« Return to this article

Know the West

An alphabetical speed-load of state-by-state gun facts


(Note: This article is a sidebar to the feature Guns R Us)


Generally, by state law, you're not allowed to carry a gun into a nuclear plant or hydroelectric dam area, or into a polling place on Election Day, or into any other "public establishment" where the host specifically bans guns, or into any establishment that serves booze. That last prohibition drew the ire of the 2005 Legislature, which passed a bill to allow people to "carry" in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, but Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed it, with the support of the tavern owners. Other than that, Arizona is pretty loose with its gun regulations. If your town wants to pass tougher regs than the state has adopted, generally the state won't allow it. More than 89,000 Arizonans have permits to carry concealed guns (one in every 45 people age 21 or older). The Pink Pistols, a national group with the slogan "Armed Gays Don't Get Bashed," has a Phoenix chapter whose members include a lesbian gunsmith and a gay retired cop. "We're not here to get into gun battles with straight people," says the chapter's founder, Mike Shipley, who was attacked by two guys with baseball bats while walking at night a few years ago. Besides, he says, self-defense is only part of the appeal of guns. "It's a sport," says Shipley, who designs Web sites for a living, "and there's a political angle. Gay people are traditionally on the left, the gun-control side. I'm active in liberal causes, and (many gays and liberals) look at me like I'm crazy when I mention I'm doing this. But I want to get people on the left and on the right to think. We actually get a friendlier reaction from gun people. If you have a gun and you know how to use it, they're cool with you."


In 1993, an angry client carried two rapid-fire Tec-DC9 assault pistols into a San Francisco law firm and opened fire, killing nine people and himself. That massacre inspired local lawyers to form a national gun-control group, Legal Community Against Violence. The LCAV helped push Congress to ban assault weapons in 1994 (but Congress let the ban expire in 2004). The group also favors suing gun-makers as liable for shootings (although Congress squashed that with an immunity law in 2005), and it has pushed California to be among the toughest gun-regulators in all 50 states. The state has closed the unlicensed-seller loophole almost completely, requiring that most guns sales be done through licensed dealers who do background checks. Assault weapons are banned, you can't openly carry any kind of gun, and you have to go through a 10-day waiting period to buy a gun. All the regulations slow sales. "It takes 20 or 30 minutes just to do the paperwork," says Chuck Michel, the state's leading gun-rights lawyer. It's more difficult to get a concealed-weapons permit in California than in most other states, but even so, amid terrorist anxiety, there's been a surge in applications; today, more than 40,000 Californians have permits. County sheriffs decide who can get the permits, and rural sheriffs tend to be particularly pro-gun. In Modoc County, in the state's far northeast corner, one in 29 residents had a concealed-gun permit in 2004, according to the Los Angeles Times.

That was tops in the state for per capita concealed guns, and possibly tops nationwide. In the gun-control bastion of San Francisco, 58 percent of the voters approved a 2005 ballot measure banning all gun sales and requiring people to surrender handguns. Gun-rights advocates subsequently persuaded the state Supreme Court that the law violated the state Constitution.


After the 15 deaths in the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, voters approved a 2000 ballot measure requiring background checks on customers at gun shows. (One of the killers had bought a gun at such a show.) But unlicensed sellers who work through classified ads and other methods still don't have to do background checks. Beginning in 2003, the Legislature passed laws strengthening gun rights, making it easier to carry guns into many public buildings and get permits for concealed weapons, and harder for lawmen to get the records of gun purchases. The Lege has also limited the power of local governments. The city of Denver wanted to be tougher on guns in some ways than the state, so it sued; the state Supreme Court deadlocked in 2006, allowing some of Denver's stricter regs to stand. About 33,000 Coloradans have permits to carry concealed guns (about one of every 100 people age 21 or older). Most Colorado universities ban guns, but Colorado State University in Fort Collins allows people with permits to carry concealed guns in classrooms and on much of the rest of the campus. Mostly the state is pro-gun, says Dave Kopel, a lawyer at a prominent gun-rights libertarian think tank, the Independence Institute, which is based in a Denver suburb. For instance, Kopel points out, "In Colorado, you can carry a loaded handgun in your car, say, in your glove compartment, for lawful protection, without having to get a permit. In Utah, you would need a permit."


