DOWN THE street or across the country, a valid driver’s license is all you need to lawfully get behind the wheel of a car. If you’ve met your state’s conditions to be issued a license — passed the test, submitted your fingerprints, paid the fee — there’s not a state in the country that won’t honor it.
A valid license to carry a firearm should be treated the same way.
In many respects, Americans who esteem the Second Amendment have reason to be upbeat these days. In opinion polls, a majority of respondents says protecting gun ownership is more important than enacting stronger gun control. Three out of four Americans would oppose a ban on private possession of handguns. Putting their money where those convictions are, consumers turned out in droves to buy firearms during the holiday season: Though Black Friday sales generally were down last year, purchases of guns on the day after Thanksgiving went through the roof. The FBI conducted a record 175,000 background checks on Nov. 28 — an average of almost three per second — then set another record the week before Christmas.
The congressional elections, too, delivered a jolt of political adrenaline for Second Amendment stalwarts. Of the 251 candidates endorsed by the National Rifle Association in the November midterms, 229 went on to victory — a success rate of more than 90 percent.
At least in theory, gun rights are more constitutionally secure now than they have been for generations. In landmark rulings in 2008 and 2010, the Supreme Court confirmed that the Bill of Rights secures an individual right to “keep and bear arms” for self-defense, and that no state may categorically refuse to issue carry permits. Consequently, all 50 states now have laws allowing citizens to publicly carry concealed firearms, with permits issued by local or law-enforcement authorities.
To be sure, criteria vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Most states issue concealed-carry permits automatically to anyone who meets the requisite criteria (e.g., minimum age, safety training, background check); a handful make it more difficult, requiring applicants to show “good cause” for a gun permit, and giving officials broad discretion in deciding which applications to approve.
Of course there are differences among the states when it comes to all kinds of administrative acts and effects — driver’s licenses being an obvious example. Oklahoma has its own rules, forms, and requirements for issuing a driver’s permit, many of which may differ from those imposed by California, Massachusetts, or New Jersey. Nonetheless, reciprocity and common-sense supersede state lines. Once Oklahoma issues a license to a driver who meets its conditions, every other state defers to its judgment.
The case for reciprocity ought to be just as compelling when it comes to carry permits for guns. Indeed, more compelling: The Bill of Rights makes no reference to driving, but it does command that “the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Constitutional liberties don’t evaporate at state borders. If your driver’s license is valid everywhere, the validity of your gun permit should go without saying.
But it hasn’t gone without saying. Though many states extend reciprocal recognition to carry permits issued by other states, others don’t. An unwary motorist crossing into a hardline anti-gun state can find herself arrested, searched, prosecuted for unlawful possession of a firearm, and threatened with imprisonment as a felon — even though she had scrupulously adhered to her own state’s requirements for owning and safely carrying a weapon.
That was what happened to Shaneen Allen, a working mother from Philadelphia, who drove to Atlantic City last spring, unaware that the gun she was lawfully entitled to carry in Pennsylvania made her a criminal once she entered New Jersey. Under the glare of media publicity, prosecutors eventually walked back their threat to jail Allen. Yet it is alarming that anyone should face prosecution for peacefully exercising a constitutional right.
Legislation introduced in Congress would fix the problem by mandating interstate “right-to-carry reciprocity” — effectively requiring any state that issues gun-carry licenses to recognize those issued in other states.
States have always had broad leeway to make their own public policy; the Constitution’s “full faith and credit” principle doesn’t insist that all state laws be homogenized. But states cannot just disallow Second Amendment rights exercised in good faith by honest citizens from other states. The driver’s license in your wallet is accepted everywhere as prima facie evidence that you are competent to drive. The concealed-carry permit you keep right next to it should be given the same respect.
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Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.