The one-third or so of American adults who can’t obtain permits to carry concealed weapons from their home states need only look to Florida and Utah — and their mailboxes — to legally carry hidden guns.
Because both states grant concealed-carry permits to non-residents and have reciprocal agreements with other states under which their permits are recognized, possession of a Utah or Florida permit gives non-residents the right to carry hidden firearms in as many as 32 other states — though often not the one in which they live.
Tens of thousands of gun owners have obtained the non-resident permits, and their numbers are surging.
That has helped fuel the larger debate over concealed-carry permits. Gun-rights activists say Americans who pack heat to defend themselves are exercising a legitimate right and have helped reduce the nation’s crime rate. Gun-control advocates say that there’s no proof that gun-toting civilians make the streets any safer and that looser concealed-carry laws are a recipe for disaster.
As the debate continues, the Utah and Florida permits are becoming ever-hotter tickets for out-of-state gun owners.
“Protect your family when traveling!” shouts a headline on one of dozens of Web sites that offer training and help with the paperwork to obtain the Utah and Florida permits. “You don’t have to be a resident of Utah or Florida!”
The non-resident permits are roundly criticized by gun-control advocates, who see the states that issue them as tools of groups like the National Rifle Association.
“I think the reason states are doing this, especially Florida, is the sheer power of the gun lobby in those state legislatures,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Violence Policy Center, which seeks a ban on private ownership of all handguns. “It’s not a question of what is in a state’s interest, but what is in the gun lobby and gun industry’s interest.”
But NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam called non-resident permits an “organic” solution to needlessly restrictive state gun laws.
“There are people in all these states that are trying to get right-to-carry permits and are not able to,” he said. “As a result, they’re forced to explore other avenues. The solution to that would be for as many states as possible to have a ‘shall-issue’ permit system,” which allows most adults to obtain concealed-carry permits on demand.
Big increases in two states
The popularity of non-resident licenses with gun owners from heavily populated states like California and New York, which do not have “shall-issue” systems, has helped fuel big increases in both Utah and Florida’s concealed-carry permit numbers. That in turn has contributed to the nation’s fivefold increase in concealed-weapons permits, from fewer than 1 million in the 1980s to an estimated 6 million today.
In Florida, the number of new and renewal applicants for concealed-carry permits from out of state increased 529 percent — from 2,703 to 17,003 — from 1999 to 2009, compared with a 145 percent increase in applications from residents of the Sunshine State over the same period.
Florida is on a pace to grant new and renewed permits to about 25,000 out-of-state residents in the current fiscal year. Of 692,621 current Florida concealed-carry license holders, 71,059, or more than one in 10, are not state residents.
Over the past 10 years, the number of concealed-carry permits issued by Utah has surged 431 percent, from 40,363 to 214,403, a figure that would represent nearly 8 percent of the state’s population. But more than half the permits now go to non-Utah residents, up from just 12 percent a decade ago. Of the 1,011 instructors authorized by Utah to teach its concealed-carry license class, 641 live out of state — 100 in California alone — while 370 are Utah residents.
Both states require applicants to undergo background checks and submit to fingerprinting. Florida requires proof of firearms training that can be satisfied in a number of ways; Utah requires applicants to take a four-hour class on gun-safety and legal issues taught by a state-certified instructor. The Florida license costs $117 and is good for seven years. Utah charges $65.25 for a five-year permit.
The time and expense are well worth it to gun owners who want to pack their pistols in as many places as they legally can. Non-resident Florida licenses are good in 30 other states and non-resident Utah licenses are honored in 29 other states. The reciprocating states largely overlap, but there are a few differences. By obtaining both, for example, a resident of Illinois, which does not grant concealed-gun licenses to civilians, could legally carry in 32 states outside of his or her own, including the neighboring states of Missouri, Indiana and Kentucky.
Gun-rights activists say states that unnecessarily restrict concealed-carry gave rise to the practice of licensing non-residents.
