PA’s ‘Constitutional Carry’: Lawyers, Law Enforcement Weigh In

Patch – by Jon Campisi

HARRISBURG — It could be any day now that Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf makes good on his promise to veto legislation passed by the General Assembly recently that would do away with a need for individuals to obtain licenses to carry a concealed firearm.

Known colloquially as ‘constitutional carry,’ this permitless concealed carry process has been catching on in recent years all across the county.

Today, there are 21 states that have repealed their concealed carry permits or licenses, and Pennsylvania was looking to join that growing list when both chambers of the legislature recently passed such a measure.

Wolf, however, released a statement soon after the bill’s passage saying he would veto the proposal because he doesn’t believe it serves the commonwealth’s best interest.

But Wolf is in the final days of his second and final term, and will not be running for governor again as the position is term-limited, so the question remains – will a future governor sign similar legislation into law if it is brought back up again in a successive session?

Will Sign ‘Any Law’ That Limits Governmental Intrusion

“The Founding Fathers didn’t mince words when they wrote, … ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed,'” said Joe Gale.

Gale, a young Republican Montgomery County Commissioner who is running to become the next Pennsylvania governor, told Patch he would “sign any law that puts less government between the people and their constitutional rights.”

Gale, who lives in Plymouth Meeting, noted that not just the Second Amendment, but Article 1, Section 21 of the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees that Pennsylvania residents have the right to “bear arms in defense of themselves and the State,” and he went on to say, “Make no mistake about it, the Second Amendment is a citizen’s permit to conceal carry.”

Another Republican gubernatorial candidate, William McSwain, a former federal prosecutor who resides in Chester County, said that he, too, strongly supports gun rights, and that if is elected to succeed Gov. Wolf in the executive seat, he would “defend the right to keep and bear arms in our Commonwealth and fight to keep government overreach from unnecessarily limiting that constitutional right.”

McSwain’s campaign provided the above statement in response to a reporter’s inquiry as to whether the candidate would sign a permitless carry bill if it landed on his desk if he became governor. McSwain did not specifically address the ‘constitutional carry’ issue, but rather addressed gun rights in more generalities.

Debate Around Guns

The constitutional carry issue is interesting because it isn’t entirely political; some of the states out of the 21 total that have permitless carry today are Democrat-led blue states. That may come as a surprise to those who see the matter as one strictly backed by Republicans.

In Pennsylvania, however, it has been the GOP that has been overwhelmingly in favor of the measure in the state legislature, even though there has been some support for the proposal across the aisle, as the Keystone State is historically gun-friendly, even among some Democratic areas.

While some are looking to repeal the state’s carry license, not all agree that allowing citizens to carry concealed handguns without state licensing is a good idea.

“This is getting out of hand. Most things in there [the bill] are problematic,” State Rep. Nancy Guenst, a Democrat representing the 152nd Legislative District in Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties, told Patch.

Guenst, who voted against the House measure, said her opposition was twofold: first, she disagreed with the bill on principle, and second, she felt lawmakers were wasting their time debating the measure given that Wolf already made clear he would never sign it.

Guenst actually spoke out against the bill during recent House floor debate because she so strongly opposed it; she said she hardly ever engages in floor debate.

The interesting thing about Guenst is that while she’s a Democrat, she is also a military veteran who possesses her own carry license. She said Pennsylvania’s process for obtaining a carry license is already relatively easy, and that the state background check conducted by county sheriff’s offices for licenses is more thorough than the federal check done when someone purchases a gun from a dealer.

“I’m not anti-gun, I’m anti-ignorance,” Guenst said, calling the bill an unnecessary piece of legislation that is opposed by many prosecutors and police.

Imagine how it would make police feel to know anyone could be armed with a concealed handgun during a police encounter, Guenst posited.

Police Support

But while some in law enforcement have come out against permitless concealed carry, there are those police officers who are on the supportive end of the measure.

“I hope it passes,” Jim Stoker said of permitless concealed carry. “This is a statute [carry license law] that does nothing but harass the law-abiding citizens of the commonwealth.”

Stoker, who resides in southwestern Pennsylvania, said he has been a law enforcement officer for 27 years. He asked to leave out the name of his department for fear of possible retribution for his personal views on permitless concealed carry, since he is not representing his department.

But he said he was perfectly willing to discuss the matter on the record, in part because he sits on the executive board of the Firearms Owners Against Crime, and his position is already known.

Stoker said in his law enforcement experience, cops are always taught to treat every citizen encounter and every traffic stop as if the individual is armed regardless just for officer safety reasons, so the argument against permitless carry relating to cops being more guarded during stops doesn’t hold water, he told Patch.

“That’s laughable,” he said on that argument. “You think the bad guy is going to tell us if he has a gun in the car? Cops are taught to treat everyone like they’re armed regardless. It doesn’t matter if there’s a permit on the books or not. It’s really not a safety issue for officers, because the bad guys ignore that law anyway.”

Stoker also said that the criminal charge of carrying a gun without a license is often the first to get plea bargained away, or dismissed by a judge, when a defendant who is charged with that statutory violation ends up in court.

The reason? Judges don’t like mandatory sentences and prosecutors prefer defendants enter into plea deals, he said.

For these reasons, Stoker said, it’s sort of moot to have a carry license law on the books in the first place, if it’s hardly ever prosecuted.

