You may not know what a so-called Sullivan law is, but you’ve probably already dealt with it in one way or another. Sullivan laws, as they’re known, were the laws that largely created firearm permitting systems that remains in place today. In other words, these were the laws that required a person to get a permit to carry a concealed firearm.
These laws were so named as the result of an actual law, the Sullivan Act, passed in…wait for it…New York in 1911. The law, largely sponsored by state senator Tim “Big Feller” Sullivan (a Tammany Hall pol) was passed in response to a murder-suicide that occurred in Central Park.
There were other justifications for the act, of course. At the time, New York City was having a difficult time with street gangs and organized crime, and there had been some ideas about regulating the carry of pistols. The brazen murder of a journalist was just what gun control advocates of the day (acting in the interest of “public safety”) needed, and the law passed.
The effect was that a permit was needed to own a handgun, and a further permit is needed to carry one. Possession of an unlicensed pistol in the home was a misdemeanor. Carrying one in a concealed manner without a permit became a felony.
After New York’s law, a series of states passed similar laws over the next 30 years. Prohibition and the attendant rise of violent crime tied to trafficking in illegal liquor led a number of states to likewise make it a crime to carry a gun without a permit.
Now, the Sullivan Act mandates that permits to carry firearms are issued at the discretion of local law enforcement, usually the local chief police or county sheriff. And yes, this is how we got “may-issue” laws.
The good news: most states have significantly loosened or eliminated their Sullivan laws in the last few decades. . The few that haven’t are the notoriously restrictive “may issue” states such as California, New York, Maryland, Hawaii, New Jersey and so on.
However, the citizenry wasn’t entirely convinced that Sullivan laws were the best strategy and in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the first states began to amend these laws to a “shall-issue” system of permitting. New Hampshire was the first in 1959, followed in 1961 by Washington state and Connecticut in 1969. The 1980s brought with it the new wave of “shall issue” laws, beginning with Indiana in 1980. Today, fewer than 10 “may issue” states remain.
However, like zombies roaming the countryside, vestiges of the Sullivan acts are still out there.
When passed, a prevailing feeling among gun control advocates was that if any permits were to be issued, it should only be to a select few people. In practice, recipients were white, male, well-heeled and politically connected (see New York City as a prime example of may-issue abuse).
Today, gun control advocates haven’t changed that view at all. They believe few if any people should be allowed the “privilege” of owning or carrying a gun, preferably only police officers and the military. The common man will only misbehave – which “Big Feller” Sullivan also pitched as a benefit of the law he sponsored.
Celebrities, politicians and activists with armed guards have been advocating the same thing for years. Mayor Lee Brand of Fresno, California, recently made headlines by announcing his opposition to a law allowing city employees to carry while on the job, despite having done so for years with his own CCW permit.
While these attitudes persist among elites and among part of the citizenry, thankfully the democratic ideal has taken root in far more states regarding concealed carry. Even Illinois (where they keep Chicago and worse still, the Bears) which was a de facto no-issue state for much of its history, passed a shall-issue law in 2013. The national trend is unquestionably in the direction of more firearm freedom.