As our nation continues to contemplate the horror of the Fort Hood shootings, one revelation about Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan caught my eye. In 1996, after completing his official "NRA Personal Protection Course," he was issued a permit in Virginia to carry a concealed weapon. Virginia is one of the many states where the gun lobby achieved passage of a so-called "shall-issue" concealed carry law limiting the discretion of police to deny concealed carry permits. Because Hasan had no criminal record, he was issued a permit. The Virginia court order granting his application stated that Virginia law "does not permit a judge to inquire into the necessity for, or appropriateness of, granting such permission."
I was reminded of a letter to the editor of the Washington Post by Chris Cox, Chief Lobbyist of the National Rifle Association, written in August after the NRA-backed Thune Amendment on concealed carry had failed in the Senate. The Amendment would have allowed anyone with a concealed carry license from any state to carry concealed in any other state, even in defiance of that state's law. After noting that permit holders had already passed a background check, Cox asserted, "They are good people in their home states, and they will remain virtuous and responsible when they are in other states."
You see, according to the NRA, the world is neatly divided into "good people" and "bad people." The good people have always been good and always will be. And we know who they are. If they can pass a background check, we should give them a license to carry a concealed weapon. Then they can shoot the bad people when they start victimizing the good people. As NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre once put it, "Good people make good decisions. That's why they're good people."
It is a worldview almost childlike in its simplicity. It does not, however, account for the people who we thought were good - until they pulled the trigger and inflicted mayhem on others. In the NRA's world, Hasan was among the "good people," until he committed mass murder. So were concealed carry permit holders George Sodini, Richard Poplawski and Michael McLendon, all of whom committed multiple killings this year. It seems that sometimes the "good people" make very bad decisions indeed.
The point, of course, is that it is dangerous folly to issue concealed carry licenses to virtually anyone who can pass a criminal background check. It is one thing to allow individuals to have guns in the home as long as they can pass a background check. It is quite another to rely on such checks to determine who can carry a gun concealed outside the home. Inside the home, the risk of gun possession largely is borne by those who live there. On the streets, the risk from an individual's decision to carry a concealed gun in public is borne almost entirely by people who had no say in the decision, no knowledge of it, and no practical way to minimize the risk to themselves. And the risks are considerable. The evidence is overwhelming that "shall issue" states routinely issue licenses to dangerous people, who then commit dangerous acts - either intentionally, recklessly, or accidentally -- with their guns.
Of course, the drumbeat has begun that lives could have been saved at Fort Hood if the military had lifted its restrictions on carrying guns on base, allowing more military personnel to be in a position to return fire from an attacker like Hasan. This idea amounts to introducing enormous additional daily risk into the lives of those who live and work on military bases on the off chance that the "good people" will be armed at the right time in the right place to respond to the most unlikely of events - a mass shooting in progress by one of the "bad people".
Once we emerge from the make-believe world of "good people" vs. "bad people," we cannot escape the chilling reality that Hasan himself was one of those our concealed carry laws had "deputized" to protect us all from potential attackers. How many more need to die at the hands of these "good people" before we insist that gun policy be grounded in reality, not make-believe?
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.