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Shotgun News, September 1, 2006

Lifetime Licenses?

I had an unfortunate experience a few months back.  But first, some history.  My wife and I moved to Idaho on the last day of 2001.  What will all the excitement of moving, getting ourselves settled in our new house, and our son in his new school, we did not get around to applying for Idaho concealed handgun licenses until March.  There was a background check and fingerprints, of course, and we received our licenses at the start of April, 2002. 

Idaho licenses were good for four years at the time (although the law just changed to make them good for five years).  Our Idaho concealed handgun licenses were coming up for renewal on April 1st, so we went down to the Ada County Sheriff's Department to renew on March 31st, figuring that it would be a quick and painless procedure—write them a check, sign some forms, and away we go.

Not so.  It turns out that for a renewal, Idaho does a fresh background check—and I guess that I can't claim to be surprised by this.  That background check, however, takes about as long as when we first applied, so for several weeks, we did not have Idaho concealed handgun licenses.  Since I have licenses issued by a number of other states, and Idaho recognizes all out of state licenses, this was not a big hassle.  It might have been, however, if I only had an Idaho license. 

Consider this a word to the wise, if your concealed handgun license, from whatever state, is coming up for renewal.  You should probably find out how long it is going to take to get your license renewed.  Depending on your state, carrying without a valid license can be a serious matter—serious enough to impair getting your license renewed.

With all this in mind, I was pleased to see that Indiana is pursuing an intelligent policy: offering applicants a lifetime concealed handgun license.  Along with the current four year license, which will now cost $40, applicants will now be able to pay for a lifetime license for $125 (for first-time applicants) or $100 (for those who already have an Indiana license).  It seems to me that for a resident of Indiana, a lifetime license would be a clear win over a four year license, unless you expect to die or move out of Indiana forever in the next twelve years.  Three renewals of a four year license will cost $120; the lifetime license is cheaper.

Not surprisingly, the usual suspects are concerned about this.  “Hamm of the Brady Campaign, which advocates for stricter gun-control laws, said he has concerns about the ability of law enforcement to track and react to crimes that people commit after they obtain lifetime permits.”  The Indiana State Police already check arrest and conviction records against the list of licensees, so lifetime permits won't really change anything.  If a licensee is convicted of a disqualifying crime, the Indiana State Police don't wait for him to renew his license—they invalidate the permit immediately.[1]  Whether the license lasts four years or forever does not affect this.

Now, I know that some of you think that the whole idea of a concealed handgun license is absurd.  As a few people I know are fond of saying, “The Second Amendment is my concealed handgun license.”  Vermont and now Alaska have taken this approach.  Vermont does not require a license to carry concealed, and has never issued licenses.  Alaska also does not require a license to carry concealed, but still issues licenses for the benefit of Alaskans who are traveling to states that only recognize resident concealed carry licenses. 

The day may well come when this idea spreads to a lot more states, and at least right now, gun rights advocates are definitely on a roll.  U.S. News & World Report recently observed that the gun issue, from a political standpoint, has completely turned around.  “Not long ago, it was the gun lobby on the defensive from the passage of the Brady bill in 1993 and the 1994 ban on 'assault' weapons. But some say support for gun control cost Democrats the House in 1994, and former President Clinton credited it with Al Gore's 2000 presidential defeat. 'It's different than it was in the early '90s. Those were, in retrospect, the glory years,' says Paul Helmke, former GOP mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., who recently took the reins of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.”[2]

Most politicians no longer regard supporting gun control as a no-brainer.  (Well okay, there are some politicians who seem have no brains—they can continue as usual.)  Even the Democratic Party as a whole has done its best to distance itself from the more virulent gun control ideas.  For some Democrats, this wasn't difficult, because they were pro-gun anyway.  Other Democrats supported gun control because they were told by political consultants that this was the only way to get elected.  Increasingly, it appears that those political consultants were, at best, projecting their own support for gun control onto the voters. 

This isn't just a problem for Democrats, by the way. For the last twenty years, Republican candidates for statewide office in California have, with a few exceptions,  generally supported gun control, in spite of a huge pro-gun Republican base in the Golden State.  I'm told by those in the know that the reason is that the Republican political consultants that dominate California politics are anti-gun—and simply refuse to look at either polling data or election results that suggest that there is a large pro-gun population.  Unless a candidate cares very strongly about an issue, the political consultants who actually run the multimillion dollar campaigns end up defining what a candidate is going to say.

Let's not get too complacent about how well we are doing on the gun rights front.  There is still majority support for a ban on assault weapons, due to a combination of media-induced confusion that these are automatic weapons, and a belief that they are subject to widespread criminal misuse. The general public has a reluctant acceptance of handguns, recognizing that they serve a legitimate defensive use—but I would not hold your breath waiting for that reluctant approval to turn into anything much stronger.  Assassination of another pop icon like John Lennon could evaporate much of that reluctant acceptance—and there's still a large fraction of the Democratic Party (and some Republicans) who would gladly dance in the blood of innocents to get a gun control law passed.

This is one of the reasons why, as much as I like Vermont-style laws, I am reluctant to push for them.  Licenses—even licenses that are good for life—give confidence to the masses that the government is looking out for their safety.  This is largely a false confidence, because the people that commit crimes with guns usually wouldn't qualify for a license, even if they applied.  Licensing or the lack of licensing isn't going to affect those criminals.

I say that this is largely a false confidence, but I am still not convinced that there is no merit to the concern about Vermont-style carry.  There are people who criminally misuse guns but have not yet been convicted of a crime, and who would qualify for a concealed handgun license in most states.  Under Vermont-style carry, such people could legally carry a concealed handgun. 

Fortunately, this crowd almost never bother to apply for a concealed handgun license.  Applying for a license involves some planning and  patience—at least enough planning and patience to find out where to go, fill out an application form, and in many states, take a firearms safety class.  For the most part, the people who criminally misuse guns aren't long on planning or patience.  It is certainly the case that the licensing process—and the prospect of being punished for carrying concealed without a permit—discourages at least a few people from carrying a gun who probably should not do so. 

How many of these dangerous sorts has the current licensing process discouraged from carrying a gun?  Alaska's recent experience suggests, “Not many.”  Otherwise, Alaska's abolition of the requirement to have a concealed carry license would have driven up violent crime rates dramatically.  To know for sure what effect this change has will require several other states to make this same change, so that we can do interrupted time series studies of violent crime rates.

Vermont-style carry is probably a good thing.  But before we expend a lot of capital on persuading more states to make this change, we should probably work on improving concealed handgun license reciprocity between states.  I would love to be able to legally drive from Los Angeles to Maine with a concealed and loaded handgun.  Right now, I have to settle for doing that drive from Seattle to Key Miami!

Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His last book was Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Praeger Press, 1999). His web site is

[1]    Tim Evans, “Hoosiers can get gun permits for life,” Indianapolis Star, July 6, 2006,, last accessed July 12, 2006.

[2]    Will Sullivan, “Packing heat on the hill,” U.S. News & World Report, July 9, 2006,, last accessed July 12, 2006.