Disarmed: How Cities Are Losing the Power to Regulate Guns

A growing number of states bar municipalities—often the sites of the worst gun violence—from passing their own firearm laws, laying bare an urban-rural divide.
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Bill Waugh/Reuters

It was after midnight on February 15. Valentine’s Day had ended, but there were still roses in the gift shop when two men hobbled into Via Christi Hospital St. Joseph in Wichita, Kansas, each with a bullet wound in the thigh. One of them explained to police that he had a concealed-carry handgun license, and that he’d been drinking at the Shot Time II bar when he’d accidentally fired a bullet through his own leg and into the leg of the man sitting next to him.

Kansas law used to prohibit CCH license holders from bringing their guns into bars, but then in 2007 the state legislature quietly changed the rulesresulting in confusion for both patrons and proprietors. Now, unless the bar conspicuously posts a “no guns” sign, licensed carriers may bring their concealed weapons inside. A longstanding Sedgwick County law bans guns, concealed or not, from all bars, but that ordinance no longer means anything; the state has stripped municipalities of their authority to regulate most aspects of gun ownership and use. This type of legislation is called preemption, and it influences nearly every community’s relationship with guns—not just in Kansas but throughout the U.S.

Such laws reflect a divide not only between those who favor expanded gun rights and those who oppose them, but also a geographical divide between policymakers. Metropolitan communities (where most gun crimes occur) tend to have a different perspective about gun rights and gun violence than their more rural surrounds. Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the specific crime problems in communities often lead to locally tailored solutions—which can’t be implemented if they’ve been preempted by state law.

“It used to be that local governments all across the country could regulate what was best for their community when it came to firearms,” Cutilletta explained. “And then the NRA went on this campaign to convince states, one by one, to restrict that authority. And they were very successful. Over the years—a couple of decades—almost every state has preempted local regulation of firearms. What the states are doing now is introducing laws that make preemption more broad.”

When Illinois passed a law last year that created a concealed-handgun permitting process, the legislation included a preemption clause to prohibit cities like Chicago from passing their own ordinances restricting concealed carry. Now, Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County (which includes the Windy City) is concerned that hundreds of people with criminal records have been cleared for concealed carry by the state, and there’s little he can do to stop ex-convicts from legally carrying concealed weapons in his jurisdiction. Dart even found that 12 of Illinois’s certified concealed-carry instructors have criminal backgrounds.

Cook County isn’t the only urban community hamstrung by preemption. In an effort to reduce one of the highest homicide rates in the U.S., community leaders in St. Louis have pursued countless crime-reduction initiatives—youth outreach, employment programs, and mental-health services—everything but gun reform, which is beyond their purview. Through a series of preemption measures beginning in 1984, the Missouri legislature has systematically stripped city and county governments of the authority to regulate guns.

Last month, the Missouri senate approved a bill that would remove the last bit of local authority to regulate firearms—a municipality’s prerogative to decide where and how gun owners can openly carry their weapons in public. The bill would also lower the minimum age to get a concealed-carry permit from 21 to 19, allow designated teachers or administrators to carry guns in schools, and nullify federal gun laws. Anyone attempting to enforce a federal gun law that has been “declared invalid” by Missouri could be jailed for up to one year. When the bill moved through committee, the only dissenting vote came from Senator Jamilah Nasheed, who represents St. Louis.

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Matt Valentine teaches undergraduate courses in writing and photography at the University of Texas at Austin. His photographs have been published in The New York Times, Men's Journal, Boston Review and elsewhere. 

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