State law specifically warns that if you're out hunting, and you accidentally shoot someone, and then you flee, you can lose your hunting license. Other than that, Idaho is about as loose as it gets, guns-wise. Not only are local governments prevented from having tougher regs than the state has, one tiny town west of Boise, Greenleaf, passed a 2006 ordinance recommending that every household in town have a gun and ammo — unless the household has religious objections. About 12,800 people have permits to carry concealed guns in Idaho, and they can be as young as 18. This spring, the federal Bureau of Land Management tried to declare additional turf in the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area off-limits to public shooters, because some are not only endangering the birds, they're also hitting cattle and the Idaho National Guard tanks that use the area for practice maneuvers. But Idaho's new congressman, Bill Sali, and Gov. Butch Otter weighed in for gun rights, and the BLM backed off, leaving the status quo. (That is: You can still shoot on 86 percent of the conservation area's 490,000 acres.)


Generally, guns are banned in government buildings, banks and railroad trains. Other than that, Montana is among the gun-friendliest of all 50 states. You can get a permit to carry a concealed gun at age 18, and more than 14,600 Montanans have done so (one of every 50 people above age 18). In fact, you don't even need a permit to have a hidden weapon if you're outside town limits or at your place of business. State law generally prevents local governments from having tougher regs, and state law is anything but tough. (For instance, "lead, copper, or brass deposits directly resulting from shooting activities at a shooting range" are not subject to local anti-littering ordinances.) Montana State University is a gun-control gray area: It bans handguns, while allowing hunting rifles to be (1) kept in locked storage rooms in some dorms and (2) kept anywhere in on-campus family and graduate-student housing. In this year's Legislature, the House passed a bill allowing anyone in Montana to manufacture guns without a federal gun-manufacturing license, seeking to test federal authority. (The Senate declined to follow suit.) Gary Marbut, head of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, estimates that at least 90 percent of Montana homes have guns and the average gun household has 27. "We tend to accumulate guns in families in Montana" over generations, Marbut says. (Liberal gun owners sampled for comment think Marbut exaggerates the per-household average but is probably accurate on the percentage of households that own a gun.)


You're breaking Nevada state law if you shoot bullets at a building, vehicle, aircraft or boat. Armor-piercing bullets for pistols are specifically banned. But the state prevents local governments from being much tougher. About 26,000 people have permits to carry concealed guns in Nevada, mostly in metro Las Vegas, where one of every 79 people age 21 or older has a permit. Judges have special permission to carry concealed guns into court. Nevada had many pro-gun reactions to this year's Virginia Tech shootings: State Sen. Bob Beers pushed a bill to allow Nevada teachers to carry guns; it failed to win passage. University Regent Stavros Anthony, who is also a Las Vegas cop, says he'll try to persuade other regents to allow Nevada university employees to receive training and carry guns on campuses. Ignatius Piazza, a former chiropractor who runs the Front Sight Firearms Training Institute, which is developing shooting ranges, associated condos and "a five-story SWAT tower" on 550 acres in Las Vegas, has offered to train teachers and other school staffers for free. "Disarming the public is one of the first things a dictatorship wants to do," says Bob Maniaci, a retired Nevada cop who belongs to Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. Maniaci runs a gun-sales business, Maccabee Arms, out of his Reno home and specializes in guns used by the Israeli military. "Jews and guns, in the U.S., it's an oxymoron," he admits. "Mostly Jews in the U.S. are left-wing liberals, they don't approve of guns. But we're not all that way, and if you go to Israel, the thinking is 180 degrees the other direction."


Guns are generally banned in the state fairgrounds, at the state library, inside bars and on buses. But in 2003, the Legislature and Gov. Bill Richardson finally ended the state's ban on concealed guns. Interestingly, there hasn't been a concealed-gun rush: Only about 6,000 New Mexicans have obtained permits so far. One is Richardson. Though a Democrat, he was endorsed by the National Rifle Association in his 2006 run for governor, and now, in his run for president, he's the only notable candidate in either party who's publicly stated he has a permit to carry concealed. Richardson is also one of the hundreds of thousands of people from around the world who visit the fabled NRA Whittington Center near Raton — 51 square miles of meadows and forest, complete with log-cabin lodging, campgrounds and food services. The center describes itself as "without a doubt the most complete shooting center in the nation … (including ranges) for smallbore rifle, high power rifle, black powder, trap, skeet, sporting clays, hunter sight-in, PPC (also called "action shooting" at multiple targets), smallbore rifle silhouette, highpower rifle silhouette, long range pistol silhouette, hunter pistol silhouette, benchrest, and practical pistol."


