Arizona’s gun laws are already among the most permissive in the nation, but that’s not good enough for gun-rights advocates who are taking aim at restrictions on who may carry guns, where they may carry them and when they may use them to shoot people.
At the top of those advocates’ wish list is a bill that would allow most Arizonans to carry concealed weapons without a permit. They’re also pushing for a new law that would provide legal cover for anyone who shoots someone who threatens physical violence, and one that would allow college faculty to carry guns on campus.
People who support expanded gun rights say it’s an inherent right for Americans to own guns without restrictions and carry them wherever they choose. They say law-abiding people should be able to carry guns for their own protection, and that the result would be greater public safety.
“Some states recognize the fact that the Bill of Rights isn’t something that the government grants to people, but it is something that our founders recognized are inherent rights, and the government’s job is to protect them for individuals, said Rep. Rick Murphy, a Glendale Republican. “They are supposed to be inalienable rights.”
On the other hand, those who support broad controls on firearms say gun ownership is a right that comes with restrictions and accountability. They say unfettered access to guns leads to more violent crimes and accidental shootings.
“Arizona is a disaster when it comes to even trying to prevent gun violence,” said Doug Pennington, a spokesman for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “It is among the worst of the worst.”
One thing everyone agrees on: Arizona has relatively loose firearms laws when compared with the rest of the nation. It is one of only 14 states where citizens have an unrestricted right to carry guns, its Constitution grants the right to gun ownership, and there are no restrictions on storing firearms.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranked Arizona at the low end of the spectrum in a study that compared gun laws in all 50 states.
Arizona was given six points out of 100 possible, putting it in a tie with Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, New Mexico and South Dakota. Only nine states scored lower.
The Brady Center also cites a 2006 study by the Violence Policy Center that shows the number of gun-related deaths is low in states in which fewer people own guns. Arizona ranked sixth-highest, with 16 gun- related deaths per 100,000 people.
Kendra Leiby, the lobbyist for the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said there is a distinct correlation between the likelihood a person will be shot to death and the presence of a gun in the house.
“More liberal laws lead to more deaths in the home,” she said.
At the same time, the National Rifle Association considers Arizona’s gun laws some of the best in the country.
“Arizona has probably one of the better bodies of gun law for Second Amendment advocates,” said Todd Rathner, a Tucson resident and member of the National Rifle Association’s National Board of Directors.
The government shouldn’t assume that law-abiding citizens will use their guns to commit crimes, said Murphy, the state lawmaker.
“They shouldn’t presume that you’re going to, or that you might, or that you’re not responsible enough, and then pat you on the head and say that they need to babysit you while you exercise your rights,” he said. “That’s really not individual freedom, and that’s not what our country was founded on.”
Arizona gained national notoriety in August when a protestor openly carried an AR-15 assault rifle outside an event attended by President Barack Obama. But there’s no law against such behavior because people who are allowed to own guns may carry them in public, as long as they are openly displayed.
There are relatively few restrictions. Convicted felons, for instance, may not own or carry a gun. And guns may be concealed only if the owner has a concealed-carry permit. To get one, a person must take a gun-safety class, get fingerprinted and pay a fee.
But those who support gun-rights say existing limits go too far. Some groups are clamoring for a law that would allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit.
“I don’t think you need eight hours of (gun safety) training to un- tuck your shirt or put on a sweater,” said John Wentling, vice president of the Arizona Citizens Defense League.
So far, no bill has been filed to eliminate the permitting requirement, but Rep. Frank Antenori, a Tucson Republican, said he and Mesa Republican Sen. Russell Pearce would sponsor identical bills in each chamber.
An effort to pass such a measure last year stalled in the Senate, where the bill failed to get to the chamber floor. Sen. Sylvia Allen, a Snowflake Republican, sponsored the bill last year. She said she wouldn’t do so again this year, but would support it, provided it applies only to those older than 21.
Sam Hoover, an attorney with Legal Community Against Gun Violence, bristles at the idea of gutting one of the few, significant firearms laws on the books.
