms of the day considered the carrying of concealed guns as evidence of criminal or nefarious intent.
The federal government, to this day, has never broadly prohibited the public carrying of guns. Restrictions on public carry sporadically arose at the state and local levels during the 19th century. Some jurisdictions tried to ban the carrying of handguns in public entirely, while others more narrowly banned only the concealed carrying of weapons. Following the Civil War, some southern states adopted permitting regimes for handguns, measures that were shamefully aimed at suppressing the right of disfavored groups—chiefly Freedmen and their supporters—from exercising the right to bear arms.
As explained in Heller, 19th-century courts reviewing these measures under the Second Amendment or state constitutions recognized a right to carry arms in public but typically upheld concealed-carry bans, provided the right to carry openly was preserved.
With increasing urbanization, industrialization, immigration and professionalization of law enforcement in the 20th century, restrictions on carrying firearms became more common. New York City in 1911 passed “Sullivan’s Law” to require a permit for the acquisition, possession and carrying of handguns. Sources of the time indicate that—like southern restrictions after the Civil War—Sullivan’s Law was largely motivated by prejudice, in this case, as an attempt to keep Italian immigrants from possessing handguns. Nevertheless, it became a model that other jurisdictions followed.
By the 1930s, the Uniform Law Commission issued a Model Firearms Code, which adopted the idea of handgun licenses limited to those who could demonstrate that they were “proper persons” to be licensed and had a “proper purpose” for needing a handgun. This law was adopted in a number of jurisdictions. Then, as now, handguns were overrepresented in the criminal misuse of firearms.
Even the U.S. government tried to get in on restricting handguns in the 1930s, originally proposing to include pistols and revolvers in the National Firearms Act (NFA), which imposed registration and a prohibitive tax on the making and acquisition of machine guns and “concealable” longarms. The NRA’s intervention fortunately helped keep handguns out of the NFA.
Despite increasing regulations on handguns generally, legal open carrying of handguns in public remained the majority rule in the U.S. Yet the practice became less common, and eventually less culturally mainstream. Later in the 20th century, concealed carry (which usually required a license or permit) became the preferred method for carrying handguns in public for self-defense.
The NRA Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) was formed in 1975, motivated by the Gun Control Act of 1968, under which the U.S. government began to comprehensively regulate interstate commerce in firearms. ILA’s mandate included education, lobbying, political endorsements and litigation to support the Second Amendment.
At that time, national gun-control groups were openly advocating for handgun bans. And the idea was not as farfetched as it now seems, with 41% of respondents to a 1975 Gallup poll supporting the idea. Washington, D.C., actually did ban handguns in 1976, certain Chicago-area localities followed suit in the early 1980s and Chicago became the largest city to ban handguns in 1982. At the time of ILA’s founding, most states prohibited carrying concealed firearms or allowed state or local officials to arbitrarily deny carry permits even to qualified applicants for lack of proper “need.” There were only six states, accounting for 6% of the U.S. population, where residents could carry concealed firearms as a matter of right.
All of that began to change in 1987. That was the year Florida passed its visionary right-to-carry legislation, under which applicants who met an objective set of criteria could obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun in public for self-defense. This was the culmination of a decade’s worth of effort by NRA’s Florida lobbyist and past president Marion Hammer. Similar bills were subsequently introduced in dozens of states, with 21 states enacting them during the next decade. By 2013, the laws of 42 states recognized a legal right to carry concealed handguns in public for self-defense, mostly through “shall-issue” licensing of applicants who could meet objective criteria defined by statutes.
America’s right-to-carry experience made it clear that the public had nothing to fear from law-abiding people carrying concealed firearms. Violent crime rates fluctuate, but research has shown that licensed concealed carriers are among the most law-abiding Americans. Violent crime peaked in 1991, after which 26 states adopted shall-issue concealed carry laws. By 2012, the nation’s total violent crime rate had decreased 42% to a 42-year low. It’s true that in the last few years, violent crime has been on an upswing, but those years have featured the havoc wreaked by COVID-19, calls by left-leaning activists to defund the police and “criminal-justice reform” that in practice has meant turning a blind eye toward crime.
Throughout it all, law-abiding Americans have been acquiring and carrying firearms in record numbers. They know predatory criminals aren’t waiting for official permission to carry guns. And they also know that lawful concealed carriers have successfully defended themselves and their communities from violent attack. By 2021, Gallup polling showed support for a handgun ban had dropped to an all-time low of 19%.
So successful has been America’s experience with lawful concealed carry that states began dispensing with the formality of mandatory permits in the early 2000s. Vermont, known for its low rates of violent crime, has recognized the right of persons not otherwise prohibited from firearm possession to carry a concealed handgun without a permit for more than a century. Alaska followed suit in 2003. Arizona then kicked off the modern wave of permitless-carry jurisdictions by changing its laws in 2010. Wyoming passed the policy in 2011. Since then, one state after another has moved toward recognizing the right to carry a concealed handgun without prior authorization. Fittingly, Florida this year became the 26th state to adopt permitless carry for concealed handguns, enshrining that policy as the majority rule among U.S. states. Since then, Nebraska passed its own law to solidify this majority at 27 and counting.
Along the way, the U.S. Supreme Court has authoritatively enshrined the Second Amendment right of Americans to own handguns for self-defense, defeating D.C.’s and Chicago’s bans in the cases of District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010). Last year, the high court ruled that states and localities may not discretionarily withhold the right to carry handguns in public for self-defense to otherwise-qualified individuals in the NRA-supported case of New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen. That case also clarified the standard of review for Second Amendment challenges, explaining that if the government cannot point to a “relevantly similar” historical precedent for a firearm regulation or prohibition dating to the founding era, that law cannot stand under the Second Amendment.
Pro-freedom members of Congress have taken notice of these trends and responded with their own attempts to facilitate the nationwide exercise of right to carry. Since 1995, congressional reciprocity legislation has sought to make interstate recognition of right-to-carry credentials and eligibility the national rule. That effort remains ongoing, but in the meantime, 20 states have stepped up to pass universal-recognition laws of their own.
To be sure, the fringe states that have refused to recognize the right to carry—California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York—remain dogmatically opposed and will resist at every turn until forced to comply. New York and New Jersey, for example, responded to the Bruen ruling by quickly passing legislation to make their concealed-carry licensing regimes even more restrictive.
The NRA, however, is in this fight to win. The days of these desperate holdout attempts are numbered. History is on the side of freedom.