Case Overview, Legislation Allowing Off-duty and Retired Police Officers to Carry Firearms Across State Lines

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over the "Right to Carry." The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.

          Few issues in the Congress are as contentious as guns. The Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Many regard this right as absolute, believing the government may not regulate their right to own and carry guns. Others believe that the constitutional guarantee was designed to protect state militias and not individuals. Putting aside conflicting constitutional interpretations, some regulation is clearly necessary. Few would argue, for example, that a nine year old should be allowed to walk into a store and purchase a machine gun.

          But where to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate regulation has led to many bitter disputes between gun enthusiasts on the one side and gun control advocates on the other. This maelstrom made right to carry legislation a real challenge in the 106th Congress. The proposed legislation would have allowed off-duty police officers to carry firearms across state lines. A number of associations representing police officers and other police organizations pushed for this policy for two primary reasons. The first is that some policemen feel they need the protection of their firearm when they travel. As one lobbyist working for the legislation noted, "there have been several incidents of officers targeted by criminals they had arrested or investigated in the past." The second rationale is public safety. The same lobbyist explained, "Officers always feel like they are on duty and they are trained in public safety. If officers and retired officers can carry firearms, then they can help ensure public safety when they encounter lawlessness. This is common sense."

          It may be common sense that there would be a benefit, but there are those that think the right to carry is a bad idea. Some mayors and police chiefs are publicly opposed because they worry about liability. If one of their off-duty officers shoots someone in another jurisdiction, their city or department could be sued. But the principal political opposition came from those concerned either about gun rights or, conversely, gun control. In the 105th Congress the bill was amended to include a provision supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA) that would have extended the right to carry a concealed gun to anyone who is legally entitled to own a firearm. (This provision would have only pertained to states where it is legal to carry a concealed weapon.) The amendment was something of a poison pill, however, as gun control advocates quickly rallied against the broader legislation, now encumbered with this expansion of gun rights.

          Right to carry legislation was again introduced into the 106th Congress, and in one version supported by some leading police associations, the bill excluded retired officers and was protected by its sponsors from the NRA amendment. The opposition to a policy including retired officers was based on the simple fact that working law enforcement officers receive continuing training in firearms; retired officers receive none.

          This version of right to carry legislation went nowhere and languished in committee in the House. Other versions emerged but one advocate acknowledged at the time of our interview in the summer of 2000, "There's little hope for us in the 106th Congress."

          After 2000, supporters concentrated on a right-to-carry bill for off-duty and retired police officers without the more controversial gun rights amendments. In the 107th Congress, the bill moved a bit farther - it garnered the support of 275 House co-sponsors. However, there was no companion legislation in the Senate, and the House bill failed to get out of committee. Police officer groups finally succeeded in the 108th Congress. A right-to-carry bill for off-duty and retired police officers passed by overwhelming margins in the House and Senate and was signed into law in July of 2004. It seems that in a presidential election year politicians were eager to be seen on the side of law enforcement.