When told that the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association has come out in opposition to the bill, Stoker said that organization does not represent all cops, and that the association will primarily back “what the politicians tell them to back. I know a lot of chiefs of police who are not impressed with that organization,” he said.

Police Opposition

But there are also those who work in law enforcement who oppose permitless concealed carry.

Francis Wheatley, chief of the Upper Dublin Police Department in Montgomery County, who also has around three decades’ worth of experience on the job, said he opposes permitless concealed carry from a public safety standpoint.

“I think it presents challenges,” Wheatley told Patch in an interview. “To me, this should not be a political issue, it should be a public safety issue.”

Wheatley said the simple fact is that when someone possesses a license to carry a gun concealed, police officers who deal with the public are assured that the individual who is carrying was vetted through governmental checks to ensure they are not a danger to public safety and not a criminal who is not permitted to possess a firearm.

The chief said the way the system is set up now there are “checks and balances,” and he noted that the process to obtain a carry license in Pennsylvania is already pretty simple, another argument put forth by those opposing constitutional carry.

Wheatley simply doesn’t think changing the system is necessary at this point and could even be detrimental since it could change the way police officers interact with the public.

“I think it presents a challenge for law enforcement that every encounter they have they have to assume that the subject you’re dealing with is armed,” he said. “Does the public really want us to think that everybody’s carrying a gun? I think that really kind of changes the outcome a little bit.”

Wheatley said to roll back gun regulations in this day and age doesn’t make sense and said allowing anyone to carry concealed is akin to “[handing] the keys of the car over to a child and say, ‘good luck with that.'”

Wheatley conceded that open carry of firearms is already legal in Pennsylvania without a license, (a license to openly carry is, however, needed in Philadelphia, but in the other 66 counties it’s legal without a license), but he said that allowing concealed carry without a license changes the game since very few people seem to actually open carry, and he believes that number would likely increase if people could carry concealed without being licensed.

“The concealment changes it though,” he said. “The concealment puts risks on behalf of public safety.”

“I’m concerned for my officers, ultimately,” Wheatley added. “This law will make the job even more challenging.”

An Attorney’s Perspective

Patch was curious to get a lawyer’s perspective on the matter, especially after being told by Stoker, the western Pennsylvania police officer, that the criminal charge of carrying a gun without a license often gets either plea bargained away or dismissed outright.

Norristown attorney Jason Donoghue, a partner in the Law Offices of Donoghue and Picker, agreed to speak with Patch.

Donoghue, who runs a general law practice that includes criminal defense work, said the problem with the charge of carrying a firearm without license is that it is not applied evenly across the board.

Whether or not the charge sticks in court, he said, greatly depends on the “individual who is found with the firearm and also the prosecutor who is charging it,” he said in an interview.

Some prosecutors, he said, “may be a little more 2A friendly than others,” while other prosecutors look to make sure “my client will never be able to possess a gun again.”

Donoghue said police no longer have much discretion with regard to actually leveling the charge of carrying a firearm without a license, with discretion being taken away largely due to things like body cameras.

So when a defendant charged with carrying without a license ultimately gets to court, whether that charge moves forward all depends on the individual prosecutor.

“That’s a huge problem we have,” he said.

Prosecutorial discretion can mean a “52-year-old white female” found with a gun in her bag that she forgot was there gets let off the hook while a younger male who finds himself in the same predicament may find himself having to defend against the charge.

Donoghue, who favors permitless concealed carry, said that a carry license is an “extra set of hoops” that government makes individuals who are already legally allowed to purchase and possess firearms take in order to carry the firearm outside of the home.

Addressing the argument that the permitting system should remain because it’s relatively easy, and cheap, to obtain a license in Pennsylvania as compared to some other states, Donoghue said there are still many flaws with the system, such as people being denied carry licenses for things like outstanding traffic or parking tickets.

It’s an issue of checks and balances, he said.

“While yes, it’s simple, it’s also a simple imperfect system which creates unnecessary barriers,” Donoghue said. “The statement that it’s so easy for anyone to get a license, there’s not a ‘period’ after that statement. There’s a ‘coma,’ or a ‘but.’ It’s just not due process.”


6 thoughts on “PA’s ‘Constitutional Carry’: Lawyers, Law Enforcement Weigh In

  1. violating 2nd article by violating 4th. concealed carry means you can’t see it.. don’t know if someone is carrying. the only way the pOlice could or would know is if they unlawfully search you.. stop n frisk if you will.. of course YOU have to LET them search you.. everything they do is legal. nothing they do is lawful. but again.. all they’re really doing is trying to make us think they CAN say and do the things they say and do.. fraud and deceit backed by FORCE.

    1. Anyone that cant see the police state that has been carefully assembled around them is either not looking , Blind , Or to stupid to understand anyway. Law enforcement weighs in is like the good cop bad cop BS they use every day. They have proven at every turn that they WILL DO anything they are told to do for that paycheck and ego boost they joined the force for. They have been weeding out the military to have a force willing to do anything they are told also and its not got a thing to do with freedom, quite the opposite. Lots of people don’t like to hear or read things like this but like it or not its true. The entire country has been infiltrated with traitors and its more apparent all the time . Money and power is their god and has been for a long time.

  2. I want to know why people get wrapped around the axle talking about regular folks concealed carrying without a “permit”, yet are perfectly fine with the cops running around fully armed, with pistols, bullet proof vests, armored cars, fully automatic rifles, shotguns, “large capacity” magazines.

    The stupid, it burns!

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