By Chris W. Cox
When I started with NRA in 1995, most of the attention our organization received was over legislative efforts in Congress. Firearm-related legislation at the federal level obviously has an impact on far more law-abiding gun owners than what happens in a single state. As I wrote last month, though, Congress often moves at a glacial pace. If you want to see a more rapid advancement in our Right to Keep and Bear Arms, you need to examine what we have been doing at the state level.
Although NRA-ILA had been active at the state level since its inception in 1975, the spark that ignited decades of legislative success in state capitals across the country was the enactment of Florida’s “shall issue” Right-to-Carry (RTC) law in 1987.
Prior to NRA’s push for RTC in Florida, only a handful of states had a mechanism in place that would allow for law-abiding gun owners to legally carry a concealed handgun outside of the home for personal protection. Although self-defense is a fundamental right recognized by both common law and the laws of all states, prior to ’87, the vast majority of states either prohibited the lawful carrying of firearms, or had set up onerous restrictions and Byzantine licensing schemes beyond the reach of the average citizen.
With Florida as the model, NRA began an aggressive lobbying campaign to pass RTC in as many states as possible. Today, there are 42 RTC states, covering 74% of the US population. In these states, average law-abiding Americans are once again able to exercise their right to bear arms.
From RTC permit systems, came the logical next step to restoring our rights as gun owners to the same status as enjoyed by law-abiding Americans at the founding of our nation: permitless carry.
Often referred to as “Constitutional Carry,” the premise is simple; if you can legally possess a handgun, you may legally carry one concealed for your personal protection without being required to obtain a government-mandated permit to do so.
As most in the pro-Second Amendment community know, this concept is actually quite old. For most of America’s history, law-abiding Americans were not restricted in deciding how to best defend themselves and their families.
In the modern era, Alaska started the legislative move to permitless carry in 2003. Today, 16 states do not require a permit for law-abiding Americans to exercise their Right to Bear Arms.
Coinciding with RTC laws, it was important to ensure that, when using a firearm for personal protection, law-abiding citizens would not face retaliatory prosecution from anti-gun prosecutors, or frivolous lawsuits from violent criminals whose crimes were thwarted by an armed victim.
The common law of most states has long protected the reasonable use of firearms in self-defense or defense of others. As with firearms carry laws, a movement to generally restrict self-defense in America beginning in the late 19th century led to many states adopting so-called “duty to retreat” laws.
These laws make it more difficult for people to exercise their right to self-defense because they allow an after-the-fact examination, in the complete safety of a courtroom, of whether retreat was actually possible. As former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it in rejecting a retreat rule in federal cases, “Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife. Therefore, in this Court, at least, it is not a condition of immunity that one in that situation should pause to consider whether a reasonable man might not think it possible to fly with safety or to disable his assailant rather than to kill him.”
Thus was born NRA’s efforts to eliminate restrictions on lawful self-defense, sometimes referred to as Stand Your Ground. The concept is relatively simple. If you find yourself in a place where you have a legal right to be, and are faced with the threat of a violent criminal assault, you may use the reasonable force that is necessary to defend yourself or others without the threat of being convicted by an overzealous, anti-gun prosecutor for using your lawfully possessed firearm.
Through NRA’s efforts, 34 states now have no retreat requirement before a person may exercise their right to lawful self-defense.
While RTC laws are important, they wouldn’t be nearly as useful if gun owners were limited to carrying a firearm in only their home states. Tied to NRA’s successful efforts to pass RTC is the promotion of laws that require states to either recognize the RTC permits issued by other states, or to offer reciprocal privileges.
Outright recognition is always our goal, and 21 states now recognize permits issued by other states. If you have a valid RTC permit, and you travel with your firearm to one of these 21 states, they will recognize your permit as valid, provided you comply with that state’s carry provisions.
A state with a true reciprocity standard will recognize the permits issued by another state, provided that state reciprocates such recognition. Today, eight states have true reciprocity.
Finally, there is conditional reciprocity, where a state will recognize another state’s permit, provided they meet certain established standards. Such conditions often include requirements that the issuing processes for permits by each state be similar, such as requiring a training component. There are currently 11 states with conditional reciprocity.
