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Shotgun News, October 1, 2004, p. 9

New Jersey Concealed Weapon Permits

If you live in New Jersey, you are probably thinking, "Well, this is going to be a very short column!" As of December of 2003, New Jersey had a bit more than 3000 concealed weapon permits issued, most of which are for retired law enforcement officers"in a state of eight million people.1 Even then, police officers must apply for a permit within six months of retirement, in order to take advantage of their little loophole.2 For civilians, the chances of getting a permit, unless you are engaged in some sort of security work, are slim.

I've written a couple of columns about how 9/11 has changed the world"wiping away the fantasy popular in many circles that good people don't have anything to fear from bad people. It appears that the sobering cold dawn of reality is even beginning to reach New Jersey. An August 12, 2004 article in the Express-Times carried the amazing headline, "Ship captain's Second Amendment rights upheld."

Okay, don't get too excited"the decision wasn't based on the Second Amendment. Superior Court Judge John Pursel ruled in favor of Warren County resident Salvatore Atanasio Jr., whose request for a concealed weapon permit had been denied by the Warren County prosecutor. Atanasio is a ship captain for VIP Yacht Cruises and Yacht Charter Networks, operating passenger vessels in New York harbor. His argument for why he needed a permit was that the threat of terrorist attack was high, and that as master of his vessel, he had an obligation to protect his passengers from hijacking.

"Atanasio currently commands ships carrying between 150 to 600 passengers on sailings throughout the New York area and along the eastern seaboard, court papers show.

"The captain testified the ship's 'wheel area' is protected only by a wooden door that could easily be stormed and leave him helpless.

"The captain said the ships he commands could then be used to ram a larger vessel."

The prosecutor's office argued that this was a "generalized fear" and that New Jersey did not need to issue permits based on this. Even worse, it "would open a floodgate of future applications" from others engaged in work that put them at risk of terrorist attack. The judge felt otherwise: "It is about protecting the public interest by protecting people or the infrastructure in light of the genuine threats which have been disseminated daily to the public."3

I wish that I could say that Judge Pursel's decision is going to "open a floodgate of future applications," but the effect will be a bit more subtle than that. Allowing the government to exercise discretion in issuing concealed weapon permits means that they have to be sensible about it. It appears that Judge Pursel decided that Atanasio had a good reason to carry a gun, that the public interest would be protected by letting him do so, and that he was competent to carry a gun.

But if the threat of terrorist attack is a good reason, what about the danger from an ordinary criminal? Realistically, the average American is at far more danger from being robbed, raped, or murdered by a non-political thug than by someone whose turban is wound a little too tightly. Captain Atanasio has the training and skill to use a handgun for self-defense; doubtless, there are hundreds of thousands of other New Jersey civilians with comparable training and skill. I suspect that a carefully constructed legal challenge might push the door a little more open, by applying for a permit for someone in a position similar to Captain Atanasio's. A sympathetic judge might force issuance of a permit based on the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The equal protection clause is a pretty amazing tool. The City of Los Angeles, for example, had not issued a concealed weapon permit to anyone in a couple of decades"until they issued one to their police chief (who wasn't able to pass the test required for California police officers, and therefore needed a permit to carry a gun). Once they issued a permit, however, they opened themselves up to equal protection suits"and now Los Angeles issues a small number of permits each year. It's not much, but it's a start.

Similarly, Judge Pursel's decision may be the opening for lawyers to push for somewhat broader issuance of concealed weapon permits. Do not expect the door to open overnight; do not expect judges to impose a non-discretionary concealed weapon permit system on New Jersey. Still, each time that a judge rules in favor of an applicant for a concealed weapon permit, it creates another example of a responsible civilian carrying a gun"and the sky doesn't fall.

In the last few years, in the states that had discretionary concealed weapon permit systems we have had the easiest time persuading legislators to adopt a non-discretionary permit system. In states that completely banned concealed carry, antigunners argued that it was simply too dangerous to allow civilians to carry guns. In discretionary issuance states, there were usually thousands or tens of thousands of civilians with licenses already, and it was apparent that civilians could be trusted to carry guns. The unfairness of discretionary issuance was obvious, even to legislators who aren't particularly friendly to guns. Forcing New Jersey to issue concealed weapon permits more regularly"even for fairly unusual situations like Captain Atanasio"may start New Jersey on the road towards non-discretionary issuance.

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 "New Jersey: Laws and Summaries,", last accessed August 29, 2004.

2 New Jersey State Police, "Retired Officers Right to Carry," available at, last accessed August 29, 2004.

3 TOM QUIGLEY, "Ship captain's Second Amendment rights upheld," Express-Times, August 12, 2004, available at, last accessed August 29, 2004.