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Editorial cartoon (1/4/12)

Now that Wisconsin’s learned Legislature has seen fit to allow the citizenry to carry concealed weapons everywhere but where they are specifically banned, we surely must be on the threshold of a safer future for us all.

At least, that’s what the majority of our legislators assured us last fall as they quickly moved to pass a concealed carry law, which the state’s new Republican governor eagerly signed. Forty-eight other states, after all, have passed concealed carry laws and, according to the guns-for-all proponents, they’ve experienced absolutely no problems.

Only upstanding citizens get permits, we were assured. The legislators, the NRA and other pro-gun groups painted pictures of fearless folks armed with a pistol saving a bank from being robbed, a woman from being attacked, a house from being intruded upon, or themselves from being injured. Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald heralded the new law as a great victory for Badger State residents and the Second Amendment.

The Wisconsin politicians, however, made sure that it would be difficult to determine whether the new law actually does what they claim it will do. As in most concealed carry states, the names of people who get permits are not subject to the open records law. So if there’s an incident involving a shooting, for instance, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether either the person doing the shooting or the one who is shot has a permit.

That also means that news media and other public watchdog organizations will have a difficult time determining whether public officials are diligently checking the backgrounds of those who are awarded permits.

Ironically, the shielding of concealed carry permits from public inspection has been a major reason why the gun lobby has been able to claim that concealed carry laws have not caused any problems. The trouble is, because of the secrecy, it’s virtually impossible to prove whether they do or they don’t.

“I would think that the sponsors of this law would want to show proof to the public that the sky isn’t falling because of concealed carry,” said Oregon Police Chief Doug Pettit, the legislative representative of the Wisconsin Association of Police Chiefs. “But if no one can access records, how will we know?”

He pointed out that not even law enforcement officials can learn the identities of permit holders, except in extraordinary situations. The Legislature, for example, refused to consider a database that a police officer could use when stopping a vehicle to alert the officer that the owner is a permit holder.

North Carolina happens to be one of the few states that do allow public inspection of the permitting process. Last week, The New York Times reported on a study of how well the law has worked during the past five years.

It found that of the roughly 250,000 North Carolinians with concealed carry permits, more than 2,400 of them had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, excluding traffic-related crimes. Ten of them committed murder or manslaughter. All but two of the killers used a gun.

Additionally, nearly 900 permit holders had been convicted of drunken driving, a potentially lethal situation for a police officer making an arrest of someone carrying a concealed weapon.

The paper cited an example of a bicyclist named Alan Simons, who was riding with family members on a Sunday morning in Asheville. A man in an SUV suddenly pulled alongside him and began berating him for riding on the highway. Simons, with his 4-year-old strapped to the back, pulled up and so did the SUV.

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As Simons approached the vehicle, the driver pulled out a gun, which prompted Simons to turn around to leave. He then heard a deafening bang, the bullet piercing his bike helmet and just missing his left ear. The driver, a firefighter with a concealed carry permit, was eventually convicted of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill.

All those numbers, of course, are but a fraction of the total population with concealed carry permits. But, just like in all other segments of the population, there are always bad apples.

“Researchers acknowledge that those who fit the demographic profile of a typical permit holder — middle-age white man — are not usually major drivers of violent crime,” the Times’ report said. “At the same time, several states have produced statistical reports showing, as in North Carolina, that a small segment does end up on the wrong side of the law.

“As a result, the question becomes whether allowing more people to carry guns actually deters crime, as gun rights advocates contend, and whether that outweighs the risks posed by the minority who commit crimes.”

Until there’s a way to actually make this determination, sanctimonious legislators and the gun lobby need to stop claiming that carrying guns solves society’s problems.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com