The Main Stream

Jan 30, 2010 2:32 PM

Ariz. lawmakers look at loosening gun laws

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona's loose gun laws gained national attention last year when a man openly carried an AR-15 rifle to a protest outside a speech by President Barack Obama.

Now, gun-rights advocates are hoping for even fewer restrictions on where they can have a firearm. Among their top goals, they hope to make Arizona the third state where it is legal to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, which would eliminate background checks and training classes for people to carry hidden guns.

"That's sheer insanity," said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center. "If you remove the background check requirement, you're literally writing a death sentence for law enforcement officers, family members, just people in the street."

But supporters say criminals will carry concealed weapons regardless of the law, so gun restrictions only affect law-abiding citizens who want to protect themselves.

"All we're doing is handcuffing good people, restricting their constitutional, God-given right to carry and perhaps their ability to defend their families," said state Sen. Russell Pearce, a Mesa Republican sponsoring the bill.

Pearce's bill comes a year after Arizona eased restrictions on gun owners, most notably the option to carry a weapon into a bar or restaurant that serves alcohol unless the establishment has banned firearms.

It also comes amid a national trend of states loosening gun laws. In 2009, states passed 47 new laws easing restrictions, more than three times the number of new laws tightening them. Forty-eight states allow people to carry a concealed weapon; all but Alaska and Vermont require a permit, which is generally denied to people with a criminal history or mental illness.

In Arizona, carrying a concealed weapon without a permit is a misdemeanor.
Pearce's bill, and an identical one in the House, would make the permit and background check optional. It also would eliminate a required firearms safety class for permit seekers.

"It doesn't make much sense why someone would have to go through a background check, training, etc. simply to carry their weapon," said John Wentling, vice president of the Arizona Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights lobby group that is promoting the bill.

Police departments worry that making permits optional might encourage more people with nefarious motives to carry concealed weapons, said John Thomas, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police. It also could lead to more accidental gun discharges by people not adequately trained in firearm safety, Thomas said.

"I'm not aware of any law enforcement agency or association that supports this bill as introduced," he said.

House and Senate committees were scheduled to hear the bill last week, but the sponsors pulled it to try and address some of the concerns of law enforcement. A similar measure failed last year amid strong opposition from police agencies.

There would still be an advantage to obtaining a permit; carrying a gun into a bar or restaurant that serves alcohol would require one, and the permit would be valid in 31 states that have reciprocity agreements with Arizona. Permit holders also can buy new guns without a background check.

In all, Arizona lawmakers have introduced about a half-dozen bills aimed at loosening gun laws, including one making it legal to carry a gun in a public park without a concealed-weapons permit. Another would allow college faculty with permits to carry a gun on campus.

The gun-rights bills follow a string of new, less-restrictive gun laws passed last year. They were made possible by the elevation of Republican Gov. Jan Brewer to replace Janet Napolitano, a Democrat who vetoed attempts to loosen gun laws until she resigned a year ago to join the Obama administration.

Brewer last year signed the bill allowing guns in bars; Napolitano vetoed a similar measure four years earlier.

Brewer also approved a law allowing gun owners to display a firearm if they feel threatened and another allowing them to keep guns in their locked vehicles while parked at businesses that ban weapons.

What's coming next year is still unknown, said Wentling, the gun-rights lobbyist.
But he's not done yet.

"We'll be there next year and the year after and the year after," Wentling said. "There will always be some work to do."

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