May Issue versus Shall Issue: Explaining the Pattern of Concealed-Carry Handgun Laws, 1960-2001

Article excerpt


Gun control has long been a contentious issue for policy makers. Increasingly, academics have weighed in on the consequences of various types of gun control laws. The growth of more extensive data sets and the development of sophisticated econometric tools with which to analyze them has led to an explosion in the growth of the academic literature on gun control. In important--and controversial--work, Bronars and Lott (1998), Lott and Mustard (1997), and Lott (1998, 2000, 2003) analyzed an unprecedented volume of statistical data on gun control and crime statistics. They found that more liberal gun control laws (i.e., those that make it easier for law-abiding citizens to obtain firearms) led to a reduction in the incidence of violent crime. Black and Nagin (1998), Ludwig (1998), and Ayres and Donahue (2003), among others, have critiqued both the methodology and the conclusions of Lott et al.'s findings; Bartley and Cohen (1998), Helland and Tabarrok (2004), Plassmann and Whitely (2003), among others, support Lott et al.'s results.

The goal of this paper is not to reassess the debate over the consequences of various gun control regimes, but instead to explain the timing and pattern of the adoption of different gun control laws across U.S. states during the past 40 yr. There are a wide variety of such laws. These include restrictions on categories of people who are allowed to buy firearms (e.g., felons, misdemeanor offenders, juvenile offenders, aliens, minors, those subject to a restraining order, the mentally ill), limitations on types of firearms allowed (e.g., handguns, assault weapons, machine guns), and regulations on sales (e.g., purchases per month, licensing of dealers, restrictions on gun show and private sales, waiting periods, background checks). (1)

Rather than examine all of these restrictions, we instead focus on states' concealed-carry handgun laws. These laws typically fall into one of two categories. "Shall issue" laws require that the issuing authority (e.g., a police chief or other public safety official) in a jurisdiction (typically a municipality or county) "shall issue" gun permits to qualified applicants. In other words, the authorities do not have discretion to decide whether or not an applicant has a good reason for needing a permit and will normally be required to issue a permit unless there is some disqualifying factor (e.g., the applicant is a convicted felon). In contrast, "may issue" laws allow the issuing authority to require applicants to state a reason for needing to carry a concealed weapon (e.g., having a dangerous profession, having been stalked in the past) and to issue--or not issue--a gun permit at the discretion of the issuing authority. "May issue," then, is a far more restrictive gun control regime that allows the issuing authority some--and in many cases, considerable--latitude to deny an application. (2)

We focus on concealed-carry laws for several reasons. First, concealed-carry laws are at the very center of the current handgun debate. Those in favor of less restrictive concealed-carry laws tout the deterrent effect of concealed handguns, including encouraging crime and criminals to migrate to neighboring jurisdictions with more restrictive concealed-carry rules. (3) Opponents argue that more widespread gun ownership leads to an increase in the homicide rate and claim that an overabundance of concealed handguns encourages spontaneous violence. (4) Second, the shift from "may issue" to "shall issue" has been dramatic in recent years: in 1960, there were just two "shall issue" states; by 1990, the number had risen to 14; and by 2003, the number stood at 34. Finally, relative to other gun control laws, the "shall issue" versus "may issue" distinction is fairly easy to categorize. Although 49 states have laws against felons owning handguns, there are substantial differences across states as to what constitutes a felony and what category of felon is to be denied a handgun permit, making a simple categorization difficult. …