“It sends a message that (Arizona) is not really concerned about public safety,” he said.
Such a policy shift would certainly put the public and law enforcement officers in danger, said Brian Livingston, executive director of the Arizona Police Association. He said law enforcement agencies across the state support the law requiring people to be trained and licensed before carrying concealed firearms.
“(Not requiring a permit) would add an increased element of danger,” he said.
Sen. Jack Harper, a Republican from Surprise, has filed a bill that would allow faculty members with concealed-carry permits to bring their guns onto state-run university and community college campuses.
Under existing law, firearms are prohibited on school campuses.
“It’s one very small step in trying to eliminate gun-free zones, where there’s absolutely no one who could defend themselves if a terrorist incident happened,” he said of his bill, S1011.
Efforts to pass similar legislation in 2007 and 2008 failed. The legislation was filed in response to the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech that left 33 dead.
Andy Pelosi, director of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus, said allowing guns on college campuses would lead to more deaths, not fewer. He said 12 states rejected variations of Harper’s measure last year.
“(Gun-rights advocates) feel the answer to school massacres is to have everyone armed. We feel that’s the wrong approach,” Pelosi said.
Another bill, H2015, would justify deadly force if a person shoots someone who is threatening physical violence. Last year, lawmakers made it legal for a person to display his gun if he feels threatened.
This year’s bill, sponsored by Rep. Judy Burges, would change the section of law that defines justified use of deadly force in those situations.
Both Burges, a Republican from Skull Valley, and Wentling, whose group pushed the 2009 law and is supporting H2015, called the bill a “technical correction.”
The standard of proof for such a shooting under H2015 would be the same as in other forms of justified use of deadly force already on the books. That means the shooting would be justified if a “reasonable person” would believe that physical force is immediately necessary to protect against another person’s threat of unlawful physical force.
But critics say the measure could lead to more fatal shootings.
“I think that bill might actually cost lives, if people feel that state law gives them the authority to pull a gun and shoot someone if they feel threatened, whether or not that threat is real or perceived,” said Rep. David Schapira, a Tempe Democrat.
Harper also is trying to tweak a 2009 law that allows people with concealed-carry permits to bring guns into bars and restaurants that serve liquor. That law prohibits the gun owners from drinking alcohol and allows the establishments to ban guns from their property by posting a sign next to their liquor licenses.
Harper’s bill, S1015, would change the location of the sign barring firearms to behind the bar, at every entrance to the establishment or within 20 feet of every cash register that sells alcohol.
It would prevent prosecution of a patron who brings in a gun against the wishes of the bar’s owner if the signs are not posted properly or were not posted more than 30 days before the violation.
“We would much prefer that it’s not an offense at all,” said Wentling, whose group is pushing the changes to the law.
He said S1015 is designed to eliminate inconsistencies regarding the placement of signs saying firearms are not allowed. Wentling said the last year’s law created confusion for gun owners because there is no requirement that restaurants and bars post their liquor licenses in specific places.
Sen. Ken Cheuvront, a Democrat who owns a wine bar in downtown Phoenix, said there isn’t any reason to change the law other than to allow gun owners to defy the wishes of property owners who don’t want firearms in their establishments.
“What problem are they taking care of?” Cheuvront asked. “Because now you are saying for somebody who does not want guns on the premise, if they do not have the sign in the proper place or it fell down or whatever, they have no way of stopping the person from coming in (with a gun).”
Antenori, a former Special Forces soldier in the U.S. Army, said the ultimate goal for gun-control activists is to eliminate gun ownership.
That would make citizens reliant on the government and represents a departure from this country’s origins.
“This country was born with the gun,” he said. “We won our freedom at the end of the barrel of a gun.”
But Pennington, the spokesman for the Brady Center, said a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a handgun ban in Washington, D.C. made it clear that all gun-control laws short of complete bans are to be presumed lawful.
“That reasoning means that the state of Arizona can uphold the Second Amendment and keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people at the same time,” he said. “In fact, I think it does justice to the Second Amendment to do both.”
– Luige del Puerto contributed to this article.