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Fight over gun law exemption for officers

By Dr. Michael S. Brown
web posted December 10, 2001

Congress is currently considering a bill, HR 218, which would exempt current and former law enforcement officers from state laws prohibiting the carrying of concealed handguns.

While this idea has been around for years, post 9-11 fears make passage seem more likely in this session of Congress. Supporters hope people will take comfort in the thought that a fellow airline passenger might be a vacationing police officer who is discreetly armed.

The strongest support for HR 218 comes from police unions and law enforcement associations. Cops are justifiably concerned that criminals they once arrested will seek revenge on them or their families. Laws that prohibit them from carrying a concealed handgun outside their own jurisdiction or after retirement are seen as creating undue hardship.

On the surface, it would seem like only the most extreme anti-gun radicals would oppose such a practical measure. Gun rights organizations should be natural supporters of a law that would put more guns where they are needed. Unfortunately, the issue is complicated by difficult political factors.

Decades ago, most law enforcement organizations were strong supporters of the traditional American right to keep and bear arms. The modern political landscape is much different. Many of the police organizations that support HR 218 have been highly visible allies of the anti-gun lobby. Cynical observers have pointed out certain self-serving aspects of this political shift, although that is beyond the scope of this column.

In particular, these organizations have vehemently opposed laws that require states to issue concealed handgun permits to civilians who pass a rigorous background check and meet various requirements. The laws have been a great success in 33 states and millions of permit holders have proven beyond any doubt that they can be trusted to carry their sidearms responsibly.

Although rank and file officers generally support civilian gun rights, statements by high-ranking police spokespersons against concealed carry laws have been dishonest, vicious and mean-spirited. In the eyes of gun rights supporters, these leaders of law enforcement groups promote themselves as being a special class of human being, superior to those who are not part of their cop culture.

This tendency to divide the population into "them and us" is now coming back to haunt them, because many politically active gun rights groups are planning to oppose HR 218.

Gun owners remember the insulting claims that permit applicants were "cop wannabes", that more guns in civilian hands would cause minor disputes to end in shootings, and that blood would run in the streets if lowly civilians were ever allowed to carry guns.

In reality, the number of mistaken shootings, and the number of deliberate murders, is much lower for this group of citizens than for law enforcement officers. Research has also shown that concealed carry laws are associated with a significant reduction in violent crime. In addition to hard feelings from previous encounters, there are other problems causing gun groups to oppose HR 218.

First, the law does not change FAA regulations prohibiting firearms in aircraft cabins, so it would have no effect on hijackings unless other changes are made. Second, many gun rights activists are strong supporters of state's rights. Using federal power to override state gun laws may be unconstitutional.

Third, it is an open secret that many officers simply ignore laws that restrict their right to carry outside their jurisdiction, relying on professional courtesy to keep them out of trouble. Granting them a special exemption might make their lives easier, but with many off-duty officers already carrying both legally and illegally it may not result in a dramatic change.

There is also concern that the special exemption would increase the sense that law enforcement officers are a superior class. Pro-gun groups point out that everyone has a right to self-defense. A better option, they believe, would be to repeal current laws that infringe on that basic human right.

The proposal to exempt officers from state gun laws may be a useful crime-fighting measure, but it will be debated in a highly politicized environment that bears the scars of past conflicts.

Dr. Michael S. Brown is an optometrist and member of Doctors for Sensible Gun Laws, www.dsgl.org. He may be reached at rkba2000@yahoo.com

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