Earlier this month, a federal judge in Texas declared that it was unconstitutional to prohibit domestic abusers under a protective order from having a gun.
It’s one of the latest examples in a troubling trend initiated by the Supreme Court’s June ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which signaled the potential for a wave of court-mandated rollbacks of gun regulations. An oft-overlooked consequence of this is how relaxing gun laws prevents police officers from doing their jobs properly.
In Bruen, the court held New York’s licensing of handguns violated the Second Amendment. The state had required applicants for concealed carry permits to show “proper cause,” or, in other words, a specific need for a gun. As of the time of the ruling, six other jurisdictions — including Maryland, where one of us is from — had similar “proper cause” rules regulating gun carrying, all of which were imperiled by the Supreme Court’s ruling.
So far this year, officers have seized more than 2,200 guns illegally carried on the streets of Baltimore. Without Maryland’s gun licensing law, which relies on a proper cause standard, officers are left with a dangerously vague uncertainty about whether to approach someone carrying a gun to determine whether it is illegal or not — let alone remove the gun from the streets. This means police will be required to make more split-second decisions that risk tragic outcomes on both sides of the badge.
Four months after the Bruen ruling, a West Virginia judge invalidated part of a federal law prohibiting the possession of a firearm with an altered or removed serial number. Those serial numbers are critical to helping police solve crimes and distinguish responsible gun owners from violent criminals.
As the tide moves in the direction of more guns on the streets and fewer regulations, police chiefs are the first to point out that this trend makes their jobs more difficult and puts officers at a higher risk of injury or death. That danger extends to everyone in the community — children, the elderly and passersby on the street.
Rather than reserving their firearms for the most dangerous situations, law enforcement officers now have to worry that nearly every civilian has the means to use deadly force. Tensions will rise, and trust will decline.
That’s a bad combination when there is little doubt that America is facing a gun violence crisis. Gun deaths reached a new peak in 2020 — 45,222 deaths — the same year that firearms were the leading cause of death for children. This spike in gun violence comes amid skyrocketing gun sales. An estimated 5 million Americans became new gun owners from January 2020 through April 2021. There are now more guns than people in the U.S. The increase in violence has put a strain on communities and the police and drove much of the partisan messaging around the 2022 midterm elections.
The sheer number of firearm victims should convince federal and state policymakers to listen to the experts, including researchers and law enforcement leaders who have both evidence-based research and specific, practical policies to keep people safe.
But in reality, we’re going in the opposite direction.
And judges are not the only ones removing historically accepted firearm regulations. Many state legislatures are working to eliminate gun carrying licensing altogether — and enact so-called “permitless carry.” At least 25 states have passed or are considering permitless carry laws, which dispense with sensible requirements that gun owners receive training and proper screening. Let that settle in: In many states, anyone who can legally purchase a handgun can now secretly carry one in public, with no safety training required.
Law enforcement leaders have been trying, and not always succeeding, to convince policymakers to ensure firearms don’t end up in the wrong hands. This means maintaining license laws. Their calls are backed by popular support — 81% of Americans oppose concealed carry without a license, according to a recent Marquette Law School poll. Even in gun-friendly states like Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas, law enforcement leaders object to permitless carry, saying it makes it more difficult for their officers to distinguish self-defense from illegitimate violence and legal ownership from a criminal offense.
From the mass shootings that drive our nation into collective mourning to the routine community violence that shatters lives without making headlines, our nation is suffering from the relentless bloodshed of firearms. Gun violence is both a public safety and a health hazard that deserves the full attention of all who seek to preserve life. Policymakers who care about public safety have, for once, an extremely straightforward solution — listen to law enforcement and the experts who want to protect their communities.