Pretty tough on guns. State law bans guns from many public buildings, allows local governments to restrict open carrying of guns, and specifically says you can't carry a loaded gun on a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle. Even campus cops at the University of Oregon are not allowed to carry guns on campus. Oregon voters approved a 2000 ballot measure tightening oversight at gun shows, requiring those unlicensed sellers to do background checks on customers. Still, at least 90,000 people have permits to carry concealed guns in Oregon. And the state has a very tough pro-gun group: the Oregon Firearms Federation, formed in 1998 and affiliated with the Gun Owners of America. "We're one of the most no-compromise organizations in the West," says Kevin Starrett, OFF's director and a super-hard-liner who believes that the NRA is too wimpy. "We don't make a lot of friends with politicians." The group lobbies the Legislature — which Starrett says "is now dominated by anti-gunners" — and fires off lawsuits against the university system, the city of Portland and other governmental entities. Sometimes it forces the regulators to back off. Starrett argues that the ban on loaded guns on snowmobiles and ATVs is blatantly unfair, for example, pointing out that under state law, "you can carry a loaded gun on a motorcycle or a mountain bike."


The University of Utah didn't allow guns on campus for 28 years. But in 2004, gun-rights advocates in the Legislature passed a law to force the university to allow guns, including concealed guns carried by those with permits — the only such law in the nation. The university challenged the law, but in 2006, the Utah Supreme Court upheld it. In this year's legislative session, the university hoped to win passage of a compromise law that would allow it to ban concealed guns in a few places (dorms and faculty offices). But all the university could get was this: Any student who doesn't want to share a dorm room with someone who's carrying a concealed gun can request a different, unarmed roommate. More than 80,000 people have permits to carry concealed guns in Utah. The permits are at the center of another controversy: Beginning 12 years ago, Utah allowed people from other states to get Utah gun permits by mail. Since most other states honor the permits, that means Utah offers "the closest thing to a national concealed-carry permit," the Salt Lake Tribune contends. In recent years, more than half the Utah permits were issued to out-of-staters, including a blind man in North Dakota. Carey McWilliams says he took a required course in gun use, the Associated Press reported, and he uses "special low-range, hollow-point bullets that are effective only in tight quarters." McWilliams insists that when it comes to guns, "It's nobody's business that I'm blind."


The state has a few tough laws: It monitors sales of used guns, requiring anyone who sells more than three a year to keep records. The law, which covers pawnbrokers and flea markets, also imposes a five-day waiting period on most people who want to buy pistols. But that's about it in terms of real gun control. In the wake of two shooting sprees last year that killed eight people, gun-control advocates tried to get this year's Legislature to tighten oversight of sales at gun shows (even though none of the guns used in the shootings was bought at gun shows). Gun-rights advocates beat back the attempt. About 233,000 people, mostly Washington residents, have permits to carry concealed guns in the state, making Washington among the top states for carrying concealed. And you can carry a concealed gun without a permit if you're at your business or camping, fishing or hunting. A couple of leading gun-rights groups share a building in Bellevue: the Second Amendment Foundation, which supports lawsuits against gun regulations nationwide and publishes Gun Week and Women & Guns magazines, and the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which claims to have 600,000 members. Dave Workman, senior editor at Gun Week, explains why his group's courtroom barrages recently helped destroy gun bans that were enacted by voters and their elected leaders in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.: "A civil right isn't something you put up for a popular vote."


Generally, guns are banned in the state Capitol and in courtrooms, with one exception: Judges are allowed to carry concealed guns in court. Otherwise, things are pretty loose, and the state won't let local governments have tougher regs. About 11,400 Wyomingites have permits to carry concealed guns (one of every 32 people age 21 or older). Prominent Wyoming gun folks include Beverly Spungin, who won the U.S. Army M-16 Rifle Championship in 1991. (Her winning score still holds the record on the course at Fort Benning, Ga.) She explains: It was "all precision firing" in a "combat-style match" that included a two-mile run and "standing, prone or rapid-fire" shooting at realistic targets shaped to represent a man's head and chest, spaced at 100, 200, 300 and 400 yards. Spungin served 29 years in the Wyoming National Guard, including about a decade in charge of marksmanship training for the guardsmen statewide. Now 59 and living in a small farm town named Guernsey, she's cut back to part-time National Guard work. Spungin is vice president of the Wyoming State Shooting Association, which has more than 500 members and lobbies the Legislature on gun issues. Last year, the group failed to persuade the state to let any qualified Wyoming adult carry a concealed gun without a permit. (Only Alaska and Vermont are that loose.) The group will try to persuade the next session of the Legislature to allow concealed guns on university and college campuses. Spungin, who still shoots in competitions and on local ranges, says the secret to accurate shooting is "self-confidence."

(SOURCES: State officials, the National Rifle Association, the Legal Community Against Violence and other gun- oriented groups)

(NOTE: This article is a sidebar to the feature Guns R Us)