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Big Tim Sullivan New York Sullivan law gun control
Courtesy Library of Congress

You may not know what so-called Sullivan laws are, but you’ve probably already dealt with one at some point. 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 corrupt 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 trouble 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 to get the law passed.

The effect was that a permit was needed to own a handgun, and a further permit 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 was put in place, 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 sole 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, Connecticut, Delaward, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Jersey and Rhose Island.

However, the citizenry wasn’t entirely convinced that Sullivan laws were the best strategy and in the late 1950s and early 1960s, 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 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 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.


Sam Hoober is a contributing editor at Alien Gear Holsters and Bigfoot Gun Belts. He also contributes regularly to Ammoland, Daily Caller and USA Carry.

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  1. So, 100+ years later, and we’re still cleaning up from another un-Constitutional (D) plan from a (D) crime boss in NY.

  2. “Sullivan Law’s” are unconstitutional laws they are not legal or enforceable with any Constitutional basis…

    No the preamble, to the Bill of Rights, and the Ratification of the 10th Amendment assured it was to prevent all government’s (federal, state, local) from interfering with the people’s civil liberties.

    Once the US Constitution became to supreme law of the land, and even during the debates it became apparent that their was weaknesses in enumerated restrictions on the newly formed government, that many feared would cause government abuses… so they drafted 12 new amendments, only ten were ratified, and became known as the Bill of Rights, to which a preamble (the reason why they rarified the constitution to add additional protections)….

    The Preamble to the Bill of Rights

    THE Conventions of a number of the States having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution

    Amendment II

    A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

    (No where in the 2nd Amendment was the right delegated to the states, it was written, delegating the right and guaranteeing it to the “We the People”….The Right of the People”, would not be interfered with by infringement from government)

    Amendment IX

    The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

    Amendment X

    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

    The Constitution only delegates specific powers to the federal government. The enumeration of certain powers logically excludes all powers not listed. Designato unius est exclusio alterius is a legal maxim meaning, “the designation of one is the exclusion of the other.” You will find no authority to regulate firearms or ban certain types of weapons in the Constitution. The supporters of the Constitution consistently argued that the federal government would not possess the authority to exercise any power not explicitly given.

    As a condition of ratification many states insisted on a Bill of Rights, including amendments to make this rule of construction explicit. The result was the Ninth and Tenth Amendments.

    Simply put, no matter how you care to interpret the 2nd Amendment, based on a constitutional reading guided by 9th and 10th Amendments, the federal government possesses zero authority to enforce any type of gun laws, or infringe on the right to self-defense in any way whatsoever.

    And further the right is one retained solely by the people is the clear text wording within the 2nd Amendment, only identifying the “right of the people”, it enumerated no power to the states to “craft” their own hoplophobic anti-arms laws….

    Never register, never license any “arms”… carry, sell, own, buy, make whatever you want, its an absolute civil liberty.

    • The Constitutional Convention was illegal to begin with. Congress was not enumerated powers to delegate their authority to anyone else. Furthermore the “framers” of the Constitution lied and told Congress they only wanted to make changes to the Articles of Confederation not scrap it completely. The anti-Federalists warned about this but the Federalist Trifecta of Washington, Madison and Hamilton was not to be stopped.

      The very fact that the Constitution came to the (further illegal) ratifying conventions of the States WITHOUT the rights of the people explicitly expressed should tell you something! The whole reason the Bill of Rights even exists is because the people freaked out. But we’re not taught this in government education camps (public school). We’re taught that the Federalists were the “good guys”, they’re our “Founding Fathers.”

      It is now known that the Supreme Court is actually the highest authority in the US. It’s not the President, it’s not the Legislature. The Supreme Court justices are in for life and they are not voted in by the people. And they get to interpret the law of the land. Again, the Anti-Federalists warned of this explicitly. The Federalists, in their arguments, either were completely naive or out right lied because they claimed that the Judiciary would be, by far the weakest of the three branches.

      So go on, keep advocating for the Constitution. You won’t get very far. It was DESIGNED to get us to where we are today.