“It’s not Utah that has made the permit so valuable,” said W. Clark Aposhian, chairman of the state’s Concealed Weapons Review Board. “It’s other states that have made it so valuable.”
But the permit’s surge in popularity with out-of-state gun owners has given pause to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who last September expressed fears that his state could become known as a “wholesale clearinghouse” for concealed-carry licenses.
Aposhian, a firearms instructor who has taught firearms classes to Herbert and dozens of members of the Utah Legislature and helped them obtain concealed-carry permits, said Utah had some issues with “rogue instructors” in other states who were more interested in making money from the process than in providing good instruction. But he said that those issues have since been resolved and that he doesn’t expect any changes to Utah’s policy on non-resident licenses.
As to why Utah appears almost eager to help non-residents get concealed-weapons permits, Aposhian said, “I’d look at it from another way. We don’t just deny a permit based on a subjective line in the dirt where a border is. If you fit the requirements to possess a firearm legally and pass a background check on that, you’re entitled to the permit.”
When it comes to background checks, he said, “I’ll put Utah’s process up against any other state’s.” He said residents with concealed-carry licenses are checked for run-ins with the law on a daily basis. Out-of-state permit holders are checked quarterly, Aposhian said, but he expects the state to implement a daily check within 18 months.
“If we find out you’ve been convicted of drunken driving or a felony, we ask you to immediately send your permit in.”
Last year, Utah revoked 409 concealed-carry licenses, less than 0.2 percent of the total. More than half the revocations were for permit holders who had alcohol-related issues or a protective order lodged against them. Utah does not report how many revoked permits were held by non-residents.
Florida, meanwhile, revoked 643 concealed-carry permits in 2009, less than 0.1 percent of its total. Only 11 of those were held by non-residents.
Gun-rights activists say the low revocation rates are evidence that the permits are overwhelmingly given to solid, law-abiding citizens. Aposhian said if there was any evidence of a problem with Utah’s non-resident system, it would be fixed. “We have a very intelligent legislature regarding guns,” he said.
But gun-control advocates say it’s likely that non-resident permit holders aren’t checked as thoroughly or as often as they should be.
Gun-control group: 'Bad policy'
“We think that states issuing (permits) to non-residents is bad policy,” Rand said. “It’s a way for people to get (permits) despite not being able to qualify in their own state, sometimes because of a criminal history.” For instance, some states count only criminal convictions against an applicant, while others may take arrest records into account.
She pointed to a current situation in Philadelphia, where authorities are fuming because residents who have been denied permits or had them revoked in Pennsylvania have been able to obtain Florida concealed-carry licenses that Philadelphia police are required to honor under reciprocity agreements.
The “Florida loophole,” touted at Pennsylvania gun shows by firearms trainers, exists because Florida has a lower bar for denying and revoking permits than Pennsylvania. Florida does not check to see if non-resident applicants have been denied permits by their home states, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture, which issues the concealed-carry permits.
The loophole is "a sick trick of the gun dealers in gun shows to circumvent the laws of Pennsylvania," Philadelphia Police Lt. Lisa King, who oversees concealed-carry permits for the city, told the Philadelphia Daily News last month. Some lawmakers have vowed to close it.
But Aposhian, the Utah firearms trainer who also lobbies lawmakers on gun issues, said there’s no evidence that the soaring number of concealed weapons being legally carried across the nation causes problems, regardless of how permits are obtained. In fact, even though it would cost him business, he would like to see Utah and other states allow concealed-carry with no permits required.
“It seems to work in Vermont and it seems to work in Alaska,” he said, pointing to two states where firearms homicide rates are lower than the national average. “We don’t have a pattern of problems. It is probably time to start it in more populous states and see how that goes.”
But gun-control groups are vehemently opposed to abandoning the permit system.
“The gun rights folks really are trying to push the envelope even further all the time,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to end Handgun Violence, which advocates rescinding all “shall issue” concealed-carry laws and letting police decide who should get a license to pack heat.