Newspaper article International New York Times

Gains in Gun Rights Cost Backers an Old Ally: Law Enforcement

Newspaper article International New York Times

Gains in Gun Rights Cost Backers an Old Ally: Law Enforcement

Article excerpt

Law enforcement officials said that measures passed by conservative legislators could expose officers to greater danger and hinder investigations involving firearms.

Guns in bars. Guns in airports. Guns in day care centers and sports arenas. Conservative state lawmakers around the United States are pressing to weaken an array of gun regulations, in some cases greatly expanding where owners can carry their weapons.

But the legislators are encountering stiff opposition from what has been a trusted ally: law enforcement.

In more than a dozen states with long traditions of robust support for gun ownership rights, and where legislatures have moved to relax gun laws during the past year, the local police have become increasingly vocal in denouncing the measures. They say the new laws expose officers to greater danger and prevent them from doing their jobs effectively.

"We are a gun society and we recognize that, but we should be writing gun laws that make us safer," said Leonard Papania, the police chief in Gulfport, Miss., who opposes part of a new state law that creates exceptions to the rules for concealed-carry permits. "Do you want every incident on your street to escalate to acts of gun violence?"

Mississippi's measure, signed into law in April and pushed mainly as an effort to allow worshipers in church to arm themselves, is one of several that have passed in recent months. West Virginia and Idaho have approved laws allowing people to carry concealed handguns without a permit or firearm training -- and, in many cases, without a background check. Texas has given residents the right to carry handguns openly. Oklahoma appears set to pass a similar measure in the next several weeks.

During the past year, state capitals have emerged as a fierce battleground when it comes to guns. Gun control groups have challenged and sometimes even outflanked the powerful National Rifle Association in the states, but gun rights advocates have won numerous victories in relaxing restrictions.

There has long been a tension between the interests of law enforcement and the efforts to roll back gun regulations, but the conflicts are becoming more frequent as gun laws are expanded, particularly in states with permissive policies. Police officers in Maine and Texas have described coming across people displaying their weapons near schools and libraries, daring anyone to call the police and challenge their newly won rights.

Several states, including Arizona, Georgia and Michigan, have enacted laws that prohibit the police from destroying firearms that have been used in crimes. Instead, the weapons must be sold to licensed dealers or to the public at auction.

Despite the current conflicts, police officers and gun rights advocates have long been largely on the same side of the national debate over guns. But police departments have insisted that gun owners be required to receive training, as their officers do, and that people with violent histories, who are more likely to clash with the police, be blocked from obtaining weapons. The recent legislation, including "constitutional carry laws" -- which typically eliminate the police's role in issuing permits or questioning people who are openly armed -- has frayed the alliance.

"What is alarming to the police is that they have no power to ascertain the potential criminal background of an armed individual until a crime is committed, and by then it is too late," said Ladd Everitt, spokesman for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, an advocacy group.

The objections to these laws are not only about officer safety. Law enforcement officials also argue that creating more exceptions to gun regulations will impede investigations. The discovery of a weapon with no permit typically gives officers probable cause to conduct searches, but some of the new laws could take that option away. In some cases, this has upended longstanding political dynamics, with traditional law-and-order conservatives, who are championing the new gun laws, questioning the tactics of police officers as overly aggressive. …

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