      “But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.” – Lysander Spooner

      • The founding fathers said that this system would only function correctly with honest, moral people in office. There is the problem.

    • “That GIF never gets old. It’s the march of freedom made visible, and I love it.”

      I just wish it could be paused, so it could be *savored*… 🙂

      EDIT – I’m kinda getting tired of clearing my cookies “To the beginning of time”, TTAG, and still finding the name and e-mail fields blank.

      The issue is *not* fixed. 🙁

      • Ditto that, RF and Nick.

        Cleared everything and it seemed to work until I closed the browser and re-opened it next time, then the problem was back.

  3. Timothy Daniel Sullivan (July 23, 1862 – August 31, 1913)

    According to Wikipedia he was involved in Electoral fraud and had involvement in criminal activity which included prostitution, gambling and extortion.

    He later died of syphilis where he was institutionalized and later escaped and his body was found on the railroad tracks in the Eastchester area of the Bronx.

    Sullivan had one child with his wife Helen, a daughter who died in infancy. He did, however, father at least six illegitimate children, many with actresses affiliated with his theatrical ventures.

    Oh and he was a Democrat…

    Sound like he was a great guy!!

    • Sounds about like your average demoncrat of today. The only difference is that today we have better health care and they will be kept alive even while brain dead(see pelosi, schumer, waters, feinstein, etc).

    • He died where he was institutionalized and later escaped? He must have been annointed by god.

  4. Every anti-gun person is a morally corrupt human being. They just are.
    They want to force you at the point of a government gun to eat a certain way.
    They want to interfere with your sex life and the raising of your children.
    They want to tell you what you can and can’t do in your bedroom and every other room in your home.

    • If they have any inkling of the end game they’re involved in, they surely are morally bankrupt and dangerous. The vast majority don’t, so they’re only dangerous.

      • Morally bankrupt people always tell themselves they are in the right. And it doesn’t matter who they are. Gay, straight, black, white, male or female.
        They just can’t leave people alone.

  5. I recall from dim memory that this was the plot point of an “All In The Family” episode where a LEO looked in a drawer at the Bunker residence and found Archie’s revolver.

    The charge was overturned by illegal search seizure, not 2A.

  6. With respect, Sam, California does not owe its gun control roots to Mr. Sullivan. For one, California did not include a second amendment type clause in its constitution in 1850 (believing it was unnecessary because of the amendment in the US Constitution) and second, it enacted a concealed weapons ban in 1863 for everyone except police and travelers (for the ostensible purpose of cutting down on frequent dueling). This early ban was repealed in 1870, but it was soon followed by a new concealed weapons bans that has explicit racist origins, a provision that “no alien who cannot become a citizen of the United States shall be allowed to bear arms.” Those aliens were, quite plainly, Chinese immigrants who did not gain the right to naturalization until 1952. In 1917, a more broadly worded concealed carry law was enacted, this time providing that it was a misdemeanor to carry a firearm without a permit, and at the same time enacted a registration law. Again, racism appears to have played a role, specifically anti-Mexican animus resulting from Pancho Villa raids across the border. Local bans against selling guns or liquor to Mexicans were passed. The true ancestor of the current law was enacted in 1923, a variation of the Uniform Revolver Act passed in several other states in the 1920s, which treated the carrying of unpermitted handguns as a felony. One published commentary suggested that this law would be beneficial in tamping down the tong wars and the Mexican vendettas that were a large criminal issue of the day.

    This is not to say that the Sullivan Act did not have its own racist roots, as it was in part an effort to assure that the ruling Irish mob was unopposed by the flood of Italian and Eastern European migrants then flowing through Ellis Island.

    • I commend you on your California history, but would like to add one thing. The reason that California’s Constitution did not include RKBA was because Anglo cow pokes were trying to find places to graze their cattle. The Spanish speaking Californios owned much of the land which was under giant Ranch grants and they had and the Spanish Ranchero ranch hands did not let the Anglos graze cattle or cross to the ports. So Anglos did not want armed Spanish speakers to stop their cattle herding. Anotherwords, California gun control was racist from day one.