One of the unfortunate side effects of our efforts to pass RTC was that some local governments, often in the big cities where violent crime is most prevalent, decided they wanted to impose restrictions, or outright prohibitions, on carrying firearms for personal protection. Some local governments have even gone so far as to impose bans on certain firearms that they simply do not like. These attempts to negate RTC and impose draconian, local restrictions led to NRA working to pass firearm preemption laws.
Preemption prohibits local governments from enacting firearm laws more restrictive than what the state has in place. As a single issue, though, it is often the one with the most complexities. Preemption could restrict any number of local restrictions, including bans on particular firearms, how or if one may carry a firearm in the local jurisdiction, additional licensing requirements, etc.
There are now 45 states that have some form of firearm preemption law to restrict local gun control. These laws vary greatly, and our current effort in ILA is to ensure that these laws provide specific penalties for local governments who violate preemption laws.
Anti-gun actions by local governments have also led to the creation of new statewide, and even federal laws to counter similar actions in the future. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the New Orleans had become a practically lawless zone, and nightly news reports of violence and criminal activity became common. Then, reports of the unthinkable began coming in. Local authorities, under the guise of the state of emergency in the area, had declared the Second Amendment null and void.
Not only were citizens told they could not carry firearms for personal protection outside the home, but some who chose to remain in their homes to defend their property against bands of looters were told they had to leave, and that they had to surrender their firearms. Footage emerged of law enforcement officers entering homes and forcibly removing firearms from law-abiding citizens.
From the tragic event of Katrina and the local government’s usurpation of the fundamental right to personal protection emerged another NRA success story; the promotion of Emergency Powers legislation.
Emergency Powers laws prohibit government entities, whether state or local, from suspending our Right to Keep and Bear Arms during a declared state of emergency; a time when the right to self-defense is probably more important than most other times. Seizing lawfully-owned firearms is, of course, prohibited, but suspending RTC is also off the table. Since Katrina, NRA has worked to pass such protections in 33 states and at the federal level.
Of course, anti-gun extremists are not always so forward with their attacks on our firearms freedoms. One area where they have tried to diminish our rights as gun owners is with attacks on shooting ranges. Without ranges, responsible firearm owners will have very little opportunity to practice the safe handling or use of firearms.
When it was clear that those who despise the Second Amendment had targeted ranges with nuisance lawsuits and local “zoning” ordinances, NRA began promoting Range Protection laws.
These laws are especially useful to established ranges, preventing local governments from forcing them to close down because they cannot comply with new noise ordinances, or construction requirements, that are put in place years, and sometimes decades, after the range was established in compliance with local zoning laws.
Today, 48 states have some form of a Range Protection law in place, and we are constantly working to improve them.
Then, of course, there’s hunting.
It goes without saying that NRA and the hunting community have faced countless threats from the animal “rights” extremists at PETA and HSUS, who work nonstop to drive our nation’s great Hunting Heritage into the ground. Fighting each attack individually is daunting, so NRA launched an effort to pass constitutional amendments at the state level recognizing our Right to Hunt. Once again, we’ve seen a great deal of success.
Today, there are 22 states that have enshrined the right to hunt in their constitution, with most of them adopting language developed by NRA. It is important to remember that the passage of these amendments is done by voters, after state legislatures agree to place them on the ballot. This is clear and convincing evidence that our detractors are wrong when they accuse NRA of promoting issues that are not supported by the general public.
While I have been with NRA for the vast majority of these successes, please don’t think that I feel they are my accomplishments; they are OUR accomplishments. Without your support, dedication, and unwavering commitment to the Second Amendment and our Hunting Heritage, none of these victories would have been possible, and for that, you have my undying gratitude.
Chris W. Cox has served as the executive director of the Institute for Legislative Action, the political and lobbying arm of NRA, since 2002. As NRA’s principal political strategist, Cox oversees eight NRA-ILA divisions: Federal Affairs; State & Local Affairs; Public Affairs; Grassroots; Finance; Research & Information; Conservation, Wildlife & Natural Resources; and Office of Legislative Counsel. Cox also serves as chairman of NRA’s Political Victory Fund (NRA-PVF), the Association’s political action committee; president of the NRA Freedom Action Foundation (NRA-FAF), which focuses on non-partisan voter registration and citizen education; and chairman of NRA Country, an effort to bring country music artists together with NRA members in support of our Second Amendment freedoms and hunting heritage.