The National Rifle Association (NRA) has been castigated on the eve of its annual meeting over a renewed push to get conceal-carry permits accepted across state lines, with billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg’s newly formed anti-gun group slamming the move as a push towards the “lowest common denominator.”
Concealed weapon permits are already legal in all 50 states, and the NRA's focus is less about enacting additional state protections than on making sure the permits already issued still apply when the gun owners cross the country. But opponents fear the measure would allow more lenient gun regulations to trump stricter ones when permit holders travel across state lines.
"The standards for who can carry in one state versus another vary greatly — as they should given that carrying in Utah is a very different thing than carrying in a densely populated city," Lizzie Ulmer, a spokeswoman for former New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety group, told Al Jazeera. "We believe that each state should set its own standards and that this legislation would undermine those laws."
But the NRA, which officially opens its meeting of about 70,000 people Friday in Indianapolis, wants Congress to require that concealed weapons permits issued in one state be recognized everywhere, even when the local requirements differ.
"Like the vast majority of gun owners, we know that respecting Second Amendment rights goes hand in hand with reasonable gun laws — and this... just doesn't make any sense," Ulmer said.
"It's a race to the bottom," said Brian Malte, senior national policy director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "It's taking the lowest standards."
An Associated Press-GfK poll in December found 52 percent of Americans favored stricter gun laws, 31 percent wanted them left as they are and 15 percent said they should be loosened.
Advocates of the measure, however, said the effort would eliminate a patchwork of state-specific regulations that lead to carriers unwittingly violating the law when traveling.
"Right now it takes some legal research to find out where you are or are not legal depending on where you are," said Guy Relford, an attorney focusing on gun rights who has sued Indiana communities for violating a state law that bars local gun regulation. "I don't think that's right."
The push for "reciprocity" comes as the gun rights lobby is arguably stronger than ever before, with more than 5 million dues-paying members. The NRA has successfully defeated numerous gun-control efforts in recent years, even after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. But with midterm elections looming, the organization's legislative wish list likely will be somewhat more modest than usual this year.
'Crime can happen anywhere'
The effort on pushing for cross-state “reciprocity” has strong support from Senate Republicans but narrowly missed being amended into last year's proposed expansion of gun sale background checks. Still, it faces long odds in Washington because Democrats control the Senate and White House.
Following a federal judge's ruling striking down Illinois' ban on concealed weapons, the Legislature last summer passed the nation's final law allowing them. Illinois is among at least 10 states that currently don't recognize permits issued elsewhere, according to the NRA's website. Most others recognize permits from only a portion of the other states.
NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam noted that gun laws vary widely, with some states requiring strict background checks and a handful not even requiring a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
"It is vital because crime can and does happen anywhere," Arulanandam said. "Just because an individual or a family crosses one state boundary to another doesn't mean they are immune to crime."
Much like drivers are required to follow the traffic laws of the states they're in, Arulanandam says the legislation the NRA is seeking would ensure gun permit holders abide by the laws of states they're visiting. But Malte countered that such “reciprocity” could ultimately leave states “powerless” to stop even violent individuals who cross the state line with weapons.
Led by President Barack Obama, gun-control advocates called for background checks for all gun purchasers and a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines following the Sandy Hook shootings. But a divided Congress denied the calls for change.
Republicans could pass a concealed weapons bill next year if they retake the Senate. However, Obama would almost certainly veto it, and there likely wouldn’t be enough votes to override the veto.
Besides the concealed-carry measure, the organization is also seeking the right for individuals to carry legally owned guns on college campuses, which is prohibited in 27 states and the District of Columbia.
NRA members have been vocally opposed to the appointment of Supreme Court justices deemed sympathetic to gun control and have spoken out against an international treaty aimed at stemming the illegal weapons trade because they fear it could restrict civilian gun ownership.
Gun control remains the chief concern of the NRA and its members. The old bumper sticker adage that "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns," still strikes a chord with many NRA members.
"The laws are already there," said Allen Rumble, a Carmel, Ind., financial consultant with lifetime NRA membership. "Criminals don't follow rules."
Philip J. Victor contributed to this report, with Al Jazeera and wire services