Louisiana residents would be able to carry a concealed handgun in public without undergoing a background check or taking a firearms safety course under a pair of bills that are quickly advancing through the state Legislature.
Both measures seek to do away with the requirement that gunowners obtain a permit before carrying a concealed firearm, a regulation supporters say encroaches on their constitutional right to bear arms.
“This bill is about liberty. This bill is about freedom,” said Sen. Jay Morris, R-West Monroe, on Tuesday shortly before the Senate voted 27-11 to send his permitless carry bill to the House.
Meanwhile, a similar proposal originating in the state's lower chamber, House Bill 596, sponsored by Rep. Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux, advanced out of committee Wednesday in an 8-4 vote along party lines.
It would allow anyone aged 21 or older — who isn't already prohibited from owning a firearm by state or federal law — to carry a concealed handgun without a permit.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has indicated that he'd veto any measure that arrives on his desk that nixes the permitting requirement, and on Wednesday, a group supporting the governor's agenda, A Stronger Louisiana, released a poll showing that 80% of residents support keeping the permits in place.
Other opponents, including a slew of law enforcement officials, argue that removing the training requirement would fill the streets with untrained gunowners and make policing more treacherous than it already is.
"We’re not opposed to concealed carry. We’re opposed to concealed carry without education and without training," said Fabian Blache Jr., executive director of the Louisiana Association of Chiefs of Police.
Louisiana's gunowners are allowed, under current law, to carry a firearm in public without a permit if the weapon is visible. To conceal it, a permit is needed. That requires undergoing a background check and a 9-hour training course.
Col. Lamar Davis, the superintendent of the Louisiana State Police, said that when he taught concealed carry training courses, he was concerned by the lack of knowledge, concern and capability among those who entered his class.
Davis added that if his students hadn't received training, "many of them could have shot themselves right there on the range."
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said permitless carry is an issue of "officer safety," and said that without training, he worried those carrying won't know of their legal obligation to notify law enforcement that they're packing a firearm when approached.
HB596, if approved, would require the State Police to make available online a free, one-hour course on concealed handgun safety. The measure initially made the training mandatory, but an amendment approved in committee made it voluntary.
"My personal experience is that you should have mandatory training, but I was elected by a swath of individuals who disagree," Fontenot, the bill's author, conceded.
Dan Zelenka, the president of the Louisiana Shooting Association, said that obtaining a concealed carry permit can be cost prohibitive. The permit, which expires after five years, costs $125 and training can run upwards of $200.
Zelenka, a supporter of permitless carry, argued that the requirement "disproportionately impacts economically disadvantaged populations" and "creates a financial barrier to exercising a constitutional right."
Karen White, the executive counsel of the Louisiana Municipal Association, noted that there isn't an "unfettered right" to bear arms, responding to supporters of the measure who argued that the permitting requirement infringed on their constitutional rights.
The movement to allow permitless carry — or "constitutional carry," as its popularly called — has picked up in recent months, as lawmakers in a dozen states, including Texas and Tennessee, moved to loosen the restriction.
It's unclear if the support will materialize to carry such a bill across the finish line in Louisiana. The poll conducted by the pro-Edwards group found that 73% of self-identified Republicans support keeping the permits in place. It interviewed 600 people over the phone between March 26 and March 30 and has a margin of error of 4 percent.
The surge in legislation comes amid a revived national debate over gun control. President Joe Biden and other Democrats have pledged to enact stricter restrictions on firearms after a slew of mass shootings. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on Monday said it would review a longstanding New York law that puts limits on carrying guns outside the home.
Preparing for potential federal regulations, the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice also on Wednesday advanced House Bill 118, which would prohibit state and local law enforcement officials from enforcing future federal laws regulating firearms. The proposal, from Rep. Larry Frieman, R-Abita Springs, wouldn't prevent the FBI or federal marshals from enforcing those laws within state boundaries.
HB596 advanced by a 8-4 margin. In addition to Fontenot, its sponsor, the bill also received support from Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Praireville; Rep. Jonathan Goudeau, R-Lafayette ; Rep. Scott McKnight, R-Baton Rouge; Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, R-Hammond; Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville; Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport; Rep. Debbie Villio, R-Kenner.
Voting against HB596 was Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge; Rep. Marcus Bryant, D-New Iberia; Rep. Frederick Jones, D-Bastrop; Rep. Joseph Marino, No Party-Gretna.
A similar bill from Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City, which would apply permitless carry to anyone aged 18 or older, was shot down by the committee by a 4-8 vote.
Staff Writer Tyler Bridges contributed to this report.