  7. Current wait time for a license in Suffolk County, NY, is 12 to 15 months. Our un-elected rubber gun squad only grants permission to carry to-and-from the range, and while afield with a valid hunting license. Full carry? Never seen one.

  8. Fascinating that CT of all states was a very early adopter concerning Shall Issue. Wonder if it had to do with NYC and Boston being so close, with plenty of wealthy folk formerly from NY moving there and not wanting to be bothered with a police interrogation. Or maybe at the time the concentration of firearm manufacturers held sway in a small state.

  9. Fresno, like any other city, county or State, needs to allow any of its employees to carry concealed. There are enough threats against government employees and such employees are the target of terrorist acts much more than other parts of the citizenry. There needs to be a Federal law making permitting for concealed carry for local or Federal employees unnecessary, so that government employees can decide for themselves based on the threat.

    • And just why should these public servants be given exemptions from these restrictions that are being imposed upon the citizens?

      • Because they are at very elevated risk of terror attack and we cannot afford to make Secret Service guard all public servants.

        • Because, the feds are extra special super duper citizens, much more important than garden variety citizens who need to work and pay taxes to support the feds. “Some animals are more equal than others.”

        • You’re going to have to locate me a cite before I’ll believe these pencil pushers are at a risk of attack even remotely comparable to that of a clerk at your average stop-and-rob. Once again, why does one group get a pass, according to you? Maybe you are a member of the group you wish to see more privileged?

    • No one, neither state of federal should have any rights that other citizens cannot have. They do this but it is against the equal protection clause. Why is a state or federal employees ‘ life more important than mine or yours.

  10. Here I understood the Sullivan laws to be the result of collusion between organized crime and the govt (but, I repeat myself) to boost the spoils of their joint looting by disarming folks who might resist. “Mighty nice business you got there. Would be a shame if anything happened to it.” gets more traction against shopkeepers who can’t #shootback.

    It’s not like Sullivan & co were the first. Really, in this, they’re traditionalists.

  11. Because they make *owning* a handgun in NYS, the State, in effect, has an ownership interest in the guns, and treats the citizens’ ownership as a rare and revocable privilege.

    I wonder if anyone has tried to argue against it on that basis.

  12. Connecticut became shall-issue in 1969? News to me. We’re still not really-trully shall-issue still. Depents what town you live in and how litiguous you can afford to be.

  13. Thank you TTAG for calling out my hypocrite mayor, Brand for his bull-mess voting against his constituency.

  14. The Sullvan law is but one of many where those persons and parties in positions of power sought to secure and increase their power by subordinating those they regarded as “Lesser Citizens or Subjects”. Native Americans were disarmed after the American -Indian wars. Blacks were disarmed prior to and after the elimination of slavery. Certain “Undesirable” European immigrants were disarmed by the emowered European immigrants that had arrived in the U.S. ahead of them. Today, Demoncrats at all levels of government seek to disarm freedom loving Americans who will not cooperate with their eventual enslavement or elimination. Hopefully, within the year, the U.S. Supreme Court rules the Sullivan Law as unconstitutional, and it along with many similar laws are relegated to the waste bin of racist history.

  15. The truth about the Sullivan laws of New York.
    New York in 1900 was overrun with street gangs and organized crime running protection rackets. Business owners and proprietors who failed to pay for protection were burned out or destroyed, sometimes even shot. These owners started protecting themselves with firearms. The thugs who collected the protection money started dying, in ever larger numbers, making it difficult for the crime bosses to make a living or meet their payroll. So they went to their bought and paid for politicians, referred to as Tammany hall, and demanded laws restricting firearms use by law-abiding citizens. State senator Tim “Big Feller” Sullivan, a corrupt Tammany Hall politician, went to bat for the criminals, and the state passed what became known as the Sullivan laws. Purely and simply this law was to protect the thugs collecting protection money for the crime lords.
    State senator Tim “Big Feller” Sullivan was a Democrat, along with all those associated with Tammany hall. Gun control laws have always been enacted to protect Democrat